Fire fall victim to penalties: Salt Lake moves onto the MLS Cup

Eastern Conference Championship - Real Salt Lake v Chicago Fire

A common saying amongst those in the soccer world is that a penalty kick shootout is a cruel way to decide a match.

After Saturday night, the Chicago Fire knows that saying back to front.

120 minutes of action saw the Fire and Real Salt Lake knotted at 0-0 so it all came down to a penalty shootout. The Fire came up losers in the decisive shootout, falling by the razor thin margin of 5-4 to put a painful end to a season filled with ups and downs.

"It's a real empty feeling and that's the bottom line," said Fire Head Coach Denis Hamlett. "There's not really much you can say. [Our guys] put everything out there and competed and tried. When you get to PK's someone's got to lose and when you lose it's not an easy thing." The Fire held the early advantage in the penalty shootout, seeing their lead get to 3-2 after the third round of spot kicks. But John Thorrington had his effort saved by a diving Nick Rimando and it started to go downhill from there for the Fire. Salt Lake captain Kyle Beckerman was next in line and he put his effort past Jon Busch to make it 4-3 RSL.

C.J. Brown prolonged the shootout for the Fire with his calm finish after Beckerman's goal but Logan Pause and Brandon Prideaux missed the Fire's next two kicks and it came back to haunt the team. Lincolnway Central product Ned Grabavoy got the winner in the seventh round of shots, beating Fire keeper Jon Busch (who actually got a hand on the ball) to the left.

"It feels good," said Grabavoy of scoring the winner. "Especially to do it in front of a lot of friends and family in a place I grew up, in a place that's close to my heart, it definitely feels good. I'm excited and our club is very excited. This is a big moment for Real Salt Lake."

The Fire - who planned on starting the game in aggressive fashion - struggled a bit out of the gate. Salt Lake dominated the early possession and spent much of the first half on the Fire's side of the field.

"We weren't good enough with the ball the first half," Hamlett said. "We made too many turnovers which lead to some of their counters some of their chances."

But despite their early struggles, it was the Fire who had the first real chance of the match. The opportunity came in the 27th minute of play, when Brian McBride flicked a Cuauhtemoc Blanco corner kick off of the crossbar. The ball rebounded down past a charging C.J. Brown and fell to Fire defender Dasan Robinson who had a good look at goal but couldn't quite corral his first touch, ending the Fire's chance.

Real Salt Lake had the next opportunity in the match and it looked like they would go ahead just before the stroke of halftime. But Jon Busch came up huge, stopping Yura Movsisyan's thunderous half volley from 10 yards in between his legs to take the teams into the break.

The Fire came out stronger in the second half and got the second frame's first opportunity in the 64th minute of play. Fire midfielder Marco Pappa fired a low drive towards the right post but Nick Rimando miraculously got a fingertip to it and deflected the ball away from the net.

"In the second half we settled down a little bit," Hamlett said. "We looked to try and make some passes connect and get the ball out wide and we had some success."
No real chances of note came until stoppage time of the second half, when Real Salt Lake looked to have a winner before the ball was cleared off the line by a Fire defender.

After a short break at the end of 90 minutes, extra time began. Both teams played somewhat conservatively in the rough and tumble extra period, with neither able to create any real chances of note before the decisive penalty shootout began.

After the game, Hamlett talked about how he felt about referee Ricardo Salazar's performance.

"The foul count was 23-8 [in favor of Salt Lake]," Hamlett said. "It felt like every time that we had a chance to go on the break they committed fouls and I don't think the ref did a good enough job in terms of dealing with that part of [the game]."

The loss catapults the Fire into an offseason of uncertainty in which they'll lose Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Chris Rolfe to transfers and Brandon Prideaux to retirement.

Other Fire players out of contract include Brian McBride, C.J. Brown, Gonzalo Segares and Marco Pappa. Though not out of contract, defender Wilman Conde could also be leaving the Fire in the offseason. Conde has at times been at odds with Head Coach Denis Hamlett throughout the center back's time with the Fire and I wouldn't be surprised if he wasn't in Bridgeview at the start of 2010.

Another issue the Fire will have to confront this offseason is the Head Coach position. Current head man Denis Hamlett is now out of contract and many will be calling for owner Andrew Hauptman to fire Hamlett and move on. A strong case can certainly be made for (two straight conference finals) and against Denis (failure to make MLS Cup with a very talented roster) but my gut feeling tells me that he'll be back next year.

I'll deal with all of these topics and more in the coming days/weeks but tonight is about the disappointment that was the end of the Fire's season. They'll try and pick up the pieces and move into 2010 on a positive note but it could be a much different year - and a much different team - in Bridgeview come March.

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  • We all knew that this was going to happen. Deep in our guts. No one wanted to say it, but we could all feel it. We knew Real was a better, star studded, well-coached team. But this was our last chance. For glory. For an actual championship. Now we're going to lose all of the wrong players due to inept management. No Pappa. No Blanco. No Rolfe. No Conde. No Segares. No McBride. We should be losing Hamlett. And I'd like to go far enough to say that if we had Baky, we would be in the finals and the first seed. Here's the starting lineup for next year as of now.
    Keeper: Jon Busch, who failed to have any effect at all on the shootout.
    Defenders: Austin Washington, Tim Ward, Dasan Robinson, David Woolard-none of the starters except Ward from the start of the season when the Fire was a favorite.Robinson played weakly last night and so did Woolard. RSL should have scored a few times if it weren't for Busch making a few decent saves.
    Midfield: Mapp, Thor, Pause, Banner-Just absolutely terrible.
    Strikers: Patrick Nyarko and Calen Carr or something--key phrase: or something. That's how much Fire management has DESTROYED this team. we have no idea who our other striker will even be! Dimitrov? Carr? Who? This is it. We'll be in the tank for the next few years. This was our last chance. And we hoped, desperately hoped, that it would all come together finally and we could win a championship. But Hamlett messed everything up, and now it's all over.

