Know Your Enemy: Chicago Fire – Meeting the Second

Pretty much everyone in this photo looks inept. Except Kocic, who just looks hilarious.

Well, that was something wasn't it.

The fifty-two hundred-odd fans that turned out on Wednesday night witnessed a performance the likes of which has seldom been seen at BMO Field. Toronto dominated from whistle to whistle to give themselves a good start to this season's CONCACAF Champions League.

But as for Saturday, a new challenge awaits; last weekend's match against Houston was a disappointment, if Wednesday was a response, how will that momentum carry over heading into Chicago's Toyota Park.

It has been some time since the two played out an entertaining 2-3 Chicago win at BMO back in April. Though much has changed on both sides of the ball and some of the initial preview still rings true - a closer look at the Fire is in order.

Recent Form

Chicago has played sixteen league matches since that fateful day that saw Toronto drop a sixth straight match to open the season and to recount all the events in details is unnecessary.

So in brief:

Prior to facing Toronto, Chicago had a fairly average season - winning a match at home, losing one on the road, and drawing one each home and away. That patterned continued through to the international break: the win at Toronto was followed by a loss at home to Seattle; a win away to Chivas followed by a draw at home to Salt Lake; a win at home to Kansas City, then a loss away to Portland; finally at win at home to Dallas followed by a loss away to Columbus.

Generally speaking, the matches were all tight affairs; all - bar the loss in Colorado, 2-0 - decided by the weight of a single goal.

They were knocked out of the US Open Cup in dramatic fashion - in a storage locker of a gymnasium to PDL side, Michigan Bucks by the odd goal in five - at the first time of asking. That funk - losing in Columbus, then to Michigan - continued with one of the few matches played over the international break, away to New England, 2-0.

A tight match, turned by the addition of rookie midfield sensation Kelyn Rowe, who went on to score the first and set up Benny Feilhaber for the second, once he joined the fray after sixty-four minutes. The lone bright spot to take from the loss was that Chris Rolfe made his much awaited debut after rejoining his former club.

Fifteen days later Chicago returned to league action against New York with a clearer purpose - start picking up points.

They did just that running out 3-1 winners against the Red Bulls. Patrick Nyarko opened the scoring in the fourth minute, rising over Roy Miller at the far-post to head a Sebastian Grazzini cross past Ryan Meara. Dax McCarty drew New York level ten minutes into the second half with a header of his own from a Mehdi Ballouchy corner kick.

Gonzalo Segares put the Fire back in front in the sixty-eighth, played down the left by a quick Pavel Pardo free kick, and pouncing on the loose ball once his initial pass attempt was cut out, to place a right-footer into the open cage.

Rolfe sealed the result in the final ten minutes tapping in from two yards a goalmouth cross from Nyarko, after he rounded Heath Pearce around the outside on the right.

A further pair of one-goal wins followed, finding revenge against Columbus (2-1) and shocking Kansas City on the road (0-1).

Goals in the first half-hour from Marco Pappa and Dominic Oduro were enough to see out the Crew despite losing Segares to a red card before thirty minutes were on the clock.

Pappa gobbled up a sloppy Kevan George pass, bore down on goal and lashed a right-footer from distance that flew across Andy Gruenebaum in goal into the top right corner of the net. Columbus was made to pay for allowing the Guatemalan time and space to approach goal and pick his shot.

Oduro too made use of a disorganized back-line, sneaking onto the inside shoulder of Julius James, collecting a Grazzini through-ball. Sprung in alone, he calmly placed a low right-footed effort past the onrushing Columbus keeper.

Segares was dismissed for an heavy, lunging challenge on George, and Tony Tchani drew one back for Columbus - by allowing a Chris Birchall ball from the right-flank to run across his body, before taking a touch around the pressure from Pardo and squeaking a low shot past Sean Johnson in goal - before the half-time whistle blew.

The Crew had their chances in the second stanza, but wasteful finishing and several huge saves from Johnson - a recurring theme in the coming matches - held firm on the result.

In Kansas City, Johnson again had a massive role to play as he and the back-line withstood the all too familiar barrage of the Sporting attack.

Pappa tallied against the run of play just before the sixty minute mark, taking advantage of KC's committing of numbers forward, to strike on the counter.

Dan Gargan cut out a CJ Sapong cross with a heavy, clearing boot to the centre-circle. Fortune smiled as Pappa, Rolfe, and Oduro leapt into the attack with only Matt Besler and Aurelien Collin stationed in defense.

Oduro drifted to the right, while Rolfe hustled to overlap around Pappa on the left. Pappa holds as he approaches the box before releasing Rolfe into the left-channel. Rolfe returns a cut-back pass to Pappa, whose left-footed effort from about eight yards back across the keeper powered between a sprawling Jimmy Nielsen and the covering Besler.

Johnson in goal and Sporting's profligacy combined to see out the 0-1 win away from home.

