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Drilling down on: Houston Dynamo 2, at Chicago Fire 1

Nov 1, 2012, 12:00 AM EDT

Houston Dynamo v Chicago Fire - Knockout Round Getty Images

If you need one win on the road in Major League Soccer’s playoffs, you sure want Dominic Kinnear coaching your team.

For the second year in a row the Dynamo launched their post-season with a huge road win, this time as the No. 5 seed over No. 4 Chicago Fire at chilly Toyota Park.

Will Bruin had both goals, early on a corner kick and then straight-away after the break. Houston has to rest up quickly; up Sunday is a home match against Eastern Conference champion Sporting Kansas City.

Man of the Match: Will Bruin struggled when Houston asked him to play as a lone striker in a 4-3-3, but he sure looks comfortable when the Dynamo reverts to its tried-and-true 4-4-2. The Dynamo’s “Dancing Bear” scored both of the visitors’ goals by doing what Chicago Fire players mostly could not: ruthlessly finishing his chances in those decisive moments.

Threesome of knowledge: Things We Learned

Hard to say what was more at fault, Chicago’s questionable tactics or Chicago’s curious absence of urgency. It’s the playoffs, fellows! (Maybe that weak crowd had the home town men bummed out.)

Patrick Nyarko on the right and Chris Rolfe up the middle looked up for the job for Chicago. Any others? Not so much. And the Fire’s 4-2-3-1 just didn’t provide enough support. Chicago’s defensive shape generally worked, but Fire manager Frank Klopas sacrificed a lot for the sake of it.  Specifically, holding midfielders Pavel Pardo and Logan Pause proved redundant elements, rarely straying far enough forward to link up with and provide an additional option for Rolfe.

The result was a muted attack. By the time Klopas brought on Brazilian midfielder Alex for Pause at halftime and rearranged the look, it was too late.

Kinnear also used two defensive-minded midfielders. The difference was in Ricardo Clark’s positioning; he played ahead of Adam Moffat in more of a diamond, although he dropped back into a “flat” midfield when Chicago controlled the ball. But getting Clark  forward in his positioning was the tactical checkmate. Well, having Corey Ashe rampaging up and down the left side helped a lot, too.

Don’t blame Fire veteran center back Arne Friedrich for anything that happened. He was everything you’d expect of a man with all that experience, always in the right spots and winning everything coming his way.

Friedrich even supplied the big pass out of the back that led to Chicago’s late goal.

Klopas will do himself a huge favor by convincing the German veteran to stay around for another season.

Neither team’s right back covered himself in glory out there. Chicago’s Jalil Anibaba will remember this one as a Halloween horror. It certainly wasn’t his fault that he slipped while marking Bruin on Houston’s opening goal. Whether that shook his confidence or whether this just wasn’t his night afterward, hard to say. But … ooof!

He struggled to deal with Houston’s left side, Brad Davis coming inside and Ashe overlapping along the outside. Chicago needed to provide more cover, either from Patrick Nyarko or from one of the defensive midfielders. When there wasn’t, Anibaba either had to foul or he struggled to prevent the crosses.

For Houston, young Kofi Sarkodi’s night was a similar orgy of the unfortunate, bad passes, poor-one-on-one defending and failure to step up with the line quickly enough. He did, at least, demonstrate the recovery speed a few times to get himself out of the ditch.

(MORE: Dominic Kinnear pushed the right buttons)

Packaged for take-away

  • Houston manager Dominic Kinnear is now 11-7-4 in the MLS playoffs.
  • Houston didn’t play a perfect game either, but the Chicago Fire’s finishing simply was not as brutally efficient.
  • Chicago’s Sean Johnson is one of the U.S. international up-and-comers, but he sure didn’t look like one early, flubbing an attempted punch and spilling a long-ranged shot into rebound-danger territory.
  • Meanwhile, Houston’s Tally Hall had six saves generally added credibility to the argument that he deserves the national team calls more than Johnson or D.C. United’s Bill Hamid. (Although Hall is a bit older at 27.)
  • We beat on referee Baldomero Toledo on this blog quite a bit. So, only fair to say that he got on top of things early Wednesday, mostly kept the cards in his pocket and managed the match pretty well. He did fall back into the old Toledo habit of not calling fouls late, but it was still one of his better matches.
  • That killer goal for Houston right after second half kickoff started on a Gonzalo Segares give-away.
  1. kgg6 - Nov 1, 2012 at 12:19 AM

    I say Chicago’s players lost motivation with that weak crowd. I wish that game wasn’t on ESPN. huge let down for the league. huge.

