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Fire Wed May 02 2012

Fire Falter at First Big Test

It's hard to know what to make of the Chicago Fire so far this year. A late start, an early bye week and a lack of midweek games means they've only played six games so far this season. That's as few as any team in the league.

Of the games they have played, it's been hard to draw many conclusions. They tied Houston in a rain-shortened game and lost in Colorado where they always lose. The rest of their opposition, Philadelphia, Toronto, and Montreal, are likely to be closer to the bottom of the pile than the top. So when three-time US Open Cup Champion Seattle Sounders FC came to Toyota Park this weekend, it was the first chance to see how the Fire stacks up against the league's elite.

They lost 2-1.

If you need to sum up the difference between the teams in one sequence, just look at what happened between the 63rd and 66th minutes. The Fire, a goal down, thought they had equalized from a Marco Pappa shot, only to find their goal disallowed with Dominic Oduro offside behind a high Seattle defensive line. Three minutes later, Seattle's Eddie Johnson scored a rebound from an eerily similar position to Oduro's. The difference? Some of the Fire's defender's pushed up, while others stayed back, leaving Johnson both wide open and onside. As a unit, Seattle was more organized and cohesive than the Fire.

One big reason for that is the loss of usual defensive anchor Cory Gibbs to a torn meniscus. The Fire have a ready-made replacement for him in former German international defender Arne Friedrich. He's big, physical, seems comfortable on the ball, and has scored more World Cup goals than Leo Messi. Unfortunately, Friedrich is coming off a long injury layoff and looks a little rusty. He inadvertently scored Seattle's first goal while trying to block a shot. It's the kind of bad luck that happens to every defender a few times in their career, but the play started when Friedrich was far too casual as Eddie Johnson chased down a loose ball in the corner.

Another worrying sign for the defense is the play of goalkeeper Sean Johnson. He gave up that costly rebound on Seattle's second goal. It was a mistake that recalled his ghastly last-minute blunder for the US U-23 team that knocked the US Men out of this year's Olympics. How Johnson's confidence is effected by that error will be an ongoing storyline this season.

Despite the loss, there are a few silver linings. The Fire moved the ball as well as they have all season. They also showed a competitive, mean streak as they pushed for an equalizer in the closing minutes. That carried over into a silly post-game shoving match, but it's good to see this is a group that doesn't take losing at home lightly.

But most importantly, with the change of playoff formats this year, the Fire just needs to do OK in the less-regarded Eastern Conference. That means their main competition to get into the playoffs are teams like Houston, Montreal, Philadelphia, Toronto, New York, Columbus, and New England. Against that level of competition, it's been so far, so good.

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