"Dribbling and shooting are individual skills. Passing is a team skill. If I put 5 guys on floor; only thing that connects them is the ball" – John Chaney
Switch the game from basketball to soccer, do a little bit of math and you have an even better quote. "Passing" is the most fundamental skill in both games, but individual ability has an outsize impact on hoops compared to our sport, which is the ultimate team game.
And that is, of course, the answer to "How did the Chicago Fire suddenly get so good?" Following Saturday's methodical and relentless 4-0 vivisection of Vancouver the Fire have now won eight of their last nine, are unbeaten in 10, are over two points per game and are – for the first time since 2005 – sitting atop the Supporters' Shield standings.
It's passing, passing passing. They added Dax McCarty, who is at worst the second-best passing defensive midfielder in the league. They added Juninhoas a backup. They spent more money than many folks thought wise on Bastian Schweinsteiger, who is for my money the second-best tempo-setting central midfielder this century behind only Xavi.
Bringing those guys in doesn't just mean you add three good passers to the roster; it means suddenly everybody else on the team becomes a better passer, because they're now receiving the ball with more time and space, or to the correct foot, or against a scrambling defense more often. They are all connected in ways that the Chicago Fire have not been connected, ever. They are playing beautiful football to devastating effect.
Last week that meant an 18-pass sequence for a goal.
This week, goal No. 1 was seven passes:
Goal No. 3 was a 15-pass build-up:
If you have qualms with so many passes in that sequence occurring in the defensive half, and claim they do nothing, you don't understand the game. Each pass – even square passes and back passes – force the defense to react, rearrange, reset itself, and open up new avenues of attack.
The Fire are using those avenues to destroy teams.
Goal No. 4 was a 14-pass sequence:
They did that with Schweinsteiger on the bench.
The last team to play anything like this was the 2014 LA Galaxy, who won MLS Cup and were the best attacking team in the modern era of MLS. If Chicago keep playing like this they'll end up in that discussion.
It's time for my bi-monthly blurb on C.J. Sapong, who is not in the MVP race but is arguably as valuable as any player in the league. He got his ninth goal of the season for the Union – which equals his career high – and he continues to be the attacking terminus and creative fulcrum for a team that are... wait for it... 7-3-2 with a +10 goal differential since the end of April. That's good for fourth best in the league, behind only Chicago, NYCFC and Toronto FC.
Did you know the Union were getting results like that? Probably not, since the way teams start a season tend to dominate discussions of said teams til at least August.
What makes Sapong a part of the MVP conversation if not the race itself is the word "valuable." The Union are nowhere without him, because it's his hold-up play that releases all the other attackers on that team while compensation for a lack of raw creativity from the No. 10 spot. This is Sapong at his best:
Armchair Analyst: C.J. Sapong's hold-up play continues to give the Union their shape & compensate for lack of a No. 10 creator pic.twitter.com/Qxb9QtGgfn— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) July 2, 2017
GOAL: Roland Lamah gets his second goal of the match
1. And finally, back to the Cali Clasico for our Face of the Week:
Chris Wondolowski had what was, I'm sure, an emotional week. He was left off the Gold Cup roster (his international career has got to be over, right?), his beloved head coach was fired and the guy who is, quite frankly, his long-term replacement was brought in on a Designated Player contract.
He responded by bagging a stunner of a golazo on national TV against his team's biggest rival in front of 50,000 fans. Wondo, who is 34, now has seven goals and five assists on the season, the Quakes are in fourth place in the West and into the quarterfinals of the Open Cup.
The best way to respond to strong emotions is to score more goals.