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Fire Fri Mar 27 2015

Chicago Fire: On Gaining Through Losing

Chicago FireWould it be foolish to suggest that there is power to be found in defeat? That one learns more about themselves in agony than in ecstasy? Consider that the Chicago Fire have started their season on what is being called an historic low—for the team, at least—scoring only one goal in three matches, and tallying a whopping zero points, of a possible nine, going 0-3-0. It is surely a situation which has caused much hand-wringing and disparaged thinking. But it should, first and foremost, be viewed in context: of the team, of the season, and of the league, as a way of seeing things fully.

Think of it this way: to lose in a knockout tournament, like the current NCAA March Madness basketball competition, means no more play, straight up game over, go home, have a nice life. But a loss in the regular season is a signal, saying things aren't working, reformulate, try harder. And it is there, in that distinction that one finds the crucial kernel, that of hopeful experimentation. That a team can achieve better, and that it fully intends to do so. Make no mistake, the Chicago Fire are not some Bialystock and Bloom production of Springtime For Hitler, they are a going concern.

Let's look at how things went down over the course of the last three, well so far only three games. Heck, you know what, to expand the sample-size why not also include the Fire's five pre-season tilts as well, which gives the team a record of 1-3-4. So what happened? The Fire's lone win across those eight games came in a 1-0 game against EPL side Queen's Park Rangers, the perennially basement-dwelling club who hadn't fielded a full-strength side. The goal was scored by Quincy Amarikwa, who led the team in goals in 2014.

David Accam, Chicago's recent Designated Player signing was with the Ghana National Team at the African Cup Of Nations, possibly already sidelined with the groin injury that would keep him out of the first two games of the MLS season. The rest of the team were still in the early stages of getting warmed-up, most notably seen in the paucity of goals; only 2 more were scored in preseason: one was an own-goal which caromed off a Portland Timbers player, the other was scored by trialist Shahdon Winchester, last seen in camp with the team on March 10th before receding once again into the ether from which he had so appeared.

The goal-scoring woes continued as the regular MLS season has kicked off. Harrison Shipp notched the first tally for the team this past Sunday, but that came after nearly 210 minutes of stasis. But for all the dread that this figure suggests, one must consider the circumstances. The Fire attack features a large number of recent signings, new to the league, unfamiliar with one another, yet to establish a rhythm, style, or perhaps even an on-field dialog necessary to position themselves to score goals.

Another part of this could be about interpersonal dynamics in the team. For the first time in club history all three available Designated Player slots have been filled, with Accam, Kennedy Igboananike, and Shaun Maloney fitting the bill. The DP tag is a troublesome one as well. By its very nature it doesn't mean that these players' abilities will be head and shoulders above the rest of the squad. They are simply players who have proved themselves elsewhere, and have thus merited the higher price tag needed to secure their services. The chief issue is that of how Designated Players are viewed by fans, and it is presently much too early to make any judgements about their abilities and fit on the team other than nebulous ones informed by blind emotion.

Time spent practicing and playing together will give the Fire attack a better sense of chemistry, one that will see them scoring more and dropping fewer points. Amarikwa and Igboananike in particular will need to find a good give-and-go sense of timing, as it has been something missing thus far this season. If that can be ironed out then they can combine to be a quick and dangerous attacking combination. Equally there will be the return of both Mike Magee and Patrick Nyarko from their injuries for fans to look toward for succor.

But more than anything the team will need to gain a sense of confidence and heart, but they are in luck because they happen to have just the right player to help them realize it. Harry Shipp has the skill and soccer sense to become Chicago's version of a player like Lee Nguyen, who catalyzed New England last season taking them all the way to MLS Cup. It has been the hope of head coach Frank Yallop that Shaun Maloney will eventually take up that role, as he was scouted to play the number 10, playmaker role for the Fire, but until then they will need a force like Shipp to galvanize their efforts.

There are some ardent fans of the league who wish to raise the alarm, quick to dub this team the new Chivas USA, but the comparisons just aren't there. The problems with Chivas USA—which was shuttered at the close of the 2014 MLS season—were legion, and most of them inborn. This has simply been a poor run of form for the Fire. Furthermore, it seems lazy to attempt to turn Chivas USA into the league's "Watergate;" as a shorthand dismissal and catchall moniker it fails to adroitly address the issue at hand, paving over the nuance of the truth. Or perhaps that actually makes it a perfect analog to the term, but that's neither here nor there.

So, can a negative be a positive? If you ask anyone who toils in Arts and Letters, then they will likely tell you absolutely. Enthusiasm and praise are nice, and satisfy the ego, but they are critically unable to nourish development; for that one needs to have criticism. The act of failing lays bare what does not work, and if one is not interested in repeating said failure then changes will have to be made. And this team is one that has shown in the off season that their interests lie beyond mere mediocre existence, so the coming weeks will be a chance to see how they respond to their struggles.


The first real chance to see what changes the team may make will come this Sunday, March 29th, when the Fire take on the Philadelphia Union at Toyota Park at 4pm. Unfortunately because of the FIFA International Break occurring this week, the Men In Red will be without their DPs Shaun Maloney and David Accam, as both were called up for their respective national sides. Tickets for the match are available still, and as I have often trumpeted, if you've not yet taken the Pub To Pitch buses to a game, now is the chance. Tickets for both can be found here. The match will also be broadcast on ESPN2, and available through WatchESPN and the WatchESPN app.

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