What We Learned: Fire 3, Dynamo 4

Well, it’s the first time I’ve had to write about the Fire losing in a while, and make no mistake, it kind of sucks. With that said, there are certainly a number of things we can take away, perhaps more evident in a loss as opposed to a win.

Just to get this out of the way quickly, I’m not crediting or blaming this loss on anyone in particular. Houston was a much better team on Saturday, and got a deserved three points. The Fire have been fortunate in salvaging points when they absolutely don’t deserve them (the Red Bull match comes to mind). And, the Dynamo really dominated much of the game, and could have very easily notched six or seven goals.

Moving on, I think it’s very clear that we have a guy in Freddie Ljungberg who will be completely despised by every other team in the MLS. He’s a bit of a dirty player, but as long as he’s on my team, I think I can handle it (a la Marouane Fellaini on Everton). After his best performance of the season earlier this week in the win over the Revolution, the Swede definitely topped it with an outstanding second half rally.

Ljungberg set up all three Fire scores and notched two assists. He also greatly frustrated the Dynamo defense with his ability to maintain possession individually, something that the rest of the Fire midfielders and forwards struggled to do. In addition to all of that, the dude’s work rate has been absolutely outstanding for the club. After the way he left the Sounders, that was my number one worry, and he is absolutely playing his behind off. Ljungberg’s acquisition is starting to look like it may mean even more to Chicago than Henry has for New York.

Speaking of acquisitions, I’m getting a little bit uneasy about Nery Castillo. After looking out of his element playing up top in his debut, he’s played more of an attacking midfield role in the past two matches, playing 45 minutes in both appearances. Now obviously, he’s going to need more time to adjust than Ljungberg, as he hasn’t played the game in a good while. However, the only time you realize he’s on the pitch is when he invariably gets called offside a handful of times each match or drops an extremely dirty elbow on Rev defender Kevin Alston. Like I said, we’ll wait and see here, but he’s not looking like a guy who has a lot to prove, which is what we were sold initially after bringing him in.

Although he’s not really an acquisition, getting Patrick Nyarko back (hopefully for good) certainly feels like a big grab. He was so good in the first part of the season and adding him to the midfield will certainly pay off in the playoff race. He looked good vs. LA a few weeks ago and he was threatening in his time as a sub on Saturday. As I’ve said in recent write-ups, his addition to Pappa and Ljungberg in the Fire offense could be incredible.

Something that I’ve started to notice in recent weeks that has been a bit overlooked is the importance of the presence of Logan Pause in the midfield. He’s not very flashy, but he seems to make the right play more often than not, and he’s most definitely holding his own in a midfield composed of a number of big money stars. Sometimes we undervalue the importance of a steady hand, or in this case, a steady foot, and that’s exactly what Pause is.

But you know who isn’t steady? Marco Pappa. Here’s a man who was incredible, if a tad selfish at times, for the Fire in the first half of the season. He set up a number of goals, he scored a number of goals, and he started the MLS All-Star Game vs. Manchester United. Ever since, he’s been consistently inconsistent. At times his partnership with Ljungberg in the midfield looks unbeatable. And then other times, as was the case last night, he was largely invisible.

And before I forget, I’m going to go ahead and consume some crow regarding my initial analysis of Calen Carr’s role on the team. He scored his second goal this week, a score primarily set up by his speed and a calm demeanor in the box. He cooly turned his defender around and settled before unleashing the shot. How many times a week do we see an MLS forward get hurried close to goal, and take absolutely the wrong shot?

Last, let’s talk about rookie keeper Sean Johnson who had his worst day in goal in his fourth MLS start. As I’ve said from the beginning, he will undoubtedly have growing pains in goal, but the scoreline may be a little bit harsh in analyzing his performance. The first goal was an unfortunate spill caused by a run in with CJ Brown, the second was an outstanding free kick effort that Johnson got a finger on, the third was scored on a bicycle kick after a rebound and the final was a colossal marking error by Brown. Now we expect him to get some of those saves, but he STILL had some highlight saves Saturday. The more interesting question is how he will respond to this loss in the Sounders match next weekend.

Well, I think it’s probably a good idea to keep these things under a thousand words, so I’ve covered what I wanted to cover, and it’ll be interesting to watch this team as they continue to get used to each other.

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Freddie Ljungberg-led comeback falls short, Fire lose 4-3

For the first time since The Free Header was started last month, the Chicago Fire fell in an MLS match to the Houston Dynamo 4-3 in what was undoubtedly the best match of the week.

