A tale of two halves: Fire fall to Manchester United 3-1

CHICAGO, IL - JULY 23: A general view as Manchester United takes on the Chicago Fire in a friendly match during the World Football Challenge 2011 at Soldier Field on July 23, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois. Manchester United defeated the Fire 3-1. (Photo by Vincent Formanek/Getty Images)

The Fire played a good, competitive match yesterday against one of the world's best teams.  In fact, they actually controlled large parts of the first half and hung in there in the 2nd half to put in a valiant effort.  It was great to see Soldier Field so full for a game that involved the Fire (61,308 officially in attendance).  I know Manchester United has fans all over the world, but every time I saw the camera pan across the crowd and I saw all those Red Devil jerseys, I cringed a bit.  Chicago is our city.  It is our turf.  And the fact that so many people can watch a soccer match and not root for the home town team is astounding to me.  But with Manchester United's global pull I understood that many in attendance would be Red Devil fans.  But still, I am selfish.  I want all of Chicago for the Fire.

Section 8 sounded good all night and although the Fire went down valiantly, the exposure from today's game should be good for the Fire.  Hopefully some of those fans in attendance that haven't caught a Fire game will be intrigued to do so in the future.  Add into that the fact that the Fire looked good and played well, and hopefully that will get some new people out to Bridgeview for some future Fire matches.  While the last sentence may seem odd when it is in reference to a team like Manchester United, the reality is that the Fire hung in there until the end.  Although the final score did not end in their favor, the Fire have no reason to hang their heads.  Join me after the break for a few thoughts and recap...

The Fire had the clear advantage for most of the first half.  Though Sean Johnson was forced to make an early save on a Dimitar Berbatov shot from close range, the Fire would jump out to a shocking early lead just a handful of minutes after that.  In the 13th minute, Marco Pappa would send a long free kick into the box.  Cory Gibbs out-jumped his markers and headed the ball home past a flat footed David De Gea for a 1-0 lead.  It was a beautiful goal and made me think a bit.  Why can't we score a corner kick goal all year, but we can score goals like that against one of the world's best teams?  Don't get me wrong, I was ecstatic over that goal, but I would also like to see a bit more of these types of tallies this year in MLS play.  It was a beautiful goal in the end and I think it shocked everyone a bit to be honest, including the crowd on hand.

Manchester United would seem to put a few things together before the half,but a couple of the opportunities were erased by offsides calls (though Sean Johnson still made some beautiful saves anyway and the Red Devils also missed an opportunity or two).  The Fire also missed some golden opportunities, as Patrick Nyarko had a good chance to tally but blasted it to the keeper.  Daniel Paladini also had a look but scuffed it disappointingly.  Cristian Nazarit was very quiet for the most part, but he did have a nice opportunity that was put just to the left of the post.  It was good to see the Fire getting such good looks, but in truth had our finishing problems that have been present all year not reared their ugly head again, the Fire really should have had 2 or 3 goals.

It was great to have the Fire up 1-0 at the half, but I also knew that the mountain to climb would become much steeper in the 2nd half and at some point, Manchester United would really kick it into gear.  And that they did, as Jon Conway replaced Sean Johnson, which would prove to be costly as Jon would let in goals I believe that Sean would have saved.  At the very least, I think Sean would have saved 1-2 of those goals.  And that was a bit perplexing to me.  Had the Fire had an MLS match soon, then I can see resting starters.  However, our next match is August 3rd against Philly, yet we played as if we had to rest starters.  I can only assume that Frank wanted to get some of the other players in the game so they could have playing time against Manchester United, much like the MLB All Star Game approaches rosters and playing time.  And I can understand that, but given the fact of how the MLS season has gone so far, I think we should have been playing to win at all costs.  If that means playing our regular XI for the full 90 minutes, than so be it. 

Manchester United would bring in Wayne Rooney, Ji-Sung Park, and Ryan Giggs at the start of the second half to get them some playing time heading into the Premier League season.  The Fire countered with Conway, Josip Mikulic, Baggio Husidic, and Orr Barouch.  Despite the early changes, the FIre had an amazing look at goal in the 52nd minute, when Baggio Husidic pretty much had the ball rolled to him inside the 18 yard box with a nearly wide open net.  De Gea had slid over to the right on the cross that had initially come in the box from Patrick Nyarko.  The ball had been intended for Barouch, but deflected right to Baggio.  Although he had a golden look and should have put the ball into the net, he scuffed it and missed it to the right of the post.  That has been the Fire's achilles heel all year.  Good MLS teams put those shots away (at least ones that want to make the playoffs).  Good Premier League teams' ball boys put those shots away in their sleep.  I know Baggio is not used to such open looks, but come on.

