While the Chicago Fire is one team, the squad currently consists of 27 players each with a different origin, starting point and story of how they arrived at Toyota Park as a Fire player. As part of the club’s partnership with Quaker Oats, we present Journeys – an in-depth look at each player’s path to Chicago.
In the second part of the first edition we sat down with Ghanaian midfielder Patrick Nyarko to better understand the shape of his journey as an academics-focused part-time soccer player on the gravel fields of Kumasi, Ghana to a MAC Hermann finalist at Virginia Tech and his eventual transformation into one of the most dangerous attackers in Major League Soccer.
Following Wednesday’s disappointing knockout round exit to Houston, taking in the rest of the MLS Cup playoffs this weekend didn’t sit all the way at the top of my “want to do” list.
Being the seasoned Team Writer that I am, I decided it was a good idea to take in the four games from Friday to Sunday…
Real Salt Lake 0, Seattle Sounders 0 – Friday
With the Fire out, I have to say there are few teams in the league I would feel alright about winning MLS Cup and you know the Sounders do not fall in that category for me.
On the flip side, RSL has Fire legend C.J. Brown, defender Kwame Watson-Siriboe and even former Fire beat writer Sam Stejskal slingin’ PR in Sandy, so if someone has to win MLS Cup, I wouldn’t mind for it to be our friends from the Sawatch Front?
Playing on the Seattle Seahawks outlined pitch at CenturyLink Field Friday night, it was Nick Rimando who stood tall in net, making five big saves for RSL and even suffering a broken nose and laceration in the 67th minute after a collision with the Sounders Christian Tiffert.
The display left RSL head coach Jason Kreis to say, “I think it would have to go down as one of the best individual performances by any player that’s ever worn an RSL jersey.”
In my opinion, Rimando’s historic performance will likely go down as one of the best ever in MLS postseason play.
In the end, RSL escaped Seattle with a 0-0 draw and head back to the friendly confines of Rio Tinto Stadium for Thursday night’s second leg.
D.C. United 1, New York Red Bulls 1 – Saturday
Knowing that one point at any time during the regular season would have had the Fire playing in this series, I had the most trouble watching this game of any during the weekend. With that said, it was nice to see D.C. switch home legs with New York after Hurricane Sandy left Red Bull Arena unplayable for the weekend.
WATCH: D.C. United 1, New York Red Bulls 1
Come the 33rd minute of the tie, United looked to be in good shape when Red Bull defender Connor Lade was whistled for a handball in the box, forcing referee Jair Marrufo to point to the spot. Chris Pontius’ take however wasn’t the greatest, allowing Red Bull ‘keeper Luis Robles to make one of his five saves on the night.
Despite the save, United would get on the board just after the hour mark when Chris Korb’s dangerous cross to the six left Red Bull’s Roy Miller with an attempted clear, instead roofing into the top of his own net.
In what seemed to be a comedy of errors, Red Bull would pull level with a United own goal just four minutes later. Off a corner kick from the right, defender Heath Pearce headed the ball back across goal, catching United goalkeeper Bill Hamid wrong footed before catching the ball inside his own goal and clearly across the line.
Perhaps most comical was Hamid’s insistence that he’d been fouled on the play. A replay shows Red Bull defender Markus Holgersson ducking even as United’s Dejan Jakovic is pushing him towards Hamid.
Own goals aside, the story of the match would be DC right back Andy Najar’s sending off in the 71st minute. Shown a yellow card for his foul on Joel Lindpere in the 71st minute, the Honduran international threw the ball at Maruffo, forcing the referee to show the Honduran international a second yellow and then a red card, forcing United to play a man down the final 19+ minutes of the match.
United will definitely be without Najar as they head back to Red Bull Arena for leg two and if they advance, it’s a fair bet they could lose him throughout a potential Eastern Conference Final series.
Houston Dynamo 2, Sporting Kansas City 0 – Sunday
In the surprise of the weekend, Houston came away with a dominant 2-0 victory over Sporting KC in leg one of their Eastern Conference semifinal series at BBVA Compass Stadium.
WATCH: Houston Dynamo 2, Sporting KC 0
Having defeated the Fire 2-1 on Wednesday night, the Dynamo were charged by the partisan crowd in Houston and went ahead in the 18th minute off of Adam Moffat’s wonder-volley from outside the area.