  • In reply to patrickhattrick:

    It is completely ridiculous to predict a starting lineup for 2010 until the deparitng players have been replaced. These kinds of comments are worthless until Klopas gets a chance to do his job in the off-season.

  • In reply to patrickhattrick:

    Couldn't agree more. When you have Logan Pause as your 6th shooter in a shootout you have no chance. I remember in the first half when the ball came rolling out to Prideux 25 yrds out and that was when Ward would rip a shot. I had a flashback and thats when I realized we are not going to win this game. I didnt say anything because I wanted to be in the final so bad this year. I have this terrible fear that we will lose all these players but not the "coach." It seems like all the good teams in the MLS have a player that is too good for this league. LA has Donovan. RSL has Beckerman. He played really well last night and controlled the game. He is what Pause needs to be. That game last night was screaming for a counter attack goal but we had BMB and Blanco up top so it was never going to come. When "The menace" brought on Mapp he just handed the match to RSL and said we dont want it. Mapp is not a game changer. He is a role player.

    Now we have to worry about the expansion draft and who were going to save and not save. Do we have to save BMB even without a contract? What about Pappa or is he on a flight back to Guatemala? These are all decisions I want Klopas and The Menace to have no say in...

  • In reply to Rubberbandman189:

    Does it really matter who we are going to save and who we aren't? This team doesn't have any players worth drafting that we aren't going to lose anyway. I am confused about the status of BMB, though. Can we save him or do we have to sign him first? I don't think they can draft Marco, he was on loan anyways. But I just realized something for 2010: no more people coming, because no more Blanco. I hope we get a good DP, I won't miss Temo.

  • In reply to Rubberbandman189:

    Please please, get us a coach, and players who can have some attitude when it comes to kicking penalty kicks!!! That's two games big games now that we have lost because of PK's. They were weak as well, the ones blocked from Pause and Prideux. Too bad we subbed out some of our better PK's in Rolfe and Pappa. Who does the subbing here?

  • In reply to Rubberbandman189:

    I don't want to see any more Logan Pause defenders......ever.

    Prideaux.....nice way to end your career.

    I have an idea....let's all try to shoot our PK's into the same exact spot................

  • In reply to Rubberbandman189:

    Sam, I'm not sure why the Fire would keep Denis, yes he's made two straight appearances to the Eastern Finals with what most think were very talented squads. The result was the exact same both times.

    Denis was handed a good team capable of winning trophies and instead he royally screwed it up by not controlling his locker room, mismatching players' strengths with his lienups, playing not to lose at home all year, among other grievances.

    If Denis can't win a single trophy with the '08 or '09 teams and was also unable to reach MLS Cup with those rosters, what in the world will he do with club entering a rebuilding year?

    Now, from Denis' point of view this may be as high as his stock will ever be as a head coach. This may be the absolute best time for him to capitalize on his two appearances to the Eastern Finals for a potential payday . . . before some poor sucker realizes they overpaid for Denis and that the Fire actually compensated him fairly.

    Hurry Denis, your payday awaits!!!!

  • In reply to Rubberbandman189:

    Last night's game showed the Fire's weaknesses. We don't counterattack very well, we depend a lot on our defense to intiate the offense, we get pushed around eassily,our formations seem odd, and we don't finish well. We had plenty of chances and we could just as easily be writing today how great the Fire played if they had taken advantage of the chances. Unfortunately, they didn't.

    Given the number of injuries this year, I thought Hamlett did a pretty decent job. I've got some questions on the Soumare incident,some substitition issues over the course of the year,the overdependence on allowing Busch to kick every ball long, choosing Pause and Prideax to shoot the penaly kicks, and the mismanagement of Conde. But the entire back line was different than earlier in the year and we made it to the semi-finals. Considering the injuries, overall he did fairly well in managing the season.

    Next year looks rough, no question about it. I'm not sure what the Fire's reasoning is with respect to signings, or lack thereof. Sam, can you give us any insight into their plans or a philosphy on new players, assuming they have one?

  • In reply to billj:

    I plan on posting something on that topic later on this week. I definitely plan on keeping you guys posted on all of that stuff throughout the offseason though.

  • In reply to billj:

    It sure sounds like a lot of negative things and no positive. The only thing he did right this year was move Mapp to the bench. It only took him a year and a half to figure that out. In a game that was made for a counter attacking goal, he left our slowest players on and took off the players that are game changers in Pappa and Rolfe. The Menace needs to go yesterday. Its a shame that we will never see a team this talented in Chicago for a long long time...

  • In reply to Rubberbandman189:

    With all the injuries we had what moves did Denis make this year? He let go of Noble in favor of Dykstra after Nick's horrendous showing in a friendly and signed a Costa Rican defender that was never going to play this year per his own words. So in reality we signed one backup GK.

    Yes, Denis did a decent job. A decent job of not winning anything in his two years with some of the best talent in the league.

    Even Sarachan won a trophy, our last big win at Toyota Park to be exact. How crappy is that to admit Dave was our last winner?

    Yuck.

  • same here...The first step they can take to getting actual loyal customers back is to fire Hamlett.

  • If we dont renew, do they ask why? If they do we should just give them a one word answer and that would be "Hamlett..."

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