What We Learned: Fire 0, Red Bulls 0

After last week’s offensive showcase (at least for 20 minutes) against the Los Angeles Galaxy, the Chicago Fire played the New York Red Bulls to a scoreless tie with rookie goalkeeper Sean Johnson grabbing all of the spotlight away from the league record five designated players that took the field Sunday night.

Johnson, who put in an impressive performance in his MLS debut last week, turned in what is likely one of the best outings by a keeper this season. The lanky 21-year old made a plethora of highlight saves, but saved his best for last, parrying two difficult shots in the 90th and 91st minutes, respectively. As I said last week, I thought Andrew Dykstra got kind of a bad rap in net, but one has to start wondering why Johnson wasn’t starting earlier this season.

If Chicago is to make the necessary run to get into playoff contention it will certainly depend in part on the outstanding play of Johnson in goal. I don’t expect Johnson to be a model of consistency, nor should anyone else, he is a rookie. Staking the franchise on youth in net is a bit ambitious, as we all learned with Dykstra just a few weeks ago.

Perhaps that’s why the Fire strengthened their defensive back line late last week with the signing of Gonzalo Segares, who was originally drafted to the Fire in 2005 before leaving after the 2009 season. The 27-year old Costa Rican garnered a solid reputation at left back and considering how bad Krystof Krol was abused there on Sunday, I have to be confident that this will only improve things along the back line. However, in recent weeks, it seems that the weakness of our defense could be longtime center back C.J. Brown, who has looked a step behind at times this season.

Offensively, we certainly have some questions that need to be answered. The first is clearly at the forward spot, which has been held down by either Brian McBride or Collins John for much of this season. While we all love McBride, it’s certainly a bit troubling that he hasn’t scored since May, and it’s unclear what John’s role will be with the club. After arguably his best performance of the season last week, the 24-year old didn’t get off the bench vs. the Red Bulls, with boss Carlos de los Cobos hinting at some conflict regarding John’s work ethic in training.

Fire team writer Jeff Crandall indicated that Nery Castillo will see time up top in that rotation with McBride and John, but after watching the Mexican play a spell up top Sunday, I’m not sure how much I like that idea. It must be said that it was his first match in almost a full year and judging him off of that wouldn’t be fair, but I’m not sure that he’s a natural fit there with two bona fide target guys on the roster.

The midfield still appears to be the strongest unit for Chicago, but the Patrick Nyarko injury saga is starting to worry this particular writer. Nyarko was a revelation on the wing through the first half of this season before getting a concussion vs. the Columbus Crew in early July. The 24-year old dished out six assists in that time span, and had a solid outing last week before sitting out once again against RBNY with concussion symptoms. Anyone who’s watched the Fire this season knows the type of dimension that Nyarko brings with his speed and ability to create along with Marco Pappa on the opposite side, which will be imperative for the team’s growth going further.

While it may be a stretch to call it a surprise, Freddie Ljungberg’s play, and really, work ethic for much of the match Sunday was somewhat unexpected. As someone who watched a handful of his matches this year for Seattle, I was uneasy the signing. Some had indicated that he would be a different player for Chicago, and I was reasonably skeptical. However, if he plays as hard as he did vs. New York from here on out, one has to think that the Fire will hit that much needed run to get back into the playoff conversation.

But the REAL challenge for Chicago, should they want to make it back into the MLS playoffs is pretty simple, win at home. For reasons that aren’t exactly clear, this is something the Fire have struggled with for years, and it’s only getting more frustrating. It’s simply unnerving to know that, statistically speaking, the Fire have a better chance of winning at home than in front of the adoring fans of Section 8 and Toyota Park.

The Men in Red will hopefully get a chance to start that much-needed home winning streak on Aug. 18 against heated rival New England.

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