On the other side of halftime, Will Bruin would score his third goal in two playoff matches, connecting once again with former Fire striker Calen Carr to seal the 2-0 victory in the 75th minute.
It’s interesting to note that though the two sides finished even with 13 shots each, the Dynamo held just a 2-1 advantage in shots on goal, finishing both of their attempts for the win.
Houston can now go to LiveStrong Sporting Park on Wednesday, lose 1-0 and still advance to the Eastern Conference finals, knocking out the team with the second best record in the process…
San Jose Earthquakes 1, LA Galaxy 0 – Sunday
While the Dynamo didn’t look like they’d played at midweek, the LA Galaxy certainly did, looking tired a times throughout Sunday night’s home encounter.
Despite that, LA threatened just as much as San Jose but as so many other teams have this season, would fall victim to a late, late Earthquakes goal.
This time the marker would come from Honduran midfielder Victor Bernardez, who hit a low free kick underneath the jumping Omar Gonzalez and past Josh Saunders in the 94th minute, allowing the Quakes to stick with their “Goonies never say die” tagline.
The star-studded Galaxy will have a tall but not impossible order to overcome the 1-0 deficit in Wednesday’s second leg at San Jose…
Second Leg Picks
New York Red Bulls 2, D.C. United 1 (NY Advances)
Sporting KC 2, Houston Dynamo 1( HOU Advances)
Real Salt Lake 2, Seattle 1 (RSL Advances)
San Jose Earthquakes 1, LA Galaxy 1 (SJ Advances)
After a frustrating draw at home on the last day of the season against D.C., the Fire now have a quick turn around in Wednesday night’s Knockout Match at Toyota Park against a very experienced Houston Dynamo side (LIVE 8pm CT on ESPN2/ESPN Deportes). Anything can happen in a one-off game but, with the home crowd behind them, the Fire will be looking to build on the good performance against DC and advance to play Sporting KC this weekend. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.
Counter attack: the Fire's best friend
Against D.C. last week, especially in the first half, the Fire used the counter attack to perfection, creating an enormous amount of chances but failing capitalize. The Fire allowed DC to be lulled into a false sense of security by sitting back, letting them control the possession and move men forward before breaking at lightning speed if and when the Men in Red were able to turn the ball over.
WATCH: Coach's Take on Houston
Patrick Nyarko, Chris Rolfe and Sherjill MacDonald all combined well and used their pace to carve DC open and, with some better finishing, would have been well clear by halftime. As I noted in a previous preview, Houston's midfield has a tendency to be slow to track back, something that the Fire can certainly capitalize on.
If the Men in Red can counter as well as they did against D.C., Houston are going to be in trouble.
Finishing: improvement needed for the Playoffs
As I previously mentioned, the Fire had a host of chances last week against United but only managed to put one in the back of the net. In the playoffs, not taking your chances is a recipe for disaster and the Fire will need to make the most of the ones they get tonight.
MacDonald was the main culprit against D.C. and he will certainly be looking to get on the score sheet in his first playoff game. MacDonald is his own biggest critic and I am sure he's been working doubly hard in training since Saturday. He is the kind of player who could go on a scoring run and getting a goal against Houston could start it.
Assistant coach Mike Makovich put it well in his pre-match interview, stating that he "would be worried" if the Fire weren't creating chances. In the Playoffs, a certain amount of luck is needed, but if the Fire create as many openings as they did against D.C., they should be fine.
Limiting defensive mistakes: no needless fouls around the box
Houston are the masters of the dead ball and the less chances the Fire give Brad Davis and co. to put the ball in the box, the better. The Dynamo are extremely good in the air and are also a very intelligent team, constantly looking for fouls in the final third.
Houston coach Dom Kinnear is also famous for his attempts to influence referees, something that he will surely be trying to do on Wednesday night. The Fire must try and not give referee Baldomero Toledo anything to think about, because the more needless fouls the team gives up, the more likely he will start hearing it from the Houston bench.
Houston's size, with giants like Macoumba Kandji and Will Bruin are tough to handle. Aside from the massively experienced Arne Friedrich and playoff experienced Segares, the Fire's other three likely defensive starters, Austin Berry, Jalil Anibaba and Sean Johnson all will be making their MLS Playoff debuts so putting as little pressure on them as possible will be helpful.
