A blustery Monday morning in Bridgeview, Illinois brought fierce winds and a couple surprises to the MLS Reserve League game between the Fire and the Houston Dynamo. After a loss in the last Reserve League game against Sporting Kansas City, the Fire looked to get back to winning ways and retain the Central/Mountain Division title.
Originally scheduled to take place on the Toyota Park practice field, the extremely high winds forced play to move inside the main stadium. The home team fielded two guest players with former Fire Premier product Stefan Antonijevic at center back and Sola Abulaji in the midfield. Lining up in a 4-4-2 with Paolo Tornaghi in goal and Rafael Robayo retaining the captain's armband, Chicago got on the board early through a Federico Puppo goal. In behind the defense, Puppo raced in on goal one on one against Houston goalkeeper Tyler Deric and coolly slipped the ball in the back of the net. Houston players immediately swarmed the official and Deric launched a few rather naughty words to the linesman in protest, but the goal stood.
After the goal, the Fire kept pressing for a second goal with the wind at their backs. Orr Barouch created an opportunity when he held off a defender and sent an inch perfect diagonal through ball to Hunter Jumper making an overlapping run. Jumper's cross swerved through the box until a Houston defender cleared it out for a corner kick. Barouch could have had a goal of his own when Robayo sent a through ball behind the Houston defence where a sliding Brian Ownby cleared the danger and picked up a game-ending injury. The Men in Red let another great opportunity go when Puppo picked up a Houston giveaway in the defensive third, but made a few too many passes before a blocked shot found its way to Michael Videira who sent a long range blast well wide.
The Houston attack had very few chances in the first half, but did have one really good chance to get on the board. A cross from the right side floated over the Fire back line to a wide open Dynamo attacker right in front of goal from eight yards out. Tony Walls recovered well executing a perfect last ditch tackle to deny the shot and an almost certain goal.
With the weather prohibiting either teams from attacking freely, the game turned physical with Adam Moffatt, Videira, and Antonijevic earning yellow cards. Moffatt earned his on a hard challenge to Videira causing a brief altercation between the two. Videira returned the favor later in the half and Antonijevic received his on a professional foul just outside the 18-yard box before halftime.
The second half brought more attacking play towards the Harlem End with the winds still blowing and adding a sprinkling rain to the mix. Tornaghi's floated goal kicks stopped in mid-air 25 yards from goal making possession and gaining good field position very difficult for the Fire. Houston took advantage of the atmospheric advantage constantly sending crosses and long balls towards the Fire defending third. Tornaghi remained in control of his box and collected the crosses and made a key save off the line with assistance from Jumper. Houston continued pushing substituting in attacking players and changing to a 3-4-3 formation, but could not find the equalizer before full time. Puppo's early goal stood as the only goal and the game ended 1-0 to the Fire.
While the weather interfered with the game, I made some valuable observations from the game. Barouch and Robayo played much better than they did against the RSL reserves in the first home game of the season. The Israeli youth-international used his size and strength to his advantage and held the ball well all game long before coming off in the second half.
Robayo was much more influential connecting well with teammates, making off the ball runs and communicating the best he could. I can tell there is still some adjusting he needs to do that will slowly come, but his involvement in the game was greater than the RSL reserve and Colorado games combined. Robayo played in the attacking point of the diamond midfield before moving to right midfield when the Fire switched to a 4-5-1 in the second half.
The guest players turned in mixed performances. Abulaji played on the left side of the diamond midfield in the first half before holding the midfield beside Videira in the second half. The physicality of Abulaji was impressive as he performed many strong, well timed tackles and menaced the Houston players before exiting the game in the 66th minute. Antonijevic was another story as he committed fouls in dangerous positions and Houston attackers exposed his lack of agility. Jumper and Austin Berry had to clean up after him often.
With the win, the Fire's record now stands at 2-2 and Houston falls to 3-1. The Fire reserves return to action Sunday, May 13th against the Sporting Kansas City reserves at 10 am on the Toyota Park practice field. Let's hope for some decent weather for a change.