By FRANCO PANIZO
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Chicago Fire head coach Carlos de los Cobos saw his team endure a mixed performance against the New York Red Bulls in pre-season action last Wednesday, but one aspect the second-year MLS coach was impressed with was the play of his new defense.
With a three-man backline that at times morphed into a four and five-man backline, Chicago drew 1-1 with a stacked and technically-gifted New York Red Bulls team. The defense may have given up a first-half goal, but that came on a pinpoint Joel Lindpere shot from about 22 yards out that crept inside the far post.
For much of the match, Chicago's new defense – which consisted of rookie Jalil Anibaba, new addition Cory Gibbs and Josip Mikulic – frustrated Thierry Henry, Juan Agudelo and the rest of the Red Bulls' attack. The Fire defense and goalkeeper Sean Johnson also received helped from midfielders/wingbacks Patrick Nyarko and Gonzalo Segares.
"We have distcint players, different players," said de los Cobos of his defense. "This kid Jalil from the draft is a kid who has lots of potential and a bright future, but he needs to play in order to gain experience. But around him, he's got guys like Mikulic or Cory Gibbs, players with much experience that are helping him mature. I was very happy with the defensive effort from the team."
Making the stout defensive play even more impressive was that it came in a game where New York dominated much of the possession, especially in the first half. That disadvantage in possession didn't make much of a difference for Chicago, who was compact at the back and didn't give New York any clear cut chances.
The lack of goal-scoring opportunities frustrated the Red Bulls so much so that Henry consistently left Agudelo alone up top while he dropped to midfield to try and see more of the ball.
Henry's attempt to get more involved didn't work. He was subbed out after 59 rather ineffective minutes.
"It's just about us working as a unit and staying together," said Anibaba. "I felt like we did that pretty well for the most part, and we're just looking to continue to build on that."
Helping keep Henry quiet, as well as the rest of New York's other attackers, was Nyarko. When the Ghanaian midfielder wasn't busy keeping New York's defense on its toes with his dribbling and runs down the flank, he was breaking up potentially dangerous attacks. Nyarko demonstrated good defensive hustle and bite, and his motor was nonstop.
"The team chemistry is good," said Gibbs. "We have good young players and we have good people who can step in and play. I think we're solid defensively."
That's not to say the defense doesn't have areas in which it needs to improve. As expected, at times during the preseason, the defense has had its issues, issues that will need to corrected in time for the Fire's season opener against FC Dallas on March 19.
"It's starting out fresh as a whole new team," said Gibbs about the struggles the defense has faced during the preseason. "Lot of trial players and things like that. That's natural. But what I respect the most is that in three weeks we have jelled, and a lot has to do with Carlos the coach and activities and things like that and having us together all the time and I think it has paid off so far."
If the preseason match against New York was any indication of how those things have paid off and what will come for the regular season, Chicago fans can expect a defense that will constantly look different depending upon the game and situation.
Even with the defensive formation and tactics being expected to change from game to game, de los Cobos is hoping one aspect of his new defense remains the same, and that's how his three central players perform.
"Normally, we're working with three center backs," said de los Cobos. "I like to have players who can play tight defensively and who help us not lose our shape."
That will need to be the case if Chicago hopes to get back to the playoffs after missing out in 2010 with a 9-12-9 record.
The Fire's defenders don't seem concerned however, as they feel they have the potential to make a deep run this season if they live up to their potential.
"We could win (the MLS Cup). Any team could win it," said Gibbs. "Did anybody think Colorado would win it last year? No. Our first goal is to make the playoffs, and after that, it's just shooting high to win the whole thing."