WATCH: Players Preview Houston
Patrick Nyarko, Chris Rolfe and Sherjill MacDonald all combined well and used their pace to carve DC open and, with some better finishing, would have been well clear by halftime.
As I noted in a previous preview, Houston's midfield has a tendency to be slow to track back, something that the Fire can certainly capitalize on.
Kofi Sarkodie: Potential weak link for the Dynamo
For all the talk of Houston's playoff experience, one player who will be taking his postseason bow for the Dynamo is right-back Kofi Sarkodie.
Sarkodie only started seven games this season for the Dynamo and though he is not a rookie, he did not see any action during the teams run to the 2011 MLS Cup. I expect the Fire to try and test out Sarkodie as often as possible Wednesday night.
Flaco Fernandez had an improved performance against D.C. last weekend and if he can continue to get forward and combine with the attackers and left back Segares on Sarkodie's side of the field, it may cause the youngster problems.
In Houston's last meaningful game against the Philadelphia Union on October 20, the only Philly goal came on a cross from Sarkodie's side. He stood off the ball and allowed the cross to be played into the box for Jack McInerney to score. Another mistake like that could cost the Dynamo on Wednesday night.
Prediction: In a very tight and tense match, the Fire come out 2-1 winners with goals from Sherjill MacDonald and Rookie of the Year Award runaway, Austin Berry.
Feeding off the thrill of John Thorrington’s stoppage time chip to beat the Galaxy on the final day of the regular season, the Fire entered the 2007 MLS Cup playoffs as the fourth seed going up against Supporters Shield winners D.C. United in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
#1 D.C. United vs. #4 Chicago Fire – Conference Semifinals (two legs)
Chicago Fire 1, D.C. United 0 (leg one)
Toyota Park; Bridgeview, Ill.
October 25, 2007
Despite winning the Supporters Shield, United sputtered into the playoffs, going 0-2-1 in their final three matches. In contrast, the Fire had gone 2-0-1 in their final three, rallying from poor early-season form to make the playoffs on the final day.
Despite being outshot 9-8 by United, the Fire fed off their late season form, the Fire would benefit from a D.C. misplay in the back for the only goal of the first leg.
WATCH: 2007 Eastern Conference Semifinals
A high bouncing ball allowed United defender Devon MacTavish only a piece of the ball, instead heading it into the path of Chris Rolfe. The third-year Fire veteran caught the ball on the bounce and smashed his half volley past Troy Perkins, taking the Fire to RFK Stadium with a 1-0 lead.
#1 D.C. United vs. #4 Chicago Fire – Conference Semifinals (two legs)
Chicago Fire 2, D.C. United 2 (leg two)
RFK Stadium; Washington, D.C.
November 1, 2007
The Fire kept with the momentum gained in leg one, taking a 2-0 aggregate advantage in the 31st minute. From the right, Calen Carr’s ball over the United back line found Chad Barrett in stride who took one touch to settle before blasting past a helpless Perkins.
The series looked as good as done two minutes later when Carr headed down a bouncing ball for Blanco, who in turn headed into the box. All of the United defenders seemed caught in no-man’s land before Chris Rolfe popped up to volley past Perkins in the 33rd minute.
Going into the break down 3-0 on aggregate, United finally broke through in the 69th minute when Rod Dyachenko laid off a simple pass for Clyde Simms who ripped a low shot inside the left post.
Dyachenko would help on the game’s equalizer slotting a pass to Christian Gomez on the right before the Argentine fired a low effort that Matt Pickens got two hands to but was overpowered in the end.
Despite tying the match, United couldn’t connect another shot on goal, leaving the fourth seeded Fire with a huge upset and another appearance in the Eastern Conference final.
#2 New England Revolution 1, #4 Chicago Fire 0 – Conference Final
Gillette Stadium; Foxboro, Mass.
November 8, 2007
For the third straight year, the Chicago Fire would take on New England in the MLS postseason and went behind in the 38th minute when current Fire player Wells Thompson crossed to the middle for Taylor Twellman. The Revolution striker would out jump Dasan Robinson to nod the ball up in the air before finishing with a stunning bicycle kick to give New England the 1-0 lead.