The Fire fought back from a 2-0 and a 3-1 deficit to tie late in the match, but U.S. international Brian Ching scored his third goal of the match to pull ahead for good in the 85th minute.

Houston, who dominated possession in the opening half, started the scoring in the 31st minute. Fire keeper Sean Johnson came out to catch a ball, but CJ Brown ended up colliding with him in midair to send the keeper tumbling to the ground and dropping the ball. With an empty net, Brian Ching slotted home the ball for his first score.

Lovel Palmer doubled the lead with a nifty play off a free kick just outside the penalty area in the 50th minute. Richard Mulrooney laid off a pass for Palmer, who sent a low rocket to the near post from the right corner of the box. It appeared Johnson got a finger on it, but not enough to parry the score.

Chicago would finally respond as Freddie Ljungberg led a ferocious Fire comeback in the second half. The Swede released second half sub Calen Carr on a run into the penalty area in the 55th minute. Carr, who returned to competitive play earlier this week after nursing a serious injury for over 10 months, turned his defender around and scored his second goal in as many matches to bring the Fire within one.

Just four minutes later, Mulrooney set up another impressive series for the Dynamo off a corner kick. The 33-year old found the feet of Bobby Boswell on the far post, but Boswell’s shot hit the underside of the crossbar and came back out. Ching notched his second score of the match with a bicycle kick to the near post from six yards out to go up 3-1.

Patrick Nyarko made his return to the pitch in the 59th minute, and made a real impact 10 minutes later. For the second time this season, the Ghanaian saw his defender struggle to keep up and score an own goal. Ljungberg fed the ball into the box with a brilliant through ball, and Bobby Boswell tapped it into his own goal. Previously, Frankie Hejduk of Columbus Crew scored an own goal while attempting to defend the speedy Nyarko.

In the 81st minute, Chicago would drain Robertson Stadium of energy with another truly unexpected goal. Once again, Ljungberg sent the ball into a dangerous area, this time off a corner kick. He found defender Wilman Conde, who equalized with a header.

Ching’s winner would come four minutes later off another Mulrooney corner. Veteran Chicago defender CJ Brown inexplicably allowed a free header on the far post to the former national team star, who easily buried the score.

The Fire will look to rebound next Saturday when they travel to Seattle. It will mark the return of Ljungberg to his former club.

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Everton draw with Wolves in Goodison opener

Everton continued a theme of woeful performances against seemingly inferior sides, drawing with Wolverhampton Wanderers 1-1 at Goodison Park Saturday in their Premier League home opener. The Toffees are now 0-1-1 on the season.

For the second straight week, Everton outshot the opponent and completely dominated the possession, but couldn’t manage to pull off a victory. On aggregate for the first two matches, the Blues have held possession 65% of the time and outshot the opponent 35-17 only to be outscored 2-1.

On Saturday, Tim Cahill netted the first goal of the season for Everton, scoring a deflected Mikel Arteta free kick from outside the box in the 43rd minute. It appeared as if Arteta had earned a penalty prior, but the spot was placed just inches outside the box.

Once again, it appeared as if the Toffees could control the ball all they wanted, only to fail in their link-ups in the final attacking third.

Wolves tied up the match in the 75th minute to shock the Merseyside crowd.

Adlene Guedioura, who came in as a sub, gave John Heitinga a hard challenge around midfield to win the ball and released Kevin Doyle, who served it up to Sylvan Ebanks-Blake for the tying goal.

Everton will now prepare for Carling Cup play this Wednesday against Huddersfield Town with Premiership play resuming a week from Sunday at Aston Villa.

(Ed. Note – Due to an inability to watch Saturday’s game, it would feel wrong to write a “What We Learned” piece on a game I didn’t get the chance to see. That, and you know, it was thoroughly depressing.)

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What We Learned: Fire 2, Revs 1

Words can’t describe how geeked I was about Wednesday’s victory. Not because it inches us closer to the playoffs. Not because it was against the New England Revolution. But rather, because the Chicago Fire finally got three points in a match at home, something that hasn’t happened in over two months.

The inability to win at home, which is something I’ve talked about for weeks now, is among the most frustrating things with this Fire team. This issue has plagued the the club for two seasons now, and it’s imperative to start picking up points at home because the team can’t afford not to if they want to make it to the postseason again.

With the preface that Chicago dominated possession for the majority of the match, which I’ll get to in a second, Sean Johnson had another impressive day in goal. He gave up his third goal in three starts, but this one was first not scored from the penalty spot. Even Wednesday’s score wasn’t really his fault. Wilman Conde, who I trust to be awesome more often than not, slipped on the field after missing a touch. Marko Perovic pounced on the opportunity, maneuvered it just inches around a challenging Johnson for the score.