The wave of momentum from three straight wins came to a grinding halt four days later in a 0-0 draw at Houston; not a bad result by any means given the strength of Houston.

Most interesting, with the news prior to the match that Grazzini was leaving the club to attend to personal matters back home after a protracted misunderstanding regarding the renewal of his contract, was the debut of Brazilian midfielder Alex, who would take to the pitch in the second half as the Argentine's replacement.

Three matches in nine days closed with a disappointing 0-2 loss at home to Los Angeles. Robbie Keane picked up a brace - a goal in the middle of each half - first from the spot after Jalil Anibaba was deemed to have handled a cross in the box.

Whether or not the defender's body was inside the eighteen was debatable, his arm most definitely was and found itself awkwardly placed to block the flight of the ball into the middle.

Keane calmly sauntered up, sent Johnson diving the wrong way, before placing his effort to the keeper's left off the inside of the post.

Landon Donovan entered the match for the final twenty-five minutes and quickly made his impact felt - dispossessing Rolfe in the midfield, drawing two defenders towards him, before threading a pass between them to a wide open Keane. Keane, on the left, squeezed his shot past Johnson at the short-side, as the keeper cheated slightly, anticipating that the Irish front-man would try and finish across him.

The following weekend Chicago took to their home pitch against a road weary Vancouver-side finishing up a five-match road swing and strode out 1-0 winners on the strength of a Pardo free kick.

Alex was given his first start, but it was the experienced Mexican who made the lasting impression. His curling effort over the wall after Jun Marques Davidson had barged over Nyarko twenty yard from goal, snuck inside the left-post as Joe Cannon was caught moving the wrong way initially and struggled to get across to it.

The Fire saw out the final half hour down a man after Arne Friedrich was booked twice in the space of two minutes. The second of which was harsh, as he appeared to have position on Darren Mattocks, before Austin Berry came across and nudged the attacker down.

The referee sent off the experienced German and Vancouver pressed for an equalizer, but could find none.

Eric Hassli appeared to have headed a right-side YP Lee cross, destined to find the back of the net, but Johnson was on hand to meet it with a fine save, pushing the effort over the bar.

Four days later a peculiar early afternoon kick off at Red Bull Arena saw the Fire drop another match against one of the more high profile clubs in the league. The stifling midday heat slowed the match to a snail's pace and it took a moment of majesty from Thierry Henry to break the deadlock.

Sebastien Le Toux collected a pass from Conor Lade on the right and spotted Henry drifting off the shoulder of Anibaba on the left - his wonderful diagonal ball was chested down by Henry.

Seeming to have forced himself too wide after letting the ball bounce, Henry unleashed a spectacular half-volley across the keeper, kissing his attempt off the inside of the far-post and in. No keeper in the league would have stopped that blast; quite the end to a goal-drought.

1-0 to the Red Bull.

Chicago then played a friendly against Aston Villa losing 0-1.

Finally - so much for being brief - Chicago travelled to the West Coast to take on San Jose.

Rolfe put the Fire in front towards the end of the first half, with a wonderful attempt from the top of the box, poking a right-footed shot to loop over Jon Busch in goal. Nyarko found Rolfe in a pocket of space with a pass up-field; Rolfe took one touch to settle the ball before placing his effort out of the reach of defenders and keeper alike.

The Earthquakes then pressured and pressured pouring numbers forward until finally in the eighth minute of second half stoppage time, wig night man himself, Steven Lenhart, latched onto a Chris Wondolowski chest pass at the top of the arc and smashed a right-footed shot low across the keeper to nestle in the bottom corner of the net and tie the result, 1-1.

Johnson was again miraculous in goal, making numerous saves, several of which could well have won him save of the week on their own. New acquisition, Ajax youth product, Sherjill MacDonald made his debut as a second half sub and nearly set up a second Chicago goal.

He laid a deft pass into the path of Logan Pause, allowing him to race in on goal alone down the right. Pause, not the most dangerous of finishers, attempted to slice a shot across the keeper with the outside of his right-boot, rather than open up his left and lift it over Busch.

Projected Lineup

Coach Frank Klopas recognized early that Pardo needed some assistance in the middle of the park and switched from the diamond 4-4-2 - seen early in the season - to a more stable 4-2-3-1.

Over recent matches, due mostly to suspension, there has been a little fluctuation in the starting eleven. The loss of Grazzini - and the loaning out of Rafael Robayo and Frederico Puppo to clubs in Uruguay and Colombia respectively - has resulted in a rotating pool of attacking talent.

The projected lineup is as follows: Johnson in goal; from right to left - Anibaba, Friedrich, Berry, and Segares across the back; Pause and Pardo holding at the base of the midfield with Nyarko, Alex, and Rolfe across the top; Oduro in front by himself.

football formations

Gargan could well be handed the start against his former side in place of Anibaba. While Pappa is the odd man out of the attacking midfield; all have taken turns on the sidelines recently and no configuration would be a surprise.

