KANSAS CITY, Kan. - To call Marco Pappa an enigmatic player at times might be an understatement.
The Chicago Fire midfielder joined the club on a loan during the 2008 season, which was later extended into a permanent move. At times, he's been one of the league's most talented players. At other times though, he's been criticized for not putting forth a complete effort.
Since Pappa scored for his native Guatemala against the United States in World Cup qualifying, the talismanic winger has been able to transfer that success back to the Fire. He scored a goal of the week nominee against the Columbus Crew in a 2-1 victory this past Saturday.
And on Friday night, Pappa showed off his skill again. His second-half goal was the difference as the Fire continued their dominance over Sporting KC 1-0 in front of a sellout crowd of 19,274 at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park. The shutout was the Fire's second of the 2012 season.
Did scoring for his country give Pappa an extra boost in returning to MLS play?
"I'm taking confidence for sure after that kind of game," said Pappa after Friday's match. "I feel a little bit tired with having played a lot of games, but it's still just trying to do best for my team on the field and I think everyone is feeling happy after tonight."
Sporting KC outshot the Fire 27-10 on the night, and had 61.4% possession on the night. Still, Pappa and the Fire made the most of the opportunities they got.
"We didn't have many chances tonight, it was a hard game for us," said Pappa. "I think we only had one or two good chances and we scored one."
The goal came after sustained pressure from Sporting KC after the break. In the 58th minute, Pappa got some space on a 3-on-2 breakaway. He found Chris Rolfe, playing in an attacking midfield role, on his left, who passed back to Pappa, and the Guatemalan winger was able to slot the ball past Nielsen to give the Fire a 1-0 lead.
Rolfe, who was credited with the assist, spoke highly of Marco's talent after the win.
"He makes a lot of things look easy that other guys can't even do," said Rolfe. "Every decision he made on that counter-attack was the right one."
Speaking of Rolfe, on Friday night, he made his first start for the club since rejoining from Danish side Aalborg BK. Rolfe last started for the Fire in the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinals against Real Salt Lake. He initially joined the club in late April, but sprained his ankle shortly after. He made his first substitute appearance for the club two weeks ago. He said the opportunity to get his first start back in a hard-fought win was the perfect scenario.
"It felt great," he said. "I've been working towards this for a few months now and to be able to get it a win against such a great team, it's a great feeling."
Fire Head Coach Frank Klopas said he was impressed with Rolfe's performance in his first start for the club in three seasons.
"He's been coming on every game and had an impact," said Klopas. "He's a very good addition for us so hopefully there are no more setbacks."
Klopas said he was pleased with the way the club was able to deal with the constant onslaught from the Sporting KC's offense.
"Obviously from our side it was a very great win," said Klopas. "They (Sporting KC) pushed forward and they pressed the game to get the tying goal, and in the end you need an excellent performance from (the Fire) players in order to go on the road."
On the defensive end, the Fire were able to withstand numerous Sporting KC attacks thanks to the makeshift back line and some strong goalkeeping from Sean Johnson.
Throughout the game, Sporting forced save after save from Johnson. But with Sporting desperately looking for an equalizer in stoppage time, Johnson stepped up yet again.
In the 92nd minute, Sporting KC striker Teal Bunbury created a volley for himself and shot just wide left of target past a diving Johnson.
Only a minute later, substitute forward Soony Saad's shot on target was deflected into the air by Johnson before being cleared away by center back Austin Berry.
Johnson was called in action one final time in the 96th minute. Striker Kei Kamara's shot from the left side of the box forced Johnson to dive to his left to make the 5th and final huge save of the night.
"You just try to do your job and make the saves necessary to keep the team in it and tonight was one of those nights where I had to make a few more saves than normal," said Johnson. "But over the course of 90 minutes, the guys in front of me did a wonderful job.
The Men in Red were without starting left back Gonzalo Segares after he picked up a red card in the win over Columbus. With Segares out, Jalil Anibaba moved over to the right back spot. Arne Friedrich, who made a substitute appearance last week, made his first start at center back since the May 12 matchup with SKC. Dan Gargan moved over from his customary right back position. Then after left back Hunter Jumper came on in the 78th minute for Friedrich, Gargan moved back over to his regular right back position and Anibaba moved into central defense with Berry.