Overall, he had a relatively solid night. He came off his line when he needed to and made a some big saves to keep Chicago in it. His move to the net continues to look better and better each week.

Also something to look forward to is the budding partnership of Freddie Ljungberg and Marco Pappa in the midfield. Ljungberg had a man of the match-worthy performance from start to finish, and the creativity supplied by him and Pappa led to great stretches of possession, even if the link-ups in the attacking third were a bit lacking.

Ljungberg looks like a completely different player than he was in the first half of the season with Seattle. He looks inspired and willing to make all the plays necessary to win, something I don’t think you can say with any sort of confidence about his play with the Sounders this year.

I was also encouraged by the return of Calen Carr to the field after sitting out 10 months with an injury. He brings a bit more speed to the forward rotation of McBride and Collins John (when healthy). While it’s certainly a good thing to have that option off the bench, I’m not sure how much of an impact he’ll make down the stretch this season.

Speaking of John though, he’s out injured again, along with Patrick Nyarko. It’s a bit unnerving to see John play as well as he has in a Chicago uniform just a few weeks ago in Los Angeles only to sit out two straight matches.

You can say the same for Nyarko as well, except we know how good Nyarko can play whereas John is a bit of an enigma. Nyarko’s ongoing concussion problems have me worried about the future this season. That said, I think the Fire can be much better with him on the field, but I don’t think it hurts the Fire’s chances to make the playoffs too terribly much. However, with him on the field, it presents some enormous creation potential that would prove hard to defend. Before acquiring the extra midfield talent, I was extremely worried about him getting back as soon as possible. Now, it’s more of a luxury question, I’m just excited to see him back whenever that may be.

The offensive depth on this team is very encouraging to me going forward.

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Fire finally win at home, knock off Revs 2-1

The Chicago Fire’s recent home woes came to end Wednesday night, defeating arch rival New England Revolution 2-1 in dramatic fashion at Toyota Park. It was the first home victory for the Men in Red since a 2-1 decision over the Philadelphia Union on June 5.

Calen Carr, playing in his first match since a tilt against the Revolution in October of last year, provided the late heroics for the Fire, catching keeper Matt Reis off guard in the 85th minute for the game-winner. The 27-year old took a pass from Freddie Ljungberg, dribbled around one defender on the left side and pushed a ball through the legs of another from 18 yards out. The ball, which wasn’t kicked terribly hard, seemed to surprise Reis on the near post for the score.

New England opened up the scoring in the 16th minute after a rare miscue from defender Wilman Conde. The Columbian who is widely considered one of the best center backs in the league, took a bad touch and fell to the ground when attempting to recover. Marko Perovic took control, dribbled around keeper Sean Johnson, and put it into the back of the net from the left side.

The tying goal was brought on by Baggio Husidic in the 32nd minute. A Brian McBride pass bounced off a defender to land at the feet of the former Illinois-Chicago standout, who put on a clinical finish from six yards out for his fourth score of the season and first since June 5.

Despite not scoring on the night, Freddie Ljungberg put on what may have been his best performance of the season. The Swede was a constant threat and a real problem for the New England defense, which was playing much of the evening on their heels.

The match degenerated into a physical affair fitting of the rivalry tag. The chippy play saw 21 fouls called, 18 of which on New England. The Revs were also booked for five yellows to Chicago’s two. However, Chicago wasn’t punished for the most nefarious action on the pitch, which had newcomer Nery Castillo elbowing the head of defender Kevin Alston towards the end of the first half.

The Fire will next match-up with the Dynamo in Houston on Saturday evening.

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Victor Pineda joins Fire senior team

Seventeen-year old Victor Pineda will join the Chicago Fire after signing a professional contract with the club Tuesday.

The Bolingbrook, Ill., native has been a part of the Fire development program for five years, playing two seasons with the Fire Juniors and three with the Chicago Fire Academy. The midfielder has also been a part of the U.S. National team development system, spending two years in the residency program in Bradenton, Fla., and playing for the Under-18 team in Argentina.

Pineda was also a primary contributor and captain on Chicago’s recent national champion Under-16 team.

In 2007, the MLS instituted new rules to relax roster requirements for homegrown players, meaning that Pineda will not count against a roster place on the team’s 24-man roster. It’s likely that the tremendous successes of D.C. United’s Andy Najar played a role in teams like the Fire embracing the rule this season.

Pineda will be available for Wednesday’s match vs. rival New England.

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Premier League Wrap (Week One)

My wrap of this weekend’s events is up at The FA Daily.

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