Following two weeks of rigorous two-a-day training sessions the Chicago Fire played their first competitive fixtures of 2010 Monday afternoon at Arizona State University Women's Soccer Stadium in Mesa. The Fire earned back-to-back victories, by defeating the USSF Second Division's Vancouver Whitecaps 4-1, before besting local side Arizona Sahauros, 1-0.
The two matches were played with different starting lineups, giving head coach Carlos de los Cobos a chance to look at a number of different signed players, draftees and trialists, as he begins to work toward filling out the club's 24-man roster for 2010.
The Fire put out a side of mostly trialists and reserve players in the first match against Vancouver. Headlining the starting eleven in the first match was former Fulham striker Collins John who needed just 17 minutes to open his preseason account.
Taking advantage of a poor clearance out of the back, trialist Jaao Baptista found the opportunistic Dutchman at the left side of the penalty area. John slotted the ball towards the right post, beating Whitecaps goalkeeper Dan Pelc.
In the 36th minute, it was a case of John being in the right place at the right time. Following rookie Drew Yates' deflected shot, John took a first-time half volley from inside the penalty area, that slotted into the corner netting, giving the Fire a 2-0 lead just before the half.
Just two minutes later, last year's USL First Division finalists cut the lead in half after Fire trialist Izzy Iriekpen committed a foul in the penalty area, resulting in a converted penalty kick from new Whitecaps signing Ricardo Sanchez. The forty minute interval ended with the Fire ahead 2-1.
"It was a high intensity game for a preseason match," said John. "You could tell it was an early season match because our touches and movement weren't where they should be. Overall though, we were just a bit stronger and I thought I did well today with two good strikes."
De los Cobos made three changes at the half, most notably replacing the John with striker Stefan Dimitrov. Looking to equal the European veteran's performance, the former Bulgarian youth international opened his preseason account ten minutes past the interval.
It was Yates again providing the help. After receiving a long ball from Calen Carr, the Maryland product laid off a square ball at the top of the 18 for Dimitrov, who struck it first time past Pelc to make it 3-1. Eight minutes later, the Fire saw another trialist make an impression. Mark Blades received a long ball out of the back and crossed for Dimitrov, whose header to the far post put the game out of reach at 4-1 in the 58th minute.
"Preseason is always tough," said Dimitrov. "There's always a lot of work going on, but I'm enthused about my performance today and just looking forward to continuing preparation for the season."
In the second match of the double bill, the more veteran side controlled possession against the host Arizona Sahauros but failed to mirror the margin of victory put up by their teammates in the first match, coming away with a 1-0 victory.
The star of the match for the Fire was Marco Pappa, whose speed and presence on the left wing gave Arizona trouble in the first half. The Guatemalan international swirled a corner kick into the box on 20 minutes, finding Brian McBride, who headed the ball off the crossbar.
Fifteen minutes later, Pappa picked up a loose ball and was chopped down inside the penalty area, giving the Fire a penalty kick in the 35th minute. Veteran midfielder John Thorrington stepped up and converted the spot kick past Sahauros goalkeeper Brad Swenby.
Making only one change in the second half, the heat became an issue for the Fire players who went into a more defensive mode, looking to work in possession and slow down the tempo of the match. A solid defensive contribution in this effort came from rookie draftee Steven Kinney, who partnered in central defense with veterans Wilman Conde in the first half and C.J. Brown in the second.
"I think I played all right today," said the humble center back. "It was good to be out there with most of the veteran guys and we're looking forward to working on what we learned from both matches today going forward."
Though Fire goalkeeper Jon Busch did not have much to do in the first half, he was called on to make a couple of crucial saves in the second half to preserve the shutout victory.
"Overall we're very happy with the performances and results today," said Fire Technical Director Frank Klopas. "We saw some of the things we've been working on displayed, specifically moving the ball quickly and keeping possession. We took our chances in front of goal well today and so we're content with the outcome."
The Fire will continue training in Phoenix until Thursday, when they'll return to Chicago for a few days before leaving for Guadalajara, Mexico for the second leg of their 2010 preseason tour.