Tucson is fantastic in February. A warm, sunny delight. Throw in 3 games of soccer and it gets even better. First game up was Chivas USA vs FC Tucson. I was disappointed when Bofo Bautista was not playing. Thankfully I saw some Fire coaches make their way out to the practice field and thought I'd go watch practice instead of the game.
Highlights: Lovell Palmer was a mad beast of a man. Flying all over the place during a particular drill. He looked fit and ready to go. Sean Johnson was working on goal kicks. He has come a long way from where he used to be. Hitting his target with some regularity. Sometimes he was a bit off but nothing to egregious. Chris Rolfe had a quality side foot volley finish from inside the box past Johnson. Minutes later Johnson made an excellent diving save to his right. It was good to see the first team. Now it was time for the youngsters.
Overall they were impressive. One of the more composed group of young players you will see. They clearly benefited from playing together a few times before this game. The Rapids appeared to have a mixed lineup of vets and youngsters to start the game. It didn't seem like that group had played together much before. Colorado was a bit more composed when their second half lineup came in. Lots of MLS veterans in that lineup.
Tactically the Fire were set up in a 4-1-4-1. Well that is what I'm going to call it anyways. Quincy Amarikwa as the loan striker. Pineda and Ward as the wingers with Shipp and Joya being the attacking pair in the center of the field. Sitting behind them Logan Pause in his customary defensive midfielder spot. The backline consisting of Jumper, Berry, Hurtado, and Piermayr.
The wingers look to act as withdrawn strikers. Ward in particular is very good at this. He was open on the wing several times. While his goal was excellent it was no surprise that he was open and in space to shoot from that distance. On more than one occasion he didn't make the simple pass. His decision making needs to be sharper. In particular when he has the ball at his feet but no obvious shooting lanes present themselves. Crosses could also be more accurate. He hit a few crosses today without being aware if a teammate was in that area or not. Good game but will need work on cracking the starting eleven. If the club is able to secure him on loan from Spurs I'd expect him to make the gameday eighteen with regularity.
Pineda on the other hand had a much more difficult game. His first ten minutes or so were pretty sloppy. A few turnovers sent his confidence plummeting. To his credit he continued to work hard and had a few bright spots. In particular he ignited the nice run of play starting around the seventeenth minute. Combined well with Amarikwa and Shipp to advance the play. Earned at least three free kicks in the first twenty minutes of play. Victor is a bit prone to turning the ball over. Had a few loose passes that never got near his intended target. Yallop shouted instruction a few times at him to "get into the box". Didn't appear to have much instinct for when he should make his runs. Decision making could have been sharper as well. A break early in the second half could have resulted in a high quality scoring opportunity if he would have passed to Quincy earlier. His extra touch on the ball killed the run. As the second half wore on it was clear Victor was having more difficulties in figuring out where he should be on the field. He does like to float into the middle of the field from his winger position. Defensively his effort was very solid all game. Needs polish and a sharper mental approach to make the starting eleven but should feature in the gameday eighteen and probably will get some spot starts.
Logan Pause and Jhon Kennedy Hurtado were extremely vocal throughout the match. Pause in particular was excellent in keeping his young midfield together. During one of the many early injury breaks (26th minute according to my notes) he was busy instructing Shipp and Joya on where to be while also shouting encouragement towards Amarikwa.
Later on in the half "Play that one back to him" Pause instructed Ward. Amarikwa was wide open in space when Ward decided to do it all on his own in the 40th minute (after scoring his fantastic goal) to no avail. It was good to see Logan tell Ward what he did wrong after it happened. The vets also played very well. Both looking to be in excellent form.
