Prime Your Fire Pump: Chicago at Philadelphia Union

The Men in Red celebrate during their 2-1 victory at Toyota Park vs. Toronto FC on 8.4.12 (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Looking Back On The Week…

The Fire are coming off another come from behind victory, this time   a 2-1 defeat of Toronto FC at home last Saturday evening. Half of Chicago’s ten wins on the season thus far are comebacks, which ties a club record set in 2000. Fire team writer Jeff Crandall happily noted this week that “with 10 wins and 12 matches to play, the Men in Red have surpassed the win total of the past two seasons and can eclipse the win totals of 2009 (11) and 2008 (13) before the conclusion of the 2012 campaign.” Is Chicago showing signs of once again becoming an elite MLS side? Well, let’s not get too carried away. We here at On The Fire try to bring healthy skepticism to the conversation and, for lack of a better term, keep it real. So does Hot Time in Old Town writer Mark O’Rourke. In his always enlightening post-match chalkboard post, O’Rourke pointed out that “the Chicago Fire’s 2-1 victory over Toronto FC on Saturday was not a comfortable one. While Toronto has been on the upswing, this should have been a game that was easily won.”

Nevertheless, forward Chris Rolfe remarked that the team “showed a lot of character after going down a goal” last Saturday night. After TFC struck first off a Marco Pappa gaffe the Men in Red did not hang their heads. Rather, they clapped their hands, looked each other in the eyes, and set about getting the three points at home in front of the Fire faithful. But despite their determination it took more than a half of play for the boys to find their way back.

MLS Fire writer Anthony Zillis: “As the half wound to a close, frustration began to visibly boil over. Head coach Frank Klopas banged the ad boards. Arne Friedrich waved his arms emphatically at teammates. Logan Pause barked orders. ‘The problem was, we had ball possession, but in the final third we had to push more,’ Friedrich said. ‘We didn’t score, and this is bad, especially when you are down one goal.’

With Cory Gibbs out, Fire fans have known since day one this season that Arne is unquestionably the leader of the back four on the pitch. But now, it is clear that Friedrich’s leadership skills are showing off the field as he’s become more vocal with the media. The German defender remarked, “It was one of my goals to push the team a little bit, which we had to do in the second half because we were down by a goal.  In the end we did very well, were very smart – we held possession and created chances.  In my eyes it was a very good win for the team because we were down by a goal and showed very good character to come back.”

More from Zillis: “Pappa’s costly error led to chagrin in the first half. But redemption for that mistake had the Guatemalan smiling after the game. ‘I think I made a good assist tonight,’ Pappa told with a laugh. ‘We’re professionals. We see our mistakes and we don’t make them again. It was a good feeling to score after that.'” We’ll soon see if Big Pappa learned from his mistake.

And while we’re on the subject of the Fire’s Guatemalan international, am I dumb, deaf, and/or blind when it comes to Marco Pappa? After I called him out on the table in my last match report because of his no-look assist to TFC’s Ryan Johnson, he turns up at the top of the Castrol Weekly Top 20!  I know I’m tough on Marco, but was he truly the best player in MLS during week 22? Stats often lie I guess. Thankfully, there’s a man on the case.

Ryan Sealock, co-editor of Hot Time in Old Town, contacted the folks who compile the Castrol Index and is currently working on trying to figure out exactly how the rankings are determined. Good luck Ryan. I’ll stay tuned. Plus, as if there wasn’t enough fodder for Pappa fans to rain on my parade, Marco is creeping up the all-time Fire goal scorers list, poised to take over third place. I’ll try not to be a hater. I hope he gets there and scores as many goals as possible before he (likely) leaves.  Pappa remarked this week that the Fire “are physically and mentally ready to go” for the match at PPL Park on Sunday. Let’s hope for all of our sakes that his emphasis is on the mental part.

#22 Austin Berry was selected for MLS Team of the week after a scorching game-winning header further solidified the centerback’s case for MLS Rookie of the Year. Austin’s efforts also placed him in the #6 slot in the Castrol Weekly Top 20. Berry: “I pride myself on being good in the air and I want to be dangerous on every attacking set piece, and I have to take care of all of my opportunities.  There are so few chances for me to score and I was able to do that [against TFC].”  However, the rookie is careful not to take all the credit for his attacking prowess. “If you get a guy like Pavel [Pardo] and a bunch of guys who can [put] the ball in the box, you’ll be pretty good on set pieces.” Humility will get you a long way kid. Keep it up.

Looking Ahead to Sunday Night…

Head coach Frank Klopas expects the Fire to finish in the attacking third at PPL Park on Sunday. (Photo by By DAVID GUBALA)

The Men In Red are at a crossroads right now. Hope is up but faith is tempered as Fire fans (along with the rest of the league) aren’t yet sure what to make of the squad. Toronto FC Head Coach Paul Mariner called the Fire a “very decent” team, but that’s not going to strike fear in the hearts of Sporting KC, RBNY, Houston, or D.C. United. Recent results trend upward, but with all of the personnel and lineup changes, and fits and starts along the way this season, everyone knows the Fire are still searching for their identity.  Take a look at this week’s power rankings and you’ll see what I mean.