In the 74th minute, Gonzalo Segares would run on to a bouncing ball outside the area, striking a long-distance effort that forced Reis into a diving save to his left.
In the 90th minute, Cuauhtemoc Blanco’s cross from left picked out the head of Calen Carr but the Fire forward’s low header was well corralled by Reis to send the Fire home one step away from MLS Cup again.
WATCH: 2007 Eastern Conference Final
It all comes down to Halloween. The Fire begin the quest for their second MLS Cup trophy on Wednesday, Oct. 31 when they welcome the Houston Dynamo to Toyota Park at 8:00 p.m. CT live on ESPN2, ESPN Deportes and 97.5 ESPN Deportes.
The Daily Herald’s Orrin Schwarz spoke with two Fire legends, Jesse Marsch and Evan Whitfield about what the Fire need to do to succeed in the playoffs.
“They’ve got to find a way to get some momentum going,” said Marsch, now head coach of the Montreal Impact.
One player who is on a hot streak is midfielder Patrick Nyarko, whose blast against D.C. United is up for MLS Goal of the Week.
Nyarko told MLSsoccer.com, “I’ve never been a shooter…I’ve never scored such a goal.”
His newfound confidence will be huge for the Fire in the playoffs. “I can try it from anywhere,” said Nyarko. “It gives the defense something else to think about.”
Sports Illustrated’s Avi Creditor broke down the MLS Cup Playoff field and gave reasons that the Fire will and won’t win the MLS Cup.
An integral part of the team’s success this season, the center back duo Arne Friedrich and Austin Berry sat down with RedEye to discuss the bond that they’ve formed.
The two defenders went head-to-head to see who knew the other best.
One familiar face Wednesday night will be former Fire forward Calen Carr, albeit now as a member of the Dynamo. Carr spoke to the Houston Chronicle about overcoming his recent concussion and what he remembered most fondly about his time with the Fire.
Jeff and Brendan checked back in from Toyota Park on Monday to discuss the Fire’s playoff history and Houston’s extra bit of rest heading into Wednesday’s Knockout match
After going all the way to MLS Cup 2003, the Fire missed the postseason for the first time in club history the following year, losing 2-1 on the final day of the regular season at New England. The team regrouped and finished third in the East the following season, setting up another first round clash with D.C. United…
#2 D.C. United vs. #3 Chicago Fire – Eastern Conference semi-finals (total goals)
Chicago Fire 0, D.C. United 0 (Game 1)
Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill.
October 21, 2005
In what would be the club’s final competitive match at Soldier Field, the Fire had the better of the play, outshooting D.C. 8-4 and holding United without a shot on goal.
In turn though, United played strategically, just trying to leave Chicago without a blemish and conceded only two shots on goal, both from Chris Rolfe in the 58th minute.
WATCH: Chicago Fire 4, D.C. United EC (Semi-final Leg 2)
United would get their wish, earning a 0-0 draw and leaving all to play for at RFK Stadium for the second leg nine days later.
Chicago Fire 4, D.C. United 0 (Game 2)
Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill.
October 30, 2005
United’s plan for the series would backfire early on in Game #2 when Thiago’s corner from left bounced through the six yard box to find Jack Stewart streaking in at the back post. The then-Fire rookie would tally one of only two goals in a Fire shirt, sneaking his header past Doug Warren in the 10th minute.
Just before the half, another Fire rookie would help make his mark. This time Chris Rolfe danced into the box on the left and chipped in a cross from the end line before Brandon Prideaux headed away. The ball fell perfectly for Ivan Guerrero and the club’s 2005 MVP buried his left footed effort in the 37th minute.
Guerrero would show why he earned the award deep into first half stoppage time. Again Rolfe danced like a ballerina on the ball just outside the area before laying back for Guerrero who hit first-time blast that left Warren flat-footed as the ball sailed inside the left post.
#1 New England Revolution 1, #3 Chicago Fire 0 – Eastern Conference Final
Gillette Stadium; Foxboro, Mass.
November 6, 2005
The Fire and Revolution would begin a five-year consecutive streak of postseason meetings with the Eastern Conference final at Gillette and once again an early goal would play the part.
