Sean Johnson Rescues a Point! Will It Matter?
Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson pulled a rabbit out if his hat several times last Sunday to keep the Fire competitive in a match in which the Philadelphia Union easily could have buried them. The teams traded goals and leads back and forth, but the affair was not settled until Kennedy Igboananike drove him his second goal of the match deep into second-half stoppage time to salvage a 3:3 draw.
Coach Frank Yallop praised his team for their ability to fight back at the end. Yet he could not have been pleased with significant defensive breakdowns that left Johnson at the mercy of the Union’s snipers. Yallop also cannot be happy with a result that still leaves the Fire in the Eastern Conference cellar, five points from sixth place, and with four teams to pass in the standings. With just 11 games left on the schedule, the Fire are simply running out of opportunities.
The closest team to them is Philadelphia, and a victory would have moved the Fire two points ahead, with one fewer game played. With a home match versus Colorado on tap for this weekend, another positive result could have put the Union in the Fire’s rear-view mirror.
With the Fire playing their third match in nine days and minor injuries affecting Gilberto and David Accam, Yallop made several changes to his team. He kept the back four of Lovell Palmer, Jeff Larentowicz, Eric Gehrig and Joevin Jones intact in front of Johnson. Michael Stephens replaced Matt Polster as the partner for Razvan Cocis at holding midfield. Shaun Maloney and Patrick Nyarko started wide, while Igboananike paired with Jason Johnson at striker.
Yallop’s backline has found a measure of stability of late, so keeping them together made some sense. The heavy log of games, however, appeared to take its toll on Sunday. None of the defenders looked to be at their sharpest, and Palmer in particular, appeared to be running on dead legs the last 15 minutes. On the other hand, Yallop’s options in the back are pretty sparse. It would be pretty difficult to make a case to put Adailton, Greg Cochrane, or Patrick Doody in the first 11.
The Fire began very brightly. It was a simple series of passes down the right flank that broke down the passive Union defenders in the ninth minute. Nyarko won the ball in a crowd, exchanged passes with Jason Johnson, and delivered a pinpoint cross into the six-yard box for Igboananike, who flashed in front of Raymon Gaddis to send the ball into the back of the net.
A period of sustained possession by the Fire dominated the match for the next few minutes. For a brief while, the Fire were actually playing the sort of attacking football described by Yallop in the pre-season.
Things changed in the 21st minute, when Fernando Aristeguieta squeezed in front of Jones to volley home Cristian Maidana’s corner kick with a first-time shot to make it 1:1. The Fire have conceded some comically bad goals this season. This one, however, comes down to a nice example of skill from Aristeguieta, who was marked pretty closely by Jones in the lead-up to the cross.
That goal sent the Fire into a tailspin and the Union were 2:1 up just ten minutes later. Maidana, who terrorized the Fire defense all night long, led a counterattack up the middle. He found Fabinho in acres of space on the left side of the box. The scrambling Fire players were a step behind all the way during Maidana’s run. Fabinho was fortunate to see his shot deflect off of Palmer and past Johnson.
The Fire then got back into the contest in the 54th minute. A quick series of touches left the Union defenders looking like dribbling cones in their penalty area. Igboananike carried the ball past two opponents and squared a pass for Nyarko, who redirected a first-timer into the back of the net. Not one of the seven Union players defending inside the area even acknowledged Nyarko’s presence.
Substitutes made all the difference in the endgame for both teams. Sebastien Le Toux, whose tally on Wednesday eliminated the Fire from the US Open Cup, ran freely and combined dangerously with Maidana on several occasions. The final such occasion came in the 90th minute, as Maidana led yet another Union counterattack 4 v 3 through midfield. The playmaker seemed to have a bottomless pit of energy and the Fire simply could not keep up. He threaded a pass to the left flank for Le Toux, who sent a shot through Palmer’s legs past the reach of Sean Johnson.
It was just one save that Johnson could not make after having been a stone wall in front of the Fire goal throughout what looked like Philadelphia shooting practice in the latter stages of the second half. Johnson singlehandedly kept his team in the hunt and they were not able to repay him with a winner at the other end.
Chicago’s subs proved crucial in the conjuring of a second equalizer. Stephens played a ball deep into the Union box and Harry Shipp hustled to keep the ball in play. His cross was won by Mike Magee at the near post, and he turned and served up a pass on the far side for the unmarked Igboananike, who buried the opportunity with gusto.
Stephens turned in a strong performance at both ends. Although he may lack the ball-winning tenacity that is the foundation of Polster’s game, Stephens possesses a higher degree of technical skill. This skill was on display early in the season, but Stephens was derailed by an ankle injury and his opportunities for playing time became sparse, as the Cocis-Polster relationship developed in a resilient pairing.
Three goals should be enough to win any soccer match. If the Fire had been able to muster even an average night on defense, the three points would have been in the bag.