Recently acquired left-sided midfielder, Alvaro Fernandez - in a trade with Seattle - could make his debut, while MacDonald will likely only see time as a substitute until he has further integrated into the side.

Last Meeting

The five-goal thriller at BMO Field started early.

Twenty-five seconds in Nyarko pounced on the hesitancy of Frings after Kocic rolled the ball to the German midfielder atop the Toronto box. Nyarko stole possession and fed his fellow Ghanaian, Oduro down the right-channel who slotted past the keeper at the near-post.

Reggie Lambe tied the match in the thirty-sixth; collecting Johnson's punched clearance of a Joao Plata corner kick at the top of the box on the left, stepping around Pause and blasting a right-footed rocket to the top corner of the near-post. It was a beauty.

Lambe then doubled his tally four minutes later to put Toronto in the ascendancy, pouncing on a loose ball in the box at the right-post to tap into the open net.

Plata played a ball forward from the left, Eric Avila let it run on - or missed it - to Ryan Johnson, who continued to move diagonally to the left. He cut a pass through the goalmouth, Matt Stinson was well covered by Segares, but the loose ball continued on into the path of Lambe at the back-post.

The lead, Toronto's first of the season, however, did not last long.

Just a minute later, Segares, increasing the numbers in the box on a set-piece, escaped his marker - Lambe - to get a simple left-footed touch on towards the far-post, from a deep right-sided Grazzini free kick, past Kocic to tie the match at twos.

Nyarko, after threatening with a tight-angled, looping shot at the start of the half, tallied the game-winner a quarter of an hour into the second half.

A quick counter attack began when Friedrich cut out a Johnson pass, Pause picked up the loose ball and spotted Oduro in the centre circle. Oduro then returned the favour his countryman provided him in the first half by sliding a ball in behind Adrian Cann and past Frings for Nyarko to run onto down the right-channel.

Nyarko outpaces Frings and the covering Eckersley, rounds Kocic - who had come well off his line in an attempt to win the footrace - and slips a shot into the unguarded net.

Grazzini then threatened to increase the lead shortly after, chipping a shot from outside the box off the top of the bar.

Toronto pressed for an equalizer: Frings dragged a shot from the arc wide of the right-post; Johnson got a touch on an Avila right-sided, goalmouth cross, but redirected it agonizingly wide of the far-post; Johnson knocked a header off the base of the post from a Julian de Guzman right-side cross; not to mention the possible handball when Gargan's clearance seemed to skip up onto his hand - but it was not to be.

Bullet Points

As evidence by the Nyarko game-winner back in April, Chicago is very dangerous on the counter. The additions of Rolfe and Alex to the likes of Oduro, Nyarko, and Pappa - not to mention Fernandez and MacDonald - has created a rather full complement of talented and quick attackers. Watch out for those quick transitions.

Alex, in particular, is a fine dribbler and likes to run at goal at every opportunity, if given the time and the space to. Toronto will have to pressure the ball-carrier; they cannot be allowed to build the attack smoothly.

Many players - Pappa, Rolfe, Nyarko, Pardo, and Alex - all are fond of an attempt from distance. As stated, close down the ball-carrier.

Left-back Segares gets very involved in the attack on his side of the pitch, much more than either Anibaba or Gargan do down the right. Toronto has to keep an eye on him.

Johnson in goal has been spectacular of late. For all the highlight reel saves he is capable of making he is also prone to errors - as any young keeper is (Remeber the Olympic qualifiers?). He will, on occasion, give up juicy rebounds.

Or find himself out of position.

Gargan and Anibaba have substantial long throws in their arsenals.

Chicago has exhibited a measure of slackness in their marking at the top of the box, whether not pressuring the carrier or leaving space for an attacker to get open, as they did for Henry's stunner in New York.

Just do that a few times and things should work out fine.

The two sides will meet again for a final remaining match on September 12th at BMO Field in Toronto.

Toronto has never won in Chicago - the five matches have resulted in two Fire wins and three draws. But given that TFC won their first ever match in New England and Houston got their first in Toronto, no need to fret.

In 2007, Chad Barrett and Maurice Edu exchanged goals in a 1-1 draw. Fuad Ibrahim scored in 2008's losing effort - 2-1 Chicago. Matches the next two seasons were drawn 2-2 and 0-0; Toronto twice took the lead through Dwayne De Rosario and Barrett - for Toronto this time - while a Nick Garcia own-goal and a Brian McBride strike cancelled the lead twice.

Chicago won last season's match 2-0 on goals from Oduro and Gargan, with a revenge strike against his former club.

Chicago Fire Eastern Conference Fifth Place

Games 21 Wins 9, Losses 7, Ties 5

Goals For 23 Against 23 Differential 0

Home 6-2-2 Away 3-5-3

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