Chivas USA is similar to the Fellowship of the Ring running away from a Balrog in the Lord of the Rings series. The only being preventing the Balrog from ripping the Fellowship to shreds is Gandalf the Gray. Chivas USA's goalkeeper Dan Kennedy plays the role of Gandalf while his teammates are rather helpless on occasion. This can be a surprisingly effective game plan as demonstrated by the fact that Chivas USA has ended up in six 1-0 games in 2012. Now they've only won two of those games but they were able to defeat Real Salt Lake and keep it close against teams like Kansas City and Houston.
For these reasons, I was very worried when Juan Pablo Angel converted the questionable penalty kick in the 23rd minute of the game. Chicago's offense was firing away on all cylinders but Kennedy can single handily shut a team down. Austin Berry, the Fire defender making his MLS debut, redeemed himself after being called for that penalty by scoring a goal for Chicago just two minutes after the PK. Sebastian Grazzini looped a ball over the defense and Berry quite deftly got it in. A nightmare 1-0 loss was avoided. More on how the game finished and some thoughts after the break.
The Fire offense was on the attack for almost the entire game. Dan Kennedy was in 'You Shall Not Pass' mode and nothing got through. I suspect Kennedy will have multiple nominations for Save of the Week.
In the 3rd minute of stoppage time, Federico Puppo passed the ball to Marco Pappa who quickly passed the ball back. Rafael Robayo had a great non-touch on the ball. Pappa blazed past his defender while Puppo attracted the attention of two defenders on his charge. Patrick Nyarko went down the opposite side of the sideline attracting his own defender. Puppo passed the ball back to Pappa who had just enough room at the top of the box to curl in a shot past the diving arm of Kennedy. 2 - Chivas USA 1. The whistle blew shortly after the restart and the Fire were taking three points home with them.
Pappa has scored in back-to-back games for the first time since 2010. If Chicago is going to be a very good team this year, they need more moments like last night from Pappa. The 23 year-old Guatemalan was consistently dangerous too, it wasn't just the last shot of the game. Pappa has 2 goals and 1 assist in this season's 7 games. The Fire haven't had this kind of production from Pappa since the beginning of last year. Hopefully it's not just Pappa's thing to play well early on and fade later.
Grazzini was on top form although he regularly has his way with inferior teams like Chivas USA. Referee Baldomero Toledo helped Grazzini out by calling fouls that were inflicted on Sebastian. Toledo established the tone early on. This is the complete opposite of many other MLS referees who have been content to see Grazzini get hacked all day and keep their whistle by their side. I'd like to see this trend continue but unfortunately it probably has more to do with Toledo himself. I'd love to be proven wrong on that.
Grazzini added to his season assist total on the Berry goal. The 31 year-old Argentine now leads Chicago with 3 assists. Gonzalo Segares provided a wonderful cross that Grazzini almost headed in during the 2nd half. Grazzini would have been worthy of a second assist to himself had he scored. It's interesting to note that while Grazzini leads the team in assists, he hasn't scored a goal this year after scoring 5 goals in 11 games in 2011. I credit much of that to the new defensive focus on him. It means that players like Pappa and Patrick Nyarko have to step up their production and take advantage. Pappa or Nyarko have a goal or an assist in each Fire victory this year.
Now that's how you make a rookie debut. Berry became just the third rookie in Fire history and first since 1998 to score in a debut MLS appearance. Both Ritchie Kotschau and Josh Wolff tallied in their rookie debuts for the Fire during the club's inaugural 1998 campaign. Berry also looked great in defense. There was a moment or two where I assumed Friedrich had done something but it turned out to be Berry. The move just had the polish of a veteran. I wish Arne Friedrich and Cory Gibbs long and healthy stays in Chicago but a central defense pairing of Jailil Anibaba and Austin Berry later down the line? It's looking like Klopas made some stellar draft decisions in the past two years.
Real Salt Lake on Wednesday and Sporting KC on Saturday mean a big week is ahead. Those teams represent the 2nd and 3rd highest in point total in the league right now. We know Chicago can handle the minnows (Philadelphia, Toronto, Chivas USA, etc.) but the team has struggled against bigger fish (Colorado, Houston, Seattle). I'm confident that the Fire will rack up points against weaker teams. Playoffs should be in order but an early exit will follow if the team can't find that second gear against the best. Time to see if Frank Klopas and company can get this figured out.