BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. - Two big questions heading into Saturday night’s Chicago Fire game against the San Jose Earthquakes:
Who will step up offensively with injured Brian McBride unavailable? And will they find enough to defeat the San Jose Earthquakes and erase their struggles at Toyota Park?
It took more than 80 minutes, but Patrick Nyarko and Cuauhtemoc Blanco provided the damage as Chicago defeated the Quakes, 2-0, in Major League Soccer play.
With the victory, Chicago (7-3-7) claims sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference. Earlier in the day, Toronto FC played the Houston Dynamo to a 1-all draw, briefly holding a one-point conference lead before Chicago’s victory. The Fire also earned just their second victory at home this season.
“It’s nice to break that slump at one point. I’m glad it was today,” Nyarko said. “Hopefully we can sustain that and can make it tough for our opponents to play here.”
“They’re a very tough group,” Fire head coach Denis Hamlett said. “There’s disappointment with Brian’s news. We came out with the idea that hey, we’re still a team. He’s an important part of the team. But at the same time, it’s an opportunity for guys to step up. And tonight as a group, I’m very proud of the guys.”
The game’s first goal came in the 82nd minute. Blanco (pictured) provided a left-footed feed to Nyarko who slipped into the middle of the field and found the near post, striking the ball past Quakes goalkeeper Joe Cannon’s left for the 1-0 Chicago lead.
Hamlett went a bit more defensive minded, bringing in Wilman Conde for Justin Mapp a couple minutes later to preserve the win. But Chicago decided to add to the advantage.
Shortly into second-half stoppage time, Conde assisted Blanco, who chipped the ball over Cannon for a 2-0 lead. Blanco then ran to the stands and attempted his best “Lambeau Leap” impression on the north end of the field.
That final 10-minute stretch was a huge difference from the previous 90. The offense was nonexistent on both ends.
With the Fire utilizing a much different lineup that included Blanco and Marco Pappa on the bench, guys such as Mike Banner earned a rare start. And Chicago was certainly trying to do a little too much with the ball. In fact, the Fire and Quakes combined for only one shot on goal in the entire first half.
“That’s kind of what happens when you have some of the younger guys out there,” Fire midfielder and forward Chris Rolfe said. “And the group we had tonight was extremely unselfish and working hard for each other. So we’re always trying to make that extra pass. We’re a little too unselfish at times. I feel that’s definitely not a problem. That’s something that’s easily fixable.”
The lone shot on goal in the first half came from Banner in the 13th minute. He received a John Thorrington cross and drilled a solid strike on goal. But Cannon dove to his left and cleared the ball away.
A setback for the Fire is the loss of Bakary Soumare (pictured) for a game. Soumare’s yellow card in the 17th minute means he will miss Chicago’s next game against Seattle Sounders FC because of yellow card accumulation.
Next up: The Fire hit the road to take on Seattle Sounders FC at 2 p.m. (CST) on Saturday, July 25. The game will be televised on ESPN.
SlideTackles.net thoughts: The entire first half felt like a carryover from Chicago’s previous scoreless draw against the Columbus Crew. There were some deep shot opportunities to be had at the top of the box or just beyond it. But they did too much dribbling and perhaps over thinking to create a perfect chance.
In the second half, the game opened up a lot more. As soon as Blanco and Pappa came into the game in the 60th minute, the tempo naturally picked up.
In the goal, Chicago’s Jon Busch needed to make four saves, but they were pretty strong ones. The 70th minute was probably one of the biggest turning points because San Jose forward Ryan Johnson got well past the Fire’s defense. No offside was called. He took a shot, Busch made the save, and the deflection struck Johnson and bounced out of bounds for a goal kick. Shortly after, Busch turned away a Darren Huckerby shot.
So the defense once again came up big. The offense was definitely the question mark heading into the game, since the Fire had not scored an MLS goal at Toyota Park since a 1-all draw against the New England Revolution on May 9.
There is no such thing as replacing a target man such as Brian McBride. But the Fire are 1-for-1 so far. A major test awaits at Seattle’s Qwest Field.