Rather than having a commanding 2-0 lead, the Fire looked to hold onto the 1-0 advantage as the Red Devil attack mounted.  However, the Fire would get another golden look, as Nyarko again found Orr in the box, whose shot was promptly put off the post.  At this point, the game resembled most Fire games this year.  And that would be having the run of play, missing golden chances, and conceding big goals to end with a tie or loss.  And that's exactly what happened.  The game would be tied in the 66th minute.  Rio Ferdinand played a beautiful ball over the top for Wayne Rooney, who took a touch and just had grass between him and Conway.  Conway had come out of goal, so Rooney made a world class flick over Conway and into the net.  And I think Sean makes this save had he been in the game.  Of course, even if he or Conway stayed on their line, you still have one of the best goal scorers in the world coming at you.  In the end, it would probably end up a Rooney goal anyway had Conway stayed on his line.  Had Sean been in, I like the chance of him making a save in that situation better.  Alas, it's a moot point as the sub had been made and the goal had been scored.

At this point, one could only feel that another Red Devil goal would come, and that it did.  In the 75th minute, amid increasing Manchester United pressure, Rafael would hook up with Nani on the right side of the box.  Nani would dribble in, and fire a shot on goal.  It was an extremely tough angle, much like the Dominic Oduro goal early this year against the LA Galaxy.  Conway was against the post, thus effectively cutting off any realistic opportunity to score despite some sort of wonder strike or cross in front of the goal.  Problem is, Conway forgot to close the 5 hole, and the ball went between his legs for a 2-1 Manchester United lead.  Definitely a save there if Sean is in.  You just can't let in a goal like that.

The Red Devils would tally once more in the 82nd minute as Federico Macheda would find an open Nani, who proceeded to slot the ball home after Cory Gibbs got a slight touch on the ball bout could not corral it.  This allowed Nani on goal, and he chipped it over Conway for the final tally.  Nothing most goalkeepers can do there, as you have another world class player in open space with the goal in front of him.  The defense broke down a bit, and once that happened there were too many options for Nani.

Although it may seem like I am gravely disappointed in the game, the reality is that I am proud of the Fire and pleased with the overall performance.  The hard part is that we had opportunities and we did not take them, and it's been the same story in almost every match this year.  I know 3 points weren't on the line and this is a friendly, but the opportunities were still there.  Had it been a one sided affair, then it would have been different.  But the fact that the Fire stood toe to toe with one of the best teams in the world and actually had a chance to possibly win the match is what is a bit tough to swallow.  The Fire did look good, created chances, and attacked.  I will take that any day against Manchester United.  At least we put up a fight and didn't get absolutely decimated like the Sounders did.

I am not going to try to steal Merwin's or Tweed's Good/Bad/Ugly thunder, so I will just leave you with some thoughts on overall performances.  I thought Sean Johnson looked good, and I am now ashamed I ever called for Conway to get some starts to clear Sean's head.  I want Sean in there every game, no matter what kind of slump he is in, especially after Conway's play yesterday.  I also thought Pappa looked wonderful, he played well, had some good passes, and his decision making was better than some previous games this year.  Cuesta did well I thought, and overall Gibbs had a good match too.  Nyarko was brilliant, Oduro held his own, and Nazarit had a couple of good chances and a fine scoring opportunity that he unfortunately didn't take.

From what I saw of Sebastian Grazzini, I liked.  He had good poise on the ball, moved well, had some good passes, and seemed to want the ball in midfield.  While it is a small sample size, I rate it as a good performance that makes me hopeful for the rest of the season.

Unfortunately, there were some bad performances too.  Obviously Jon Conway was not on at all.  Paladini did not look good at all, which is becoming more of a theme for him in recent weeks.  He needs to turn it around or face losing some playing time now that our midfield options are even more numerous with Grazzini in the mix.  Baggio was just awful I thought.  He didn't put in a good effort at all from what I saw, and that missed scoring chance just cannot be excused.  He didn't seem to move very well either, be it lack of playing time or the conditions.  I like Baggio, but he has just not looked good for a while now.

Hopefully some of the Chicago residents that were wearing the Manchester United badge at the game yesterday will be intrigued to head to Toyota Park and become a Fire fan.  They can easily watch Manchester United on TV, but there is nothing like catching a soccer match in real life for a hometown team.  And, despite the result, the thing to take away is that the Fire played a good, hard game.  They were bested by a few mistakes and a vastly superior side, but they didn't go down easily.  Add to that that the exposure should only help the Fire and their fanbase, and overall it was a positive day.  Although the Fire lost, as fans we got to see them hang with and compete against the Premier League champions.  That is something most teams cannot say.  Hopefully this performance will push a few buttons and help the Fire make a playoff push.  Hope is dim right now, but sometimes it's moments like these that help a team discover and motivate themselves to a higher place.

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