The Revs would go up 1-0 in the fourth minute when Daniel Henandez’s ball over the top found Shalrie Joseph in the box on the right. The veteran midfielder hit a low effort towards the back post which connected with Clint Dempsey sliding through to give New England the lead.
A chippy first half made things difficult for either team to find the goal but Jack Stewart provided the best effort in the 45th minute when he ran through midfield before unleashing a low shot that just went wide of the right post.
The Fire came close again in the 63rd minute as Ivan Guerrero collected the ball on the left before cutting inside and hitting a blistering right-footed effort that Matt Reis punched away at the far post.
A minute later Chad Barrett and Thiago played a quick combination which saw the Brazilian blast a drive towards the left post that Reis did well to hang on to.
A number of dangerous crosses and displays of Reis rolling on the ground later, the Fire found themselves with an apparent equalizer in stoppage time when Thiago’s forward ball out of midfield found Gonzalo Segares in stride and saw the rookie defender tap the ball past Reis and into the net.
Stepping out of the goal, Segares’ immediate joy turned to disbelief as linesman George Gansner held his flag up on the sideline resulting in a number of Fire players to crowd him. In the melee, Segares’ fellow countryman Andy Herron was red carded for dissent, effectively ending the Fire’s chances of sending the match to overtime.
The replay would vindicate Gansner’s call, showing Segares was just a shade past the Revolution backline when Thiago hit the ball, leaving the team to rue a missed opportunity at a fourth MLS Cup appearance in eight years.
WATCH: 2005 Eastern Conference Final
#1 Chicago Fire vs. #4 D.C. United – Eastern Conference semi-finals (total goals)
Chicago Fire 2, D.C. United 0 (Game 1)
RFK Stadium; Washington, D.C.
November 1, 2003
Coming off a regular season in which the team finally fulfilled winning a Supporter’s Shield, the Fire traveled to D.C. to open up its first two-game aggregate playoff series with United at RFK Stadium.
From the first whistle the Fire never seemed to break much of a sweat and went ahead in the fourth minute when a headed clearance from a United defender fell for midfielder Andy Williams 25 yards from goal. The Jamaican international took the ball on the half-volley and one-timed his right-footed effort past Doug Warren and inside the left post.
WATCH: 2003 MLS Cup Playoff Run
In control throughout, the Fire frustrated United throughout the match and saw former players Hristo Stoitchkov and Dema Kovalenko pick up yellow cards for dissent and bringing the game into disrepute.
Holding a 1-0 lead late, the Fire would take a 2-0 lead back to Soldier Field when Zach Thornton’s clearance was flicked on by Nate Jaqua into the path of Ante Razov. The Fire’s all-time leading goal scorer calmly chipped the ball over the onrushing Warren in the 94th minute.
Chicago Fire 2, D.C. United 0 (Game 2)
Soldier Field; Chicago, Ill.
November 9, 2003
With D.C. needing two goals just to force extra time, the Fire again imposed their superiority in this match, putting United in the coffin with another early strike.
This time it was Willliams’ countryman and 2003 Rookie of the Year Damani Ralph, who after a quick combination with Chris Armas outside the box, unleashed another long range blast, this time to the right of Warren, to give the Fire a 1-0 lead in the 17th minute.
The Fire would finish of United just after halftime when DaMarcus Beasley’s cross from left bounced in the area before finding Razov who headed it back across goal for his second of the series, moving the team to the Eastern Conference final with a 4-0 aggregate victory.
#1 Chicago Fire 1, #2 New England Revolution 0 (asdet) - Eastern Conference Final
Soldier Field; Chicago, Ill.
November 14, 2003
Outshooting New England 20-7, the Fire clearly dominated the match from start to finish but a goal in regulation would elude the team at home.
Into extra time, it would be no one else but Chris Armas to provide the winner. Evan Whitfield worked his way up the right before pushing the ball to Justin Mapp at the endline.
The young winger centered a low cross that Ralph muffed before Armas tucked the ball in from close range, sending Soldier Field into pandemonium and the Fire back to MLS Cup for the third time in six seasons.