Benji Joya was everywhere you wanted him to be in the first half. Working hard defensively, making solid tackles, and creating opportunities for Ward. He combined well with Shipp in the center of the pitch to help control play. Was one of the big reasons for the Fire's dominant first half. He even won the free kick that led to the second goal. A fantastic half of soccer. His second half was not as good. The more veteran MLS side paid significantly more attention to him. He was influential at times but there were long stretches where he didn't have any effect on the ball. Was impressed with his defensive work rate during the second half. It was still a good half of soccer for him just not as fantastic as the first. I'd be shocked if he wasn't in the starting eleven come week 4.
Shipp had a good 60 minute run out. Combines well with Joya. Defensively appears sound. I was impressed at ability to find open players and get the offense moving. A smooth player. Didn't see to many mistakes out of him. A very solid performance. Minor quibble: could have had a bit more influence in the final third.
It was great to see Quincy Amarikwa score. He worked hard all game. Had a few nice hold up plays with much larger defenders on his back. Got into good positions and unfortunately wasn't always rewarded for them. He notably had a good attitude early in the game. He was communicating well with the youngsters without the customary tantrums he would throw last season. Good game from someone who looks to be the first striker off the bench this season.
Defensively the surprise of the day was trialist Thomas Piermayr. Very calm on the ball. Good positioning. Made several good passes combining well with Berry and Logan to get the ball out of the back. Comfortable being physical. May have been beaten on the goal. It was hard to tell from my vantage point but the goal was created from his side of the field so some of the blame has to go his way. Did manage to rip off a fantastic shot that forced a diving save in the 86th. A notable performance and a player to watch.
Hunter Jumper was fine today. His service as a left back isn't very good. He hit more than a few passes that didn't find their mark. Defensively his positioning is very good. In particular he was impressive in one on one situations. He uses his size well to disrupt players when they have their back to him. Appeared comfortable at center back after Hurtado was subbed off. Looks to be a clear backup and occasional gameday eighteen option.
Berry seemed to be his normal composed self. One play of note is that he covered well for a beaten Jumper late in second half. Got an assist for heading the ball to Quincy for the finish on the second goal. A quality outing that should help his fight to retain a starting place.
None of the subs were overly effective. Yazid Atouba had a nice run that earned a free kick and a caution for defender Jose Mari. I was relatively unimpressed with his off the ball runs. His combinations down the right side of the field looked ok but nothing really came of them. His strength as a player is his ability to create opportunities for himself. He probably needed to create more in thirty minutes than he did. I would assume he is the most expendable of players currently signed. I don't know that he did enough today to cement his status.
Giuseppe Gentile and trialist Parker Walsh were the other two substitutions. Gentile is fairly raw at this point. Hard worker, physical but not really ready for prime time right now. Parker Walsh slotted into the left back position. Was a bit awkward but relatively effective for his thirty minute run out.
A really fun performance from the youngsters and backups. There appears to be capable depth at every position. It will be interesting to see if the club can secure the loan for Grant Ward. Also will they make a move to sign Thomas Piermayr to round out the roster? How would that effect still unsigned first round draft pick Marco Franco who, notably, did not play today? Some interesting moves to be made yet.
Notes from RSL vs New England: Former Fire player Kwame Watson-Siriboe is glued to the end of the RSL bench. He sat all the way to the end of the bench almost by himself. I watched him "warmup" at halftime. He ended up sitting down halfway through that as he was not scheduled to play. He was the only guy to do this. During his next warmup he didn't put a lot of effort into it (for old time Fire fans much the same way Tomasz Frankowski would get 'ready' with the rest of the possible subs late in his time here. Unfortunately no adorable butt wiggle from Kwame). He looks checked out.
Jay Heaps yells a lot. Was screeching at Imbongo to run into the box instead of walking in. Imbongo said "coach, coach" and then started to explain himself which I don't think anyone could hear. Heaps was displeased.
Outside of KWS, the Salt Lake squad is a model of professionalism. They work hard and have good on field chemistry. They should be good again this year depending on how badly the coaching change affects them. Things seemed fine Wednesday with the coaches.
I'll have another live report from Saturday's games. See you then.