BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- They may not have the same draw as the Chicago Fire's marquee international opponent last year (it's kind of hard to top Manchester United), but Aston Villa is a club that has a certain charm to it. The club had been remarkably consistent, typically finishing in the top ten of the English Premier League until a 16th place finish this past season led to some changes. Ahead of the 2012-2013 season, out is unpopular former Rangers and Scottish National Team Manager Alex McLeish and in comes Paul Lambert, who left his post at Norwich City to join the Claret and Blue.
The club's preseason continued as they were able to knock off the Fire 1-0 in front of 16,388 fans at Toyota Park. They scored the only goal of the match in the 29th minute when Striker Gabriel Agbonlahor got his head to defender Chris Herd's cross and was able to put it past Fire ‘keeper Jay Nolly.
"You're not really sure when you get a new job what people are like because you don't even know their characters or the way they play, but I've got nothing but praise for them," said Lambert about his side after the match. "What they're doing in training and when they're playing and I'm really happy."
The Birmingham-based club might be on their way to becoming one of the trendy new foreign teams for Americans though. They have an American owner in Randy Lerner (who also owns the Cleveland Browns of the National Football League) and two of their players, goalkeeper Brad Guzan and defender Eric Lichaj, have played for the United States Men's National Team. For those reasons, a US tour makes perfect sense.
Guzan was named to the bench for Saturday night's match. He came on for starter Shay Given in the 79th minute.
"It's good to be back in Chicago, to have a game like this," said Guzan. "There's definitely a lot of family and friends out tonight so it was a good evening for everyone."
The club announced that Guzan had re-signed with the club earlier this week. The 2004 Chicago Fire Premier (PDL) goalie joined the Premier League side club back in 2008 on a transfer from Chivas USA and will continue to battle the current Villa starting ‘keeper and Ireland international Given.
When asked if there was something in particular about American goalkeepers with Guzan, Everton's Tim Howard and Tottenham's Brad Friedel, Lambert admitted that could be the case.
"I don't know, there might well be," he said. "When a new manager comes in, there are a lot of things (to consider) and I've got two really good goalkeepers."
The 27-year-old Guzan was born in Evergreen Park, just outside of Chicago and graduated from Providence Catholic High School in 2003. After that, he played his college ball at South Carolina before being selected second overall in the 2005 MLS SuperDraft by Chivas USA.
The six-foot four goalie has also been capped 20 times at the international level for the Red, White and Blue. He is widely considered to the country's No. 2 goalkeeper behind current Everton shot-stopper Tim Howard.
"Brad's always been a great keeper," said Villa midfielder Fabian Delph. "Obviously we thought he was leaving at the (end of the 2011-2012) season and I was delighted to see him come back."
Lichaj was named to the Villa starting lineup on Saturday night and played 57 minutes at left back, not his normal center back position, before leaving to cheers from the Toyota Park crowd.
"It felt good," said Lichaj. "It felt good to play in front of my parents and my brothers who haven't seen me play live in front of a crowd, especially in Chicago - it was a good feeling."
Lichaj is the other American/Chicagoland native on the Villa roster. Born in Downers Grove, the 23-year old defender also played for the Fire's PDL team, playing four games for the Men in Red in 2006. Lichaj then initially joined Aston Villa in 2007 after his freshman year at the University of North Carolina. He worked his way up through the Villa reserves as well as spending significant time on loan, playing for three other English sides, most recently for Championship side Leeds United during the 2010-2011 season.
It appears Lichaj is finally getting more playing time for his permanent club. This past season, he made 10 appearances in all competitions, scoring two goals, including his first Premier League goal against Chelsea last March.
In tonight's match, the only shot for the Fire came from Jalil Anibaba's effort with the last kick of the game. It was harmlessly saved by Guzan. There were no shots on goal with Lichaj in the match.
"Eric had come in and I thought he did really fine at left back because it's not his natural position, but I thought he'd done a really fine job," said Lambert. "As a group, I think we've done really excellent (defensively)."
Lichaj has also made eight appearances at the international level. His last matches came during the 2011 Gold Cup, when he played all 90 minutes of the USMNT's last four games, including the 4-2 loss to Mexico in the final. That was former coach Bob Bradley's final game in charge, and new head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has yet to call Lichaj into a camp.
Fire head coach Frank Klopas didn't seem too heartbroken about the exhibition loss.
"I mean, for me, I got what I wanted out the game: an opportunity for some guys to continue to have some rhythm...and an opportunity for some other players to get 45 minutes, 60 minutes in, and make sure that they're in a position where they're ready to help out in the case that we need them to," he said. "I'm happy with the effort of the players, and we walked away luckily with no injuries."
The Men in Red named six new starters from Wednesday afternoon's 1-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls 1-0 in MLS play. They return to MLS action next Saturday when they head out west to take on the San Jose Earthquakes.
Defender Steven Kinney was named to the Fire bench for the first time since rupturing an Achilles tendon in the final match of the club's 2010 season. He did not see the field, and Klopas said after the match this was due to his desire to see him first play in a reserve match.
Goalkeeper Paolo Tornaghi was also named to the bench and played the entire second half. He had been briefly sidelined with an ankle sprain.
Agbonlahor picked up an apparent leg injury in the second half and had to be carted off. Agbonlahor put his hands over his face as he was moved off the field. Lambert said after the match that he was optimistic the striker will be able to return in a few weeks time.
Starting XI: Nolly (Sub '46); Gargan (Sub '68), Friedrich (C) (Sub' 68), Berry ('46), Jumper; Paladini (Y '49, Sub '68), Robayo; Bone, Alex, Pappa (Sub '62); Barouch (Sub ‘62)
Substitutes: Tornaghi (Sub '46), Anibaba (Sub '46), Segares (Sub '68), Walls (Sub '68), Kinney, Pause, Nyarko (Sub '62), Pardo, Videira, Oduro (Sub '62), Puppo
Starting XI: Given (Sub '79), Herd (Sub '46), Lichaj (Sub '57), Baker (Sub '57), Dunne (Sub '46), Gardner (Sub '66), Delph (C) (Y '48, Sub '66), Ireland (Sub '70), N'Zogbia (Sub '70), Agbonlahor (G '29, Sub ‘66), Weimann (Sub '70)
Substitutes: Guzan (Sub '79), Marshall, Lowton (Sub '46) Warnock (Sub '57), El Ahmadi (Sub '66), Collins (Sub '46), Holman (Sub '70), Carruthers (Sub '70, Y ‘90), Clark (Sub '57), Delfouneso (Sub '66, Y ‘90), Bannan ('66), Johnson (Sub '70)