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Scouting Report: Chicago Fire, Take 2

Freddie Ljungberg has more yellow cards (3) than points, (2) since joining the Fire.
Freddie Ljungberg has more yellow cards (3) than points, (2) since joining the Fire.

Freddie Ljungberg's resume is practically unrivaled in MLS. After 10 seasons in arguably the world's greatest soccer league -- including one in which his Arsenal team went unbeaten in 49 contests -- and 75 appearances with the Swedish national team, Ljungberg's status as a bonafide legend is secure. 

While Ljungberg's statistical contributions to those teams were not always blatantly obvious, there was one thing his sides had in common: They won.

During his second MLS season, Ljungberg's teams have failed to enjoy similar results. Over 24 matches with the Sounders and Chicago Fire, Ljungberg's teams have claimed just 24 points and posted a -9 goal differential. In the same number of contests without Ljungberg, those teams have claimed 38 points and posted a +8 goal-differential. That's a difference of 17 goals and enough points to be the difference between a team fighting for playoff position and one which has little hope of making the postseason.

Ljungberg may not deserve all the blame for his teammates' struggles, nor his future and former teams' successes, but the numbers are impossible to ignore.

When Ljungberg made his Fire debut on Aug. 1, the Fire had claimed 17 points in 14 matches and were playing at an even goal-differential. Those were numbers that still left them on the outside of the playoff chase, but Ljungberg's addition -- along with the signing of fellow Designated Player Nery Castillo -- was expected to put the playoff push in overdrive.   

Ljungberg's arrival paid immediate dividends as the Fire claimed seven points in his first three matches and, with several matches still in hand, had all the appearances of a team that would quickly rocket up the standings.

Even a 4-3 loss to the Dynamo failed to dampen the Fire, as they came away from the road contest feeling as though they had been the better team. But that loss was followed by another one to the Sounders and, after a couple ties, has snowballed into a six-match winless streak that has left the Fire's playoff hopes all but extinguished.

As the Fire prepare to face the Sounders tonight, they find themselves 10 points behind the No. 8 playoff position and likely needing at least 14 points in their final seven matches to even have the faintest hopes of playing beyond the regular season.

"We’re really hurting ourselves with these results," veteran Fire defender C.J. Brown said. "We’re really going to shut ourselves out of an opportunity to get in the playoffs. It’s not looking good. The guys are still working hard and trying to get ourselves in the playoffs but the results aren’t happening and the play is not good enough."

Ljungberg's personal responsibility for this collapse is, obviously, debatable. Looking at his personal statistics does not exactly help, though.

The 33-year-old has never been known as a scorer, but he's usually been capable enough of putting the ball in the net to keep a defense honest. Such has not been the case this year.

Ljungberg's inability to successfully finish 1 v. 1 opportunities has become an increasingly common scenario and the image of his screaming in frustration is verging on becoming a cliche.

The last time Ljungberg scored was on June 13, 2009. He has taken 41 shots since then, including 27 this year. The two players with more shots without a goal this season -- the Galaxy's Chris Birchall (31) and FC Dallas' Heath Pearce (28) -- are far less significant offensive players. The MLS record for shots without a goal in a single season is 40, set last season by then-Wizard Herculez Gomez.

To be fair, though, the Fire have struggled in many ways that have nothing to do with Ljungberg. Castillo, who it was hoped would be at least as big an addition as Ljungberg, has been even nearly invisible in the seven contests he's played. The Mexican national team player is averaging just 65 minutes per game and has not registered a single point as he's struggled with his fitness. Ljungberg has played, on average, about 77 minutes per game and has two assists. The team's other marquee player, Brian McBride, has been limited to 15 starts and is simply not the offensive force he once was. Even Marco Pappa, the team's top scorer with seven goals, has only recently returned after a five-match absence.

Defensively, injuries, suspensions and ineffective have forced the Fire to use 10 different players on their backline, none of whom have really stood out. The team is allowing 13.04 shots per game, the second worst average in MLS, and being outshot by an average of 3.04 shots per match, the third worst mark. William Conde, one of the team's better defenders, will miss tonight's game after receiving a red card last week.

Recently, the team has dealt with a series of bad breaks, while failing to create many chances of their own. The last six Fire matches have all followed similar story lines: The Fire play well enough to earn a result, only to be foiled by frustrating lapses.

In last week's game against Real Salt Lake, for instance, the only goal they allowed was on a penalty and they then had to play the entire second half a man down. That followed a 1-0 loss in their previous game, which itself was preceded by a 0-0 tie in which Ljungberg missed wide right on a seemingly simple 1 v. 1. The match before that resulted in a tie after the Galaxy scored in stoppage time, which came a week after the Fire surrendered another deciding goal in stoppage time during their loss to the Sounders. A week earlier, the Fire were foiled by Brian Ching's hat-trick in a 4-3 loss at Houston.

"All season long we have been having big mistakes, and we are not learning from them," Fire coach Carlos de los Cobos said in reference to last week's match, but could have been referring to any of the past six. "In the final minutes of the first half and the final minutes of the match we lost concentration and we were not focused. All the guys fought and tried to make good things happen in the second half."

It's hard not to believe the Fire have been underachieving all season. It would behoove the Sounders to make sure that trend continues.

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