The Fire played their fifth game of the 2014 season this past Saturday and have yet to record a victory. Through five rounds and four consecutive draws the team has showed some reason for optimism and equally as many reasons for concern. Offensively, they have managed to score some goals. Their eight tallies is the most by any Eastern Conference club so far. On the flip side, nine goals conceded is tied with New York and Montreal at the bottom of the Eastern ranking defensively.
Although they have produced a fair amount of goals and chances one still gets the feeling that they're not quite at optimum operating efficiency in the final third. Despite lacking a true central playmaker, flux in the starting line up due to injury absence, questionable passing efficiency (at around 70% overall), and customarily losing the possession battle, the fact that they've been able to cobble together nine scores is a good sign. Particularly because Mike Magee has only scored one of those nine. Not having to rely solely on Magee to carry the scoring burden will be a key factor in the team's ability to compete as opposition will have to be wary of more than one threat. The further development of Harry Shipp and prudent use of either Patrick Nyarko and/or Dilly Duka as outside players should give Frank Yallop some flexibility when deciding on a starting eleven.
Questions remain however, on whether or not Alex or Matt Watson is the best choice to pair with Jeff Larentowicz in central midfield. Finding a role for Benjo Joya and whether or not Quincy Amarikwa can maintain the form he's shown so far are also variables to consider. This squad has been able to find the net enough through five games but there is still the overwhelming feeling that a facilitator in the final third is a missing piece, as it has been for several seasons.
The defensive side of the pitch is where the biggest concerns lie in spite of all that. Frank Yallop made changes to the back line after identifying defense as the area that needed the most immediate improvement. He was correct, the Fire's defense or lack thereof was the biggest reason for missing the playoffs last season. None of those changes have manifested themselves in any marked improvement however. Bakary Soumare is currently the lone holdover from the starting four that ended 2013. Gonzalo Segares' injury has moved Greg Cochrane into the starting line up and he's performed quite admirably in his place. Lovel Palmer has missed two games due to an odd decision by the MLSDC to suspend him for an inadvertent elbow. Jhon Kennedy Hurtado has been passable but not spectacular. Perhaps the issues are born of the time needed for a team to develop some consistency and comfort in playing as a unit and preseason wasn't enough to achieve that. It's possible the improvement will come over the next few weeks but it is alarming to see the same careless errors in marking and sloppy defensive effort in set piece defending that was evident throughout all of last season.
As we've seen in the past, the season can turn in the last few months with a few tweaks and some wins strung together due to the parity widespread throughout the league. With that in my mind, the Fire can't afford another disastrous start with an already tight Eastern Conference boasting several non-playoff teams from 2013 showing marked improvement. The Fire haven't shown much change in the numbers that matter after five rounds - points. Here's the current table:
East W-L-T GF-GA West W-L-T GF-GA
Columbus 3-1-0 7-4 FC Dallas 4-0-1 13-6
Toronto FC 3-1-0 5-4 Real Salt Lake 2-0-3 8-4
Sporting KC 2-1-2 5-4 Vancouver 2-1-2 8-5
Houston 2-2-0 7-6 Colorado 2-1-1 7-5
Philadelphia 1-1-3 6-6 Seattle 2-2-1 9-8
DC United 1-2-1 4-6 Chivas USA 1-1-2 6-10
New England 1-3-1 2-8 Los Angeles 1-1-1 4-2
Chicago 0-1-4 8-9 Portland 0-2-3 7-10
New York 0-1-4 6-9 San Jose 0-2-1 4-6
Montreal 0-3-2 5-9
And here's what it looked like last season after five games:
EAST W-L-T GF-GA WEST W-L-T GF-GA
Montreal 4-1-0 6-4 FC Dallas 4-1-1 10-7
Sporting KC 3-1-2 7-3 Chivas USA 3-1-1 10-7
Houston 3-2-0 8-6 Los Angeles 2-0-2 8-3
Columbus 2-1-2 8-5 San Jose 2-2-2 5-7
Philadelphia 2-2-1 6-7 Vancouver 2-2-1 6-6
Toronto FC 1-2-2 7-8 Real Salt Lake 2-3-1 5-6
Chicago 1-3-1 4-10 Portland 1-1-3 9-8
DC United 1-3-1 2-5 Colorado 1-3-2 5-7
Seattle 0-3-1 2-5
As you can see, the final table was dramatically different at the end of the 2013 season. The first month of the season doesn't necessarily provide a picture of where the top clubs will finish. After five matches in 2013 the Fire had 4 total points. This year they've amassed the same amount.
Five games without a win isn't reason enough for panicked concern, but disturbing trends can't be ignored.