  2. bryaneverson - Nov 1, 2012 at 7:53 AM

    I was clamoring at the chance for Chicago to win and be a Sporting KC fan to fill up one of those seats in the next round. Agreed, that was a shame not just for Fire fans, but for the MLS to see such an empty stadium.

  3. wfjackson3 - Nov 1, 2012 at 8:19 AM

    So when are we all going to agree that letting in 5 teams for each side of the conference is just too many? How often are those opening games anything but poorly attended?

    • Steve Davis - Nov 1, 2012 at 9:53 AM

      Well … I don’t know about when we will ALL agree, but I said from the day MLS announced this in Toronto back in 2010 that it was a bad idea. I put it down in ink. Well, you know … internet ink.

  4. mrtuktoyaktuk - Nov 1, 2012 at 10:29 AM

    I have absolutely no problem with the play-in game. Don’t judge the format by the crowd turnout of a low attendance team. Anyone pining for the days of “what conference bracket are we in this year” should give their head a shake.

  5. wesbadia - Nov 1, 2012 at 10:30 AM

    Several things surprised me last night from both sides. Firstly, Chicago was nuts to think that their attack would be successful without Pause and/or Pardo contributing fully to it. They seemed content to just sit back and try to soak up Houston’s offense, which, as you said, they did so very poorly. Not sure which one I’d rather have on the field at the d-mid role (Pardo or Pause), but I surely wouldn’t have both.

    Secondly, I didn’t think Houston did a great job of neutralizing Rolfe’s role. Clarke had his moments of shutting him down, but Rolfe largely had opportunities to create. I think what hindered him the most was that with only three others in the attack, he had limited options to outlet to. MacDonald seemed to play well, but bad luck with ball bounces/opponents positioning didn’t help. And neither did the offside trap.

    Which leads me to #3: one thing Houston did right virtually all night (with the exception of maybe once or twice) was the offside trap. MacDonald was caught by it no less than three times, and he seemed frustrated by it more and more throughout the game.

    Fourthly, I personally thought Sarkodie had one of his best games this year. His 1v1 skills aren’t nearly as good as they should be, but I thought he did great on the flank against both MacDonald and Nyarko when they were wide, and, like you said, his recovery was spot on. Still not sure he’d be my go-to at right back, but last night he proved sufficient.

    Lastly, I have to wonder how necessary it is to water the pitch down when the on-field temperature is in the 50’s. Even Twellman commented on how much people were slipping on the turf. Even in the low 50’s, the water droplets will become much more slick than at higher temps, and I need to chalk up Bruin’s first goal to this. If Anibaba doesn’t slip on that play, I’m not convinced Bruin scores. Anibaba’s marking was perfect until that incident, and it opened up Bruin so much that he had zero pressure on him. Not saying he COULDN’T score if that slip didn’t occur, but I think his chances would’ve been largely diminished.

    Unfortunately, Chicago provided too little too late. Alex should’ve been on the field to start as he provided most of the spark in their offense. Why Klopas stuck to his usual 4-2-3-1 when he saw Houston’s lineup as a 4-4-2 is beyond me. I get that you need some routine with your lineup, but when hindsight proves that the attack was stymied, you’ve gotta question it. But, you know what they say about hindsight…

    • Steve Davis - Nov 1, 2012 at 12:02 PM

      Great thoughts.

      I totally agree on Rolfe, who sprang Nyarko or even Anibaba with several good passes out to the right. 100 percent agree that lack of support was the primary trouble maker. (But he wasn’t as effective after the break when he moved up alongside MacDonald.)

      Interesting thoughts on Sarkodi. He looked out of sorts to me in everything except that one thing, chasing down the play reliably from behind. But we all see the game differently … which is what makes all this so much fun.

      • wesbadia - Nov 1, 2012 at 12:09 PM

        That move for Rolfe after half was an unusual one, I thought. With Alex coming in at the half for Pause, it’s like Klopas was trying to replace Rolfe’s role with Alex’s and move the former deeper behind those two d-mid’s Houston was running. I’d like to think this was somewhat successful because Chicago’s chances sky-rocketed once this happened (let’s forget that Bruin scored 30 seconds in…), but I have a feeling this was more because Alex was now creating chances rather than Rolfe being pushed up with MacDonald.

        Speaking of the sub Alex, if Klopas was going to sub out Pause for Alex at half, why not do it even sooner? Say, around the 30th minute when it was apparent that two reserved midfielders weren’t going to help score goals. I just think this was a terribly managed game on Klopas’ part. Which is unlike him. He seems like his biggest strength is usually player management, but this wasn’t his best performance.

  6. slxc - Nov 1, 2012 at 1:50 PM

    Chicago Fire badly wrong and also your hobby, it took them Marco Pappa. But so is the league.

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