Season Recap: March and April
It’s funny to hear fans talk about how a wait until March for the start of the next Fire season seems so far away. It’s humorous because for the players, coaches and my lucky self, the season begins with what turns out to be a grueling seven weeks of preseason training camp stretching from mid-January to March.
I can’t complain too much though. Over the past two years I’ve had the chance to see the different incarnations of the Fire from their training session. The nicest thing about this year’s first go down in Ave Maria, Fla., was seeing the high number of returning faces from the end of 2011. It seemed far from the opposite as the team gathered just a year earlier.
Similar to 2011 though, the Fire broke up preseason camp into three stages, the first coming in Ave Maria and New Orleans, the second in Ventura, Calif., and third at the Carolina Challenge Cup in Charleston, S.C. While the first team was scheduled to play nine matches, they only got in eight as the Carolina Challenge Cup finale vs. the Charleston Battery on Saturday, March 3 was cancelled due to a water logged pitch. Less than two weeks away from the team’s first game, the cancelation didn’t deter Fire fitness coach Tony Jouaux from holding an impromptu training session in one of the hotel banquet rooms that night…
While 18 MLS sides kicked off the 2012 season the second week of March, the Fire sat idle in the league, instead using goals from Dominic Oduro, Daniel Paladini and Orr Barouch to earn a 3-1 friendly victory over the NASL’s Minnesota Stars on March 9.
Days before the Fire kicked off 2012, the team dropped a bomb on the rest of Major League Soccer when it announced the signing of two-time German World Cup defender Arne Friedrich. Though he wouldn’t be ready for First Kick on March 17, the signing was widely welcomed by the club’s supporters.
The match was played at the Toyota Park turf field to prepare the Fire for their First Kick match eight days later, a game that would be a monumental task as they played visitor to the Montreal Impact and 58,912 fans for their first MLS home game to be played at the historic Olympic Stadium. The 80+ Fire fans in attendance would see Montreal’s Davy Arnaud and Oduro trade second half goals and the best performance of the day come from debutant goalkeeper Paolo Tornaghi (who stood in for Sean Johnson while away on Olympic qualifying duty) to help the Fire earn a 1-1 draw.
A week later the Fire would host the club’s earliest-ever home match, welcoming the Philadelphia Union to Toyota Park on March 24. Oduro would head home a Marco Pappa cross in the 24th minute and the Fire continued to pepper Union ‘keeper Zac MacMath but would have to settle for a 1-0 home opening victory.
Traveling to Colorado on April Fool’s Day, Frank Klopas’ side played tactically to keep the match scoreless through halftime. Despite playing tight through nearly the first hour, the Fire came undone in the 58th minute when Omar Cummings finished past Tornaghi. Pushing forward for the equalizer, the Fire would get caught out late as Tornaghi gave up a rebound and Kamani Hill finished from close range, sending the Men in Red to their first defeat of 2012.
Perhaps more devastating than the loss was the news that came afterwards: 2011 Fire Defender of the Year Cory Gibbs tore his meniscus in the game and following surgery was pronounced to be out for four to six months. The injury would be a major blow to the Fire early on but luckily with another bye week, Arne Friedrich was declared fit to play on April 15 vs. Houston.
With severe weather in the vicinity of Toyota Park, the teams would only get in 13 minutes of play before referee Geoff Gamble postponed the match for 70 minutes as the lightning passed.
When they came back from the break, the Dynamo would get on the board in the 24th minute as Brian Ching slotted Will Bruin through before the second-year forward slotted past Sean Johnson. The Fire would sort of comically pull things level three minutes later when Pavel Pardo’s free kick deflected off the back of Logan Pause, who was ducking next to the wall, only to loop over the head of Dynamo ‘keeper Tally Hall and into the back of the net.
The game would be halted and ultimately ended as a 1-1 draw in the 66th minute as lightning returned and left little sign of leaving on the night., leaving the veteran debutant Friedrich to say after the match, “I have never seen a game called off before it was complete before.”
The next day, the Fire would announce another big early-season signing as Chris Rolfe returned to the club after two and a half years with Danish side Aalborg BK. The news broke while Rolfe was flying over Greenland allowing a number of fans to greet the club’s second all-time leading goal scorer upon his arrival at O’Hare that afternoon.
Overjoyed to be back, Rolfe was in form and ready to play but would experience a setback the second day of training when he rolled his ankle on a routine play. The sprain would force Rolfe out until early June and force the team to go to Toronto that weekend without its newest signing.
Approximately 100 Fire supporters made the trek to Ontario on April 21 and witnessed club history when Patrick Nyarko dispossessed Torsten Frings at the back and slid the ball to his onrushing countryman Oduro, who slotted home at the 25 second mark, earning the fastest goal in Fire history.
Despite the early goal, the team would go down 2-1 after Toronto’s Reggie Lambe scored a brace in the 36th and 40th minutes. The lead wouldn’t last long however as Gonzalo Segares redirected Sebastian Grazzini’s free kick past Milos Kocic in the 41st to take the teams into the break level at 2-2. The Fire would earn their first away victory of the season however when the team’s Ghanaian tandem would catch Toronto on the counter attack, leading to Nyarko’s 58th minute game winner.
Frank Klopas’ side would close out the month of April by welcoming Seattle Sounders FC to Toyota Park in a rematch of the 2011 U.S. Open Cup Final on April 28. Despite threatening in the early going, Seattle would take a 2-0 advantage behind an unfortunate own goal from Friedrich and an Eddie Johnson strike. After coming on in the 61st minute, Marco Pappa would provide the Fire with a few chances but wouldn’t convert until bending his 89th minute corner kick past Seattle ‘keeper Michael Gspurning and into goal.
The beautiful strike gave the Fire some hope and Jalil Anibaba received a half chance late but hit his effort straight to Gspurning giving Seattle the three points. A tussle would break out following the final whistle resulting in Anibaba being given a red card and Frank Klopas being “dismissed” from the match in the post-game report.
The Fire would close out the first month and a half of the season with at 2-2-2.
Check back Thursday for a recap of May and June…