"I think at any point in time, we have the depth where guys can step in and do a job like you saw tonight," said Johnson about the makeshift back-line. "At any point in time, we have a guys that can play anywhere on the field and that says a lot for our team and especially our will and determination to win games."
Klopas implied that he realized that Sporting may have had the better opportunities, but that the Fire did enough to take the full three points.
"They had some close calls and for the last five minutes all I could do was pray," he said. "It was just a great victory."
The two teams previously met at Toyota Park back on May 12. The Fire used a Sebastian Grazzini penalty kick and a late Dominic Oduro goal to give them a come-from-behind 2-1 win. The two teams meet again at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park on Friday, September 28.
At kickoff, the forecast was officially sunny and 101 degrees.
The Fire came into this match on a two-game winning streak, having most recently defeated the Columbus Crew 2-1 at Toyota Park last Saturday.
The 1-0 victory was only the Fire's second shutout this season. They won 1-0 at home against the Philadelphia Union back on March 24.
Rolfe took a knock to his left ankle in the 85th minute of the match and had ice on it after the match. Both Rolfe and Klopas seemed hopeful the injury was not serious. "It’ll be okay," said Rolfe. "We’ll take care of it"
Fire midfielder Sebastian Grazzini did not travel with the club to KC and remained in Chicago despite the club picking up an option on his contract for the remainder of the 2012 season. The Argentinean playmaker joined the club in July 2011 in a one-year deal that would have expired at the end of the month. When substituted in the Columbus match, Grazzini took off his Fire shirt to reveal a shirt with the words, Thanks Chicago, perhaps an indication that he had played his final match at Toyota Park. However, Javier Leon, the Managing Director of Andell Sports Group, the Fire's parent company, announced on Thursday that the club would pick up Grazzini's option.
The Fire made a number of moves this week, officially bringing in Brazilian Alexandre Monteiro De Lima (Alex) from Swiss side FC Wohlen. Alex was initially signed in April, but had to wait for MLS' summer international transfer window to open before joining the club. He was promptly named to the bench for the match and came on for Pappa in the 64th minute for his first MLS appearance.
The club parted ways with two players, waiving forward Kheli Dube and trading defender Kwame Watson-Siriboe to Real Salt Lake for a future draft pick. Neither player had appeared in a first-team match this season.
Substitute Striker Federico Puppo picked up a right ankle injury on Tuesday and was not named to the squad.
Backup Goalkeeper Paolo Tornaghi was also unavailable with an ankle injury. Jay Nolly was named as the backup ‘keeper on the 18-man squad.
The Fire are next in action on Tuesday when they travel to BBVA Compass Stadium for the first time to take on the Houston Dynamo.
Sporting KC were playing their fifth match in 14 days in all competitions. This most recent spell included match in three different time zones.
They lost 4-0 on the road to the Philadelphia Union in MLS play last Saturday. They also played host to the Dayton Dutch Lions of USL-PRO in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals this past Tuesday. They won that match 3-0.
Sporting KC travels to Montreal on Wednesday for the first time ever to take on the Impact at Saputo Stadium.
Starting XI: Johnson; Anibaba, Friedrich (78 for Jumper), Berry, Gargan; Pause (C), Pardo; Nyarko (82 for Robayo), Rolfe, Pappa (64 for Alex); Oduro
Substitutes: Nolly, Jumper (78 for Friedrich), Paladini, Bone, Robayo (82 for Nyarko), Alex (64 for Pappa), Barouch
Starting XI: Nielsen (C); Myers, Collin, Olum (18 for Besler), Sinovic, Zusi, Cesar (82 for Joseph), Espinoza, Kamara, Bunbury, Sapong (72 for Saad)
Substitutes: Kronberg, Besler (18 for Olum), Harrington, M Thomas, J Peterson, Joseph (82 for Cesar), Saad (72 for Sapong).
Referee: Baldomero Toledo
Attendance: 19,274 (6th straight MLS sellout for Sporting KC at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park)ee against the Columbus Crew in a 2-1 victory this past Saturday.