Chicago Fire in MLS Power Rankings for Week 22: Aggregate = 8

NBC Sports Pro Soccer Talk #6: “Marco Pappa gave away, and Marco Pappa took back. The Fire midfielder’s dreadful pass gave Toronto hope and an early lead as the teams met at Toyota Park. But Pappa finished wonderfully from a tough angle and rookie Austin Berry supplied the game-winner as Chicago held serve in the Eastern Conference playoff race.” #8: “Frank Klopas took a risk with his midseason overhaul, and so far the returns have been mixed. Regardless, the Fire showed enough in their 2-1 comeback win over TFC that we’ve chosen to bump them up a couple of notches. Talent’s there, but cohesion is still a question.”

Soccer By Ives #9: “Austin Berry’s late winner gave the Fire a crucial three points and bolstered the centerback’s Rookie of the Year odds. The match also marked the debuts of new DPs Alvaro Fernandez and Sherjill MacDonald, who could help make the Fire a dark-horse contender in the East come playoff time.”

SB Nation #9: “[The Fire are] just continuing to hang around. Seem to be good enough to make the playoffs, but really a step below talent wise from the four teams above them in the East.”

So what do the Fire need to do in order to turn skeptics into believers, to become a dangerous team rather than simply a decent team? In a word: finish! Reporting from Fire training in Bridgeview, writer Ruben Tisch sums up this essential point nicely here:

More from Jeff Crandall: “The Fire hold a 2-2-1 all-time regular season record against the Philadelphia Union. The Fire have never won against the Union in Philadelphia, holding an 0-2-0 record in matches played at PPL Park. The Fire are currently 3-5-3 in matches played on the road.” Despite the Fire’s tepid road performance this season, and winless record at PPL Park, Crandall noted on the All-In Podcast this week that folks (including him) expect the Men in Red to take three points this Sunday night. Goalkeeper Sean Johnson noted in the podcast that every match counts at this point in the season and “it’s time to buckle down.” SeanJ also thinks that the month of August should bring success for the Fire, as the squad will have ample time to recover physically with only four matches on the docket.

And since we’re on the topic of Chicago’s outstanding young keeper, Crandall posed this question to listeners: “How many points will Sean Johnson be worth to the Fire at the conclusion of this season?” It’s a great question, but hard to quantify without some research. Up to this point in the season I reckon it’s at least ten. Take for example the save he made just before halftime last weekend against Toronto FC. The Fire could easily have been down 2-0 and likely would have dropped at least two points at home if not for SeanJ’s excellent stop on TFC’s standout rookie Luis Silva. The San Jose match comes to mind of course, and I know there are others. Bottom line: Sean Johnson is the team MVP up to this point.

Look for Sherjill MacDonald to get his first start up top against Philly. Big Mac continues to build match fitness and he showed last week that he’s good for at least 45 minutes. I think we’ll see him for the first 60 on Sunday. Then, look for Dominic Oduro to spell the Dutchman off the bench and take advantage of a tired Union team that will (hopefully) be pressing to score after the Fire take the lead. Perhaps Dom can then strike on the counterattack. The reality at this point (barring an injury to MacDonald or a significant tactical change) is that nice guy Dom’s days as a starter for the Fire are all but finished. Mark O’Rourke sums it up nicely here: “It’s sad because Oduro puts himself in great spots. He knows where to be on the field to get chances and he’s also able to create chances with his speed. He gets or creates at least 1 or 2 really good opportunities at goal each game, and if he finished at least a quarter of those chances, he’d be a super star in this league.” That’s a big “if”.

Alvaro Fernandez took a knock on the ankle that forced him to leave in the 50th minute last week against TFC. Although sore earlier in the week, all signs point to go for Flaco against Philly.

Defender Dan Gargan is looking forward to a homecoming of sorts on Sunday. The Philadelphia native will look to hit the pitch in front of friends and family at PPL park. I’d like to see Gargan in the starting eleven, as he’s proven to be just as effective as Jalil Anibaba at right fullback.

Assistant Coach Mike Matkovich likened the Union to Toronto FC in that both clubs have seen recent success under new head coaches, but Matko suspects that “the honeymoon might be over.” One can only hope. The difference here is that Philly are playing at home in front of an adoring, involved, and vocal crowd. And, as Matko pointed out, “every game is like a playoff game for [the Union] at this point…they want six points.” Indeed, a win against the Fire would mean a six-point swing in the right direction for a club that believes it still has a shot at the Eastern Conference playoffs. Conversely, with #1 Houston facing #3 RBNY, and #2 SKC  up against #4 D.C. United this weekend, a Fire victory at PPL Park would likely vault them into the top four in the Eastern Conference.

Head coach Frank Klopas told CSN Chicago on Thursday, “It’s crunch time…there’s so much on the line with every game. It’s going to be a difficult match [but] a fun match.” Frank’s latter comment referenced PPL Park’s atmosphere and the Union’s committed fans. And on that note, I don’t know how other Fire fans might feel about this, but in the tradition of Romanian (and perhaps other European nations’) soccer clubs, I hereby form a brotherly alliance with the Philadelphia Union and the Sons of Ben. Like my beloved FC Rapid Bucharest and their brothers FC Politechnica Timisoara, I say, “hai sa facem o fratie!”

And on a final note, Soccer by Ives reports that “the Union, who carry a four-game home winning streak into this contest, will be without suspended striker Jack McInerney. The third-year forward had been in fine form, scoring four goals in a six-game span.” That’s good news for the Fire. Tune in to Galavision or MLS Live on Sunday at 6pm. It should be a good one. Come on you Men in Red!

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