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Fire Mon Apr 21 2014
Soccer has many emotional states, from chest-gripping anxiety to tear-streaming elation, but few are as complicated as the sour relief of a draw. It is a mark to show that your team is a worthy contender, but it also makes very clear that you're only so much of a contender.What is it about a draw in sports that is so frightening to Americans? As the saying goes, a tie is "like kissing your sister." Is it really so bad? Granted the phrase is a bit dated, initially attributed to Navy football coach Eddie Erdelatz in 1953, but it is still in use today. So do we really think it is akin to this act of familial frenching? In taking a look at a recent baseball game we can see that yes, the fear is real still. On April 3rd the Cubs played a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates for nearly six hours in search of a win. In fact, under the rules of Major League Baseball, a game may call it a night at 1:00am local time and resume the following day simply to avoid this deadlock. The longest game in MLB was played in such a scenario here in Chicago at Comiskey Park, spanning 25 innings, two days, and over 8 hours of play in total. And this is a sport which plays 162 games a year. So, like kissing one's own sibling, you say? Not nearly.
A draw is an interesting space, between win and loss, between agony and ecstasy, it is the purgatory of the sports world. And yet in the sport of soccer it is not only an acceptable result, but a strategically important one as well. This is because, unlike other sports domestic, there is not just a binary in place for a season record. For a win, three points are awarded, for ties a single point, and a loss results in zero points; standings are determined based on those point totals.
As such, a draw is appreciated, for at least it provides a point. If it is all the team is able to achieve, however, as we have seen with the Fire, it begins to pull at the patience of fans and players together, like a piece of taffy, stretching further and further, teasing the inevitable collapsing break. Unlike a span of losses, each of which feels akin to rubber bands snapping in succession, this sticky mess is both easier to mend and less precipitous, but harder to shake.
Having just tied the league record for consecutive draws, at 6 straight, is an unenviable position in which to find oneself, as the Fire do currently. The feeling of futility was plainly read on the faces of the players at the end of the game on Saturday. There are a particular set of pitfalls that the Fire will need to avoid in times like this. The team will be continually searching for the win, which can result in the team playing the attack more than defense, giving up easy goals when the back line relaxes in the moments after scoring. Players who feel like they could be difference makers in the game will enter with confidence unearned, the result of which is usually a sloppy pantomime of 'late-game heroics.'
Saturday's contest against long-time Fire rivals the New England Revolution was one littered with intrigue. Like a child's Easter basket filled to bursting with sugary candies and cheap cellophane grass, this game exploded with excitement and ended up a mess that will take more than just the coming bye week to clean up. In modified soccer parlance, this was drawing ugly.
But can you fault the players? This was again a game where the show of heart is more central to evaluation than individual effort. It was also one where player mistakes unstitched the team, and some controversial calls from referee Sorin Stoica helped to further dizzy up the proceedings. It is particularly telling when the Man of the Match is also someone who gets sent off in the 73rd minute of play. Which is precisely what happened to Quincy Amarikwa, the lone goal-scorer for the Fire on the day, who was shown two yellow cards: a dodgy one for perceived simulation, and one for a studs-out, leaping challenge that connected with the Revs' Andy Dorman.
The issue that this Fire squad faces is one of inconsistency. For long stretches of the game the play was electric, especially focusing on the early attack that Chicago pressed in the first 15 minutes of the game, which culminated in a sensational passing combination from Jeff Larentowicz to Harry Shipp, whose clinical pass found a sprinting Amarikwa who earned the aforementioned goal, seen below.
Unlike what has been seen in the past with the team, they did not loosen their grip on the game after scoring the early goal. There were several good chances in the ensuing ten minutes, and it likely would have continued in that fashion were it not for an overzealous Patrick Nyarko charge into the box which clipped New England's Kevin Alston as he chased down a pinpoint cross from Lee Nguyen. The referee pointed to the spot and Nguyen converted the penalty kick, leveling the score in horrific fashion. Now it was not a lack of defensive presence that led to conceding a goal but the opposite.
The foul, above, and the penalty kick below.
The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, "No man ever steps in the same river twice." That is, even if it is the same location the water will always be different, that even if a situation appears familiar from afar it is never actually the same. So when the Fire were awarded a penalty kick in the dying minutes of the match, given the silver rope of hope with which they could finally earn their first win for the season, the atmosphere was bullish instead of trepidatious. Sure, the game against Philadelphia ended with a PK awarded in stoppage time, one that was eventually blocked by Union Keeper Zac MacMath, but this was going to be different. No man ever steps in the same river twice, right? And yet, when Juan-Luis Anangono stepped up to the spot and hit his shot right to Revs keeper Bobby Shuttleworth, the fallacy of Heraclitus' wisdom became apparent. It isn't about the way the water flows, or the other ancillary details, for the only thing that matters is that when you step into a river you get wet. And the Fire got wet, plain and simple.
So, what do we take away from this weekend? That the Fire are a team with several good pieces in place, who are their own worst enemy as they mount their campaign to earn the win.The second half of the game was absolutely lousy with good attacking chances for Chicago, but their inability to finish their chances hampered them just as much at the Revs defense. They have now earned 6 points in 7 games played so far, putting them in 9th place in the Eastern Conference, but one win would catapult them up to 3rd place with the current standings. Another sign for hope is that they have scored 10 goals so far, the highest in the entire Eastern Conference. The win will come, but we will have to wait through the bye this coming week. And perhaps the week after that as well, since the Fire will see their biggest test of the year on May 3rd when they host MLS Cup runners-up Real Salt Lake at Toyota Park. Until then, the Men in Red will do well to practice their PKs and try to remain calm in pursuit of their first win of the season.