The sign of a good team is it's ability to persevere and bouce back from adversity. Quality teams maintain a positive and level approach through good stretches and bad. Much of the conversation surrounding the 2011 Fire has centered around the improved mental attitude of the team, a renewed unity and focus, and early results proved positive.
After an unsuccesful two game Pacific Northwest trip, the 2011 Chicago Fire faces it's first big challenge of the season. A disastrous 4-2 loss in Portland where just about everything that could go wrong did will provide a character test for a team that now finds itself in need of a win at home on Sunday in order to avoid losing three consecutive matches.
The Portland match exposed every possible weakness after a putrid first fifty minutes of play saw the home side ahead by a 3-0 score. Shaky goalkeeping, unorganized and scattered defensive play, along with ineffective midfield play which failed to maintain possesion or successfully string together more than two or three passes were all on display for a national audience to witness. Some of the issues may have had something do with the downpour and wet pitch, but the Timbers managed to play on the same field and adjusted to it. The Fire were simply outplayed in the first half by an expansion side whose confidence grew after scoring the opening goal.
Despite the deficit, the team managed to maintain it's composure and battled back to within one goal before a dubious missed handball call resulted in Portland's clincher. This may bode well for the "fight" inherent in the attitude of the current team but other aspects of this match certainly do not offer reasons for optimism unless improvements are made immediately.
Sean Johnson continues his early season struggles after an impressive rookie campaign. It's sometimes easy to forget that Johnson is still a 21 year old keeper and there will be growing pains as he gains experience but errors such as the bobble which led to the third goal and his apparent uneasiness with every ball in the air are mistakes and issues that a team battling for it's playoff life cannot afford.
It may not yet be time to call for the insertion of Jon Conway into the line up but it's an issue the coaching staff must seriously address sooner rather than later.
Defensively there is ample room for improvement as well. Rookie right back Jalil Anibaba is learning that mistakes and lack of discipline will cost you at the MLS level. Too often in the last two matches Anibaba has found himself either beaten 1v1 or out of position altogether. The UNC product has a huge upside but like Johnson, there will be some learning on the job that will have to be tolerated. That learning process seemed to be much more fluid with Josip Mikulic in central defense covering for Anibaba. The drop off in quality after Mikulic is pretty substantial and has been painfully evident during the last two matches.
Logan Pause and Mike Videira are an adeqaute central pairing but the Fire still lack the type of central midfielder who can impose his standard of play into a match. The Fire were dominated in midfield for long stetches of both first halves in Seattle and Portland. TThis was particularly disappointnig against the Timbers whose midfield isn't exactly one of the best in MLS by any stretch. The team doesn't necessarily need a true #10 but rather a box to box midfielder who will force opposing defenses to respect his ability to get forward or make a pass that will allow freedom for Patrick Nyarko and Marco Pappa.
GK Sean Johnson (3) - Started the game impressively with a diving save to deny Steve Purdy in the 10th minute but it was all down hill from there. One minute after that save he was rescued by another dubious call disallowing a Portland goal after Johnson reacted late to a corner kick opportunity. Charged out on Perlaza's first goal only to run into his own defender. Portland's third goal was a result of Johnson mishandling a low badly hit cross for the second time this season and put the team into a huge hole. Easily his worst outing in a Fire kit. Johnson must get in gear quickly in order to maintain the confidence he has earned within the side.
D Jalil Anibaba (4) - Appears to be lost at times without Mikulic behind him, tending to float into the middle of the pitch unnecessarily. Managed to lose Alhassan twice within minutes in the second half resulting in two dangerous chances.
D Cory Gibbs (4) - Beaten often by Cooper on the dribble and up the pitch. Gibbs was actually down on the attacking half of the field with an injury and could not get back to help defend Portland's first score. He re-entered the match shortly thereafter with a bandage on his head.
D Dasan Robinson (4) - Credited with an own goal on Portland's fourth score but that had more to do with a blown call than anything else. Robinson may be an adequate fill in at center back but he lacks the size, pace, and quality to play and contribute against the better attackers in MLS.
D Gonzalo Segares (5) - Appeared to be the only defender who actually wanted to defend. Picked up a yellow card for a tackle on Cooper in the 16th minute after the Timber's forward basically ran around free to do whatever he liked early on.
M Logan Pause (4) - Beaten by Perlaza and turned around only to run into Sean Johnson for the first Portland score. Pause is an excellent team defender but his lack of pace is exposed when having to defend an attacker such as Perlaza 1v1.
M Mike Videira (4) - Portland controlled the ball at will in the first half and the Fire could do little more than scramble to defend after numerous bad pass attempts such as Videira's effort in the 19th minute which was sent directly out of play intended for no one in particular. Subbed out at the half.
M Patrick Nyarko (5) - Struggled to maintain possesion in the wet conditions in the first half but improved somewhat in the second drawing a yellow on Hall.
M Marco Pappa (7) - Pappa was quiet in the first half but asserted himself in the second nearly drawing the Fire back from a three goal deficit. His involvement in the play resulted in Eric Brunner's own goal and his score in the 81st was a thing of beauty. Should have asserted himself earlier.
F Gaston Puerari (5) - For the first time this season Puerari was relatively silent. Other than a well placed corner kick in the 16th minute he was not involved in the play since the Timbers were playing keep away for much of the first half. Subbed out a the half for Oduro.
F Diego Chaves (6) - Provided another excellent through ball freeing Oduro for a chance in the second half. Dangerous on two other opportunities late resulting in a corner kick and a shot on goal. Chaves continues his solid play but the Fire's inability to maintain possesion in midfield during the first half rendered him helpless.
F Dominic Oduro (6) - Played well in relief of Puerari forcing Gleeson into his first difficult save of the match in the 60th minute. Combined with Chaves for a dangerous chance in the 63rd and a corner kick. His pace is definitely a cut above.
M Marko Maric (5) - Seemed to make a difference going forward in place of Videira before being replaced due to injury after only 19 minutes of play.
M Orr Barouch (5) - Barouch seemed comfortable after entering the game for Maric in the 64th although central mid is not his customary position. Provided a fine pass attempt to Pappa which resulted in the own goal.
C Carlos De Los Cobos (4) - The Fire came out looking disorganized and clustered while trying to withstand the initial emotional rush of an opening game from the home side. To his credit, the team maintained composure and managed to rally late but two line up selections seem questionable. De Los Cobos stressed the need to mark Cooper in the box before the game due to his size but decided to start Robinson over the 6'-3" Yamith Cuesta, who may have been a better choice. Baggio Husidic did not make the trip and could have been effective in central midfield as a substitute for Videira in both games.
The Fire must capitalize at home against an undermanned Los Angeles Galaxy side that may not have Landon Donovan available. David Beckham and Juninho are already out and anything less than three points will be a massive let down. This game may be more of a tell tale sign of where the team really is than the two failed road games out west.
MLS handed out a $500 fine and one game suspension to Seattle's Servando Carrasco for his brutal tackle attempt on Patrick Nyarko.
The Fire will train tomorrow morning at the Toyota Park practice field ahead of the game on Sunday.