While Freddie Ljungberg prepared to return to Seattle last week, two rookies readied themselves for the cauldron of sound they would experience as they took to Qwest Field.
Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson and defender Steven Kinney lined up in front of a crowd of over 36,000 boisterous Sounders FC supporters last Saturday night – a number neither first-year player had come close to appearing in front of, having only 10 MLS games between them.
“We never had a crowd like that at Elon [University],” said Kinney about his small alma mater in North Carolina. “It was a tremendous atmosphere – sort of a dream to play in front of a crowd like that.”
Johnson echoed his backliner’s sentiment.
“It’s one of the things you dream of experiencing when you become a professional,” said the Generation adidas keeper. “At the same time, playing in front of that many people, in that atmosphere, is difficult. It becomes tough to communicate – but it’s an experience that makes you a better player in the long run.”
The sides exchanged first half blows with John Thorrington’s 28th minute penalty kick and Fredy Montero’s 36th minute response taking the teams into the half knotted at 1-1.
Considering the noise, both rookies had strong performances in the match and as the game closed, it looked liked the visitors would earn a valuable road point, until Nathan Sturgis’ whipping cross from the right found Montero at the back post in the 92nd minute, giving Seattle all three points from the match.
As the ball hit the back of the net, both rookies knew they could be shouldering some of the responsibility.
Kinney pulled away from Montero electing to mark second half substitute Steve Zakuani – the only problem, Baggio Husidic seemed to have the mark covered as the Colombian striker stood alone at the back post.
“The second goal came from my side of the field,” said Kinney. “Baggio and I tried to switch off at the back post and communication kind of broke down there at the end.”
Heat also could be directed at goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who seemed to be playing a few steps two deep, a result of the backline’s lax defensive posture late in the match.
“I think if I’m higher off my line I could have come for the ball,” said Johnson. I talked to [goalkeeping coach] Aron [Hyde] about it. At the end of the day we have to be more focused for the 90 plus minutes that we’re playing.”
Passing blame on the rookies isn’t fair though. Like mentioned above, it seemed the backline was playing far too deep, allowing Seattle’s attackers to set up shop in the Fire 18 during the match’s dying moments.
“We take wins as a team and we take losses as a team. This was a team loss,” said Johnson.
Though far from being out of the MLS Cup playoff picture, the club’s two most recent losses, both in the dying moments of away matches, have put the side in an undesirable position as league-leading LA Galaxy visit Toyota Park on Saturday afternoon.
The hosts can take solace in the fact that LA has stumbled of late as well, dropping their last two games and going 1-3-1 in their last five, including a 3-2 loss to the Fire at The Home Depot Center on August 1.
It was that match that Johnson received his first career regular season start for the club, putting in a dominant performance while making a number of key saves to preserve three road points.
“Saturday is a completely different game. I think that game is in the past and we can be happy with earning the result on the road. I’ll benefit from having seen their players and their tendencies but otherwise it’s just different. LA’s kind of on the same streak we are right now, they don’t want to lose three in a row so they’ll be motivated.”
Set to make his second consecutive start, Kinney agreed with his goalkeeper, while highlighting the need for more offensive production. It’s a task that won’t be easy as both Freddie Ljungberg (suspension) and Marco Pappa (international duty) will be missing in the attack.
“We just have to come with it all. We need to get more numbers forward and create more than we have. The second half against Seattle, I don’t think we had a shot on net aside from Collins’ [John] header. We have to push forward and at critical moments of the game we need to step up and shut them down.”
Saturday’s loss combined with other league results dropped the Fire to fifth place in the East and 11th overall in the league. The team currently sits five points out of the league’s final playoff spot, but are still in decent shape with two games in hand on most teams.
Now officially two-thirds of the way through the season, Johnson thinks time is of the essence if the club is going to make a playoff push.
“We need to be prepared to play our best game on Saturday or else we’re going to end up on the wrong side of the result. At this point in the season, we can’t really afford to give up many more points, especially at home. We have to look at Saturday as a game we can manage and come away with three points.”
Jeff Crandall is the Staff Writer for the Chicago Fire. You can follow him on Twitter @JefeCrandall