Monday, March 28, 2011
Early season is generally a time for optimism in sports but for Fire fans of the last four years who've seen multiple management teams and huge roster overhauls it's generally a pessimistic period and this season started no differently; a returning coach who never started the same lineup twice, a roster returning three starting players and shorn of name value, replaced with a bunch of cheap foreign players nobody had ever heard of and a front office which seems to have been gutted for the third time in four years. The team looked decent in winning a point on the road to MLS Cup-finalist Dallas last weekend so Fire fans headed to Toyota Park Saturday with a curious sense of optimism. The lack of 38 degree weather and pouring rain provided contrast to our last few opening weekends but the beautiful sunshine came accompanied by 29 degree temperatures and high winds resulting in the traditional disincentive for walk-up crowds.
The Fire this year are a curious mix of cheap B-grade foreign talent, (Josep Mikulic, Bratislav Ristic and Marko Maric from Eastern Europe, Gaston Puerari and Diego Chavez from Uruguay), young American washouts from Europe (Mike Vidiera, Gabriel Ferrari), seasoned vets returning to MLS, (Cory Gibbs, Gonzalo Segares returning from Cyprus) and mid-level NCAA talent. Returning midfield players Patrick Nyarko and Marco Pappa are supposed to provide the supply lines from midfield but both have somewhat spotty records - Nyarko is great with the ball at his feet but seemly afraid to shoot when through on goal and Pappa is the Arjen Robben of MLS - dangerous on the dribble and a terror when shooting from distance but seemingly unwilling or unable to combine with the players around him, failing to make the team better as a whole. Fans used to seeing management splash out cash for name players have been wary of Head Coach Carlos De Los Cobos' tactical approach and team selection but the decent start on the road had fans buzzing about the work rate of our new imported strike team after watching years of Brian McBride, Collins John and Cuauathemoc Blanco amble about with little drive or energy.
Section 8 was in fine form from the beginning. Our new fan relations team has taken a lot of initiatives to put butts in the seats; some dubious, (Groupon!), and some quite savvy like providing incentives to Section 8 to sell a larger block of seats, supposedly 800 in all. The newly expanded section was packed and in good voice with a now-typical array of flags and banners. Healthy derision was heaped on the KC franchise including chanting, ("You are still the Wizards"), and a couple hilarious banners - one showing the old KC Wiz logo from the beginning of MLS next to a banner of the Simpsons Nelson Muntz pointing and laughing. The Fire started play well, winning the majority of possession in midfield and quickly moving the ball up to the forwards. Our defense, shifting between a three and four man line depending on Segares' positioning on the field, mostly looked solid but provided a new notable scares including a near own goal by rookie defender Jalil Anibaba which elicited a fantastic save from Sean Johnson. Just before halftime the Fire took a lead after Puerari beat Mexican Wizard Omar Bravo and was hauled down. The result was a red card to Bravo with the penalty converted with gusto by Chavez. The Fire doubled their lead just before the half thanks to an astute ball from Vidiera and a wonderful finish by Puerari. Up 2-0 with a man advantage at halftime and Fire fans were smiling despite the frigid conditions.
Sadly the second half saw the Fire revert to the kind of form which saw them barely eke out a point despite having a man advantage in Dallas. Sean Johnson spilled an easy shot after a corner and the loose ball was easily finished by KC. Shortly afterward Marco Pappa scored a slow-motion golazo which will be in consideration for MLS goal of the season, taking a ball from Vidiera and dribbling through the entire defense before slotting the ball past KC's fat Danish albino lab rat of a keeper, Jimmy Nielsen. Shortly afterward Segares sent an appalling back pass to Johnson which was easily intercepted by Teal Bunbury, who took it past a jogging Mickulic for an easy goal. Fortunately that was all that KC had to offer and the Fire were able to wrap up the full three points after watching a somewhat pointless display from substitutes Dominic Oduro and Orr Barouch.
The current Fire roster, especially the hard work and happy attitudes of our new Uruguayan front line, has most Fire fans feeling pleasantly surprised. There are a lot of questions still to be answered especially in midfield where we have solid players who don't seem to combine particularly well to keep the ball and in defense where the roles still seem fuzzy and Sean Johnson needs to take better command. Still this is MLS, where we've learned that depth is often more important than star power, and it's quite possible that the doom and gloom which were forecast by many (myself included) is unfounded.