San Jose Earthquakes 4, Chicago Fire 2 – MLS Cup 2003
The Home Depot Center; Carson; Calif
November 14, 2009
The Fire pipped San Jose for the Supporters Shield during the regular season but it would be the Earthquakes that had the last laugh as they won their second MLS Cup in three seasons.
San Jose take the advantage as Ronnie Ekelund’s fifth minute free kick and Landon Donovan’s 39th minute finish took the Earthquakes into the break up 2-0.
After halftime, Andy Williams would feed DaMarcus Beasley into the box on the left and the young Fire winger tucked his effort inside the near post to cut the lead in half in the 49th minute.
Just as it looked like the Fire had momentum, San Jose would restore their two goal lead a minute later when Richard Mulrooney caught the backline sleeping after the goal.
The Fire would get some help back from the Earthquakes in the 54th minute when Chris Roner headed the ball into his own net.
Just two minutes later, Damani Ralph broke into the box on the left before being hauled down by Roner, forcing referee Brian Hall to point to the spot.
Despite battling sickness throughout the week, Fire leading striker Ante Razov stepped up to take the spot kick but was denied when his effort was denied by Pat Onstad’s dive to the right.
With the missed opportunity, momentum seemed to shift back in San Jose’s favor and as the Fire pushed for the equalizer, it would be Donovan who would put the game away with his second goal in the 71st minute.
As we get set to complete yet another regular season, it donned on me yesterday to look back at this masterpiece that Fire defender Dan Gargan captured and put together with the help of MLS videographers Scott Riddell and Albert Lanzillo.
Shot throughout preseason and the team’s opening day 1-1 draw at Montreal’s nearly sold-out Olympic Stadium, Dan’s video showcased the preparation and work the team went through to get to that very monumental game back in March.
Looking back on it now, one of the most striking things is seeing how much the Fire have changed since January as you see a number of faces that are no longer with the club while also being reminded of just how many new faces have been added over the course of the year.
More than that though, this beautiful video reminds me as a fan and a writer of the cautious optimism we all had going into the year. Back then, if you’d have told Fire fans that had experienced the previous two years the team would be playing for second place in the East on the final day of the, everyone would have taken it.
Flash forward to today and that’s exactly where we are and yet we know the opportunities were there to go even higher.
Still, today the Fire play arguably the most important game at Toyota Park since the last time the team was in the postseason.
And so, re-watching this inspiring video is special to me for multiple reasons, but the most important is that it serves to remind how far this team has come in the three years I’ve been here but also the hard work that was put it back in January to get to this point.
Before heading out to Toyota Park today, take 2 minutes and 23 seconds out of your regular pre-game ritual, watch this video, and soak in how far this team has come in 2012.
It all comes down to Saturday. With one game remaining in the 2012 MLS Regular Season, the Fire host D.C. United Saturday, Oct. 27 at 3:00 p.m. CT (NBC Sports Network), the meat of the tripleheader sandwich.
While the Fire have clinched a spot in the post season, Saturday’s match is crucial for seeding purposes. With a victory, the Men in Red, currently in third place, will take sole possession of second place. With a loss, the Fire could find themselves as low as fifth place.
Though two-time German World Cup veteran Arne Friedrich is experiencing playoff soccer for the first time in his career, he understands the implications of Saturday’s match.
“Our one goal is to win the game,” said Friedrich.
One of the keys to victory for the Fire will be making sure to get the ball to forward Chris Rolfe. With teams now choosing to man-mark Rolfe, he told MLSsoccer.com that “It’s been a little bit more of a challenge finding the ball.”
Another key storyline for Saturday will be the battle between the Fire’s Austin Berry and D.C. United’s Nick DeLeon, two of the front-runners for the Rookie of the Year race. The former college teammates have been enjoying the campaigns put together by their respective clubs.
“I was dying laughing,” said Berry about D.C. United’s video in which DeLeon says, “I eat defenders for breakfast.”
Berry and his centerback partner Arne Friedrich both made Brian Straus and the Sporting News’ short list for the highly-anticipated year end awards.
With both head coach Frank Klopas and striker Sherjill MacDonald imploring fans to get in the stands early Saturday, ‘keeper Sean Johnson stopped by WGN Wednesday morning to discuss the importance of home field advantage at Toyota Park, so make sure to get in early and spur your Men in Red on to victory.