Chicago Fire: Patrick Nyarko
Read ESPN's MLS Power Rankings: Week 11
Chicago (8-9-16, 40 points) has come a long way during the second half of the season to even be a part of the postseason dialogue over the past several weeks. So the Fire would like to maintain that trend with one final positive result heading into 2012.
"The most important thing, and our focus, has to be on making sure we finish the season strong," Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas said. "We're playing at home against a very good team -- a big rival of ours. It's just important to continue to be building and getting better every game."
"I feel like we're playing for something," Fire forward Patrick Nyarko said. "We're playing for three points, playing for a win, playing for our fans who have been with us all year through torrid times."
Toyota Park will have a sellout crowd on hand, and the Fire for the most part had found some life on the home front over the past couple of months. The Fire had a four-game winning streak at home to get into the postseason picture, but they hit a roadblock during their 2-1 home loss to FC Dallas on Oct. 12.
"Against Dallas, we didn't come out sharp mentally and physically, and they punished us," Nyarko said. "If we go out there like we did against Dallas, it'll be a long night. But we know how we played against D.C. and we know we can get the wins. The guys are mentally ready to close the season on a bright note."
The Fire are fresh off a come-from-behind 2-1 victory over D.C. United last Saturday at RFK Stadium. Diego Chaves scored the winner and Sebastian Grazzini had the equalizer -- both goals coming in stoppage time. But Grazzini is a question mark heading into this weekend with a lingering hamstring injury.
Some reinforcements that were not in D.C. will be back this weekend. Midfielder Pavel Pardo (red card) and defenders Cory Gibbs (yellow card accumulation) and Dan Gargan (yellow card accumulation) return from their suspensions. Defender Josip Mikulic, who replaced Gibbs in the D.C. match, will be suspended for the season finale because of yellow card accumulation.
Columbus (13-12-8, 47 points) is coming off a 3-0 victory at the New England Revolution last Saturday. Team scoring leader Andres Mendoza posted a pair of goals to increase his season total to 13.
The Fire defeated the Crew, 1-0, in Columbus on June 12. Cristian Nazarit tallied a stoppage-time goal as Klopas earned his first win at the helm after taking over for former head coach Carlos de los Cobos. That victory also ended an 11-game winless streak (0-4-7).
Oduro, Gibbs earn team awards: Though the season has one final game remaining in the books, the Fire felt that it was clear-cut in naming forward Dominic Oduro the team MVP and Cory Gibbs the Defender of the Year on Friday. Oduro leads the Fire with 12 goals in 33 games. Both players will receive their awards before Saturday's match. The team said that Gibbs narrowly beat out goalkeeper Sean Johnson for the defensive honor. Both awards were voted on by local media and the team's technical staff. Defender Steven Kinney, who did not play on the pitch this season because of an Achilles injury in 2010 and had various setbacks during his recovery process, was named Fire Humanitarian of the Year.
Draft takes place on Jan. 12: Major League Soccer announced Friday that the 2012 MLS SuperDraft will be held on Jan. 12 at the Kansas City Convention Center in Kansas City, Mo. ESPN2 will broadcast the first round, starting at 11 a.m.
If there is some sort of consolation prize with three games to go, the Fire do have the opportunity to win the Brimstone Cup when they host FC Dallas on Wednesday at Toyota Park. The Brimstone has been in Dallas' hands since 2002.
"The rivalry's been there from the beginning, and the Brimstone Cup is there. But more than anything for us, we're playing at home," Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas said. "Now we have three games left and we need to win these matches to give ourselves an opportunity to be in the playoffs."
If the Fire (7-8-16, 37 points) win out, that would put them at 46 points. Currently the New York Red Bulls and Houston Dynamo are positioned at the final two wild card spots with 43 points apiece with two games to play.
Chicago needs to win out just to give itself a legitimate chance.
"This last month or so, we've termed this as our playoffs," Fire forward Patrick Nyarko said. "That's how we go into every game now. We know there's no room for error and we're just going all out. It's now or never."
The Fire have not lost a regular-season match since their 2-0 defeat at the San Jose Earthquakes on Sept. 10. Chicago is 3-0-1 since then.
"It just stinks that it came together rather late," Nyarko said. "We have all the confidence now, and we're hoping to win out and see what happens in the playoff push. If not, we can definitely build for next year."
The Fire played Dallas (13-11-7, 40 points) to a 1-1 draw on the road on March 19 when Carlos de los Cobos was at the helm as head coach. Chicago's Diego Chaves had the game's first goal in the 17th minute, but Dallas' Milton Rodriguez equalized in the 19th as neither team could find the goal the rest of the way.
The Fire are coming off a 2-0 loss to Seattle Sounders FC in the U.S. Open Cup last Tuesday in Seattle. Chicago spent the bulk of the match trying to fend off the Sounders while creating very little on the offensive side.
"We tried to attack and they did a great job of swarming us and basically trying to get us out of rhythm," Nyarko said. "We couldn't get great looks or touches on the ball. Anytime you looked up there were green jerseys surrounding you. We also rushed into a lot of things, trying to get the ball off our foot quickly. It's extremely tough to go out there to try and get a win."
"I don't want to use excuses, but the turf did affect us a little bit," Klopas said. "The weight of the passes is a little bit different. Our movement was a little bit different. It was wet. We just couldn't get going."
The situation on Wednesday will be much more to the Fire's liking, playing on grass again and in front of their own supporters.
Chicago has finally established itself home-field advantage, something that hadn't existed in recent years. The Fire are 5-2-8 at Toyota Park this year and are in the midst of a four-game home winning streak spanning their Aug. 21 win over Toronto FC through their Sept. 25 victory against the New England Revolution.
Chicago's home points total this year through 15 games (23 points) is an improvement over their 2010 (4-4-7, 19 points) and 2009 (5-4-6, 21 points) seasons at Toyota Park.
Klopas said late last week that the Fire would be without midfielder Marco Pappa