What do the Michigan Bucks and DC United have in common? They are the only two teams to score more than two goals against the Chicago Fire in 2012, but last night the Fire could only blame themselves (and not dodgy turf or a backup XI) for an embarrassing loss.  With a loud but small home town crowd, DC United used speed and an unconventional line-up (for them) to tear apart one of the best defenses in the league and firmly insert themselves back into the hunt for a top three spot in the Eastern Conference with a 4-2 win.

DC United had not beaten Chicago since 2009 and when these two teams faced off at RFK last October, the Fire scored two second half stoppage goals to shock the Red and Black and effectively end their playoff chances.  This time, the two teams were occupying the last two playoff spots in the East and if Chicago would have won, they would have been within three points of first place Kansas City.  The story line going in was whether DC’s allegedly potent offense could handle the Fire’s stingy defense and if the Fire could exploit a makeshift DC midfield to create opportunities.  The answers to these questions were a resounding yes and resounding no.

Before diving into a tactical analysis, recapping the goals illustrates the larger trends.  In the first half, DC quickly unlocked the vaunted Chicago defense using a quick formation switch. After a muddled first 15 minutes for both sides, Ben Olsen swapped wingers Nick DeLeon and Chris Pontius to their opposite sides. Pontius found himself with the ball in the 19th minute and scuffed a shot that rolled past a very confused Sean Johnson to Dwayne De Rosario for the game’s first goal. DC would have a few other good chances and seemingly controlled possession (although the Fire had a slight edge in that statistic).  The first half came to a dramatic close with Chicago late stringing together their best possession of the game, resulting in a series of one touch passes that found Daniel Paladini open in front of net, an opportunity he took to equalize the score in the 44th minute. A minute into stoppage time DC stormed back as Andy Najar whipped in a sharp cross to the far post which DC newcomer Lionard Pajoy headed just past Sean Johnson to send DC into the half with a 2-1 lead.

The second half was an opportunity for the defenders to show off their offensive prowess.  In the 51st minute, Chris Korb crossed the ball to an open Brandon McDonald, who headed it precisely over Sean Johnson into the top corner of the net for a magnificent goal.  The Fire would have their revenge a little over twenty minutes later when their corner kick found an unmarked Gonzalo Segares who headed his own line drive low into the bottom corner to draw Chicago to within one and raise the specter of last year’s epic game at RFK.  However, after scuffing some chances, Long Tan scored his first goal for DC in the 89th minute as his weak shot trickled past an off-balance Sean Johnson for the final goal.

The scoreline was 50% DC tactical dominance, 50% Chicago poor play.  For the home team, their starting XI was a bit of a mishmash due to suspension (Boskovic) and injury (Santos).  Ben Olsen went with a 4-4-1-1 but started holding mid Marcelo Saragosa next to Perry Kitchen in front of the back four, while basically conceding the wings defensively by starting Najar at right back and Korb at left back, then allowing them to roam freely up the field.  Olsen compensated by using the speed of his fullbacks and winger DeLeon to apply pressure any time Chicago tried to go down the wings, thus forcing them to try and create chances through the middle.  Kitchen was effective in the first half coming forward to assist in the attack, while switching more in this role with Saragosa in the second.  What resulted was constant pressure from DC on Chicago and except for a few five minute stretches where Chicago was able to execute their 4-2-3-1, DC dictated the tempo.

But analysis of this game would be incomplete without a recognition of the poor play from Chicago.  They also were missing some key players and, to be blunt, Paladini left Fire faithful with a bad taste in their mouth despite scoring.  All four goals saw a Chicago defender trailing or not covering the scoring player, which is a mental issue and not a tactical one.  Additionally, Sean Johnson had a very poor night with the first and final goals two plays Johnson should have at least gotten a hand on.  The result was both a wake-up call for both teams and the Eastern Conference that maybe the current pre-game narratives are not as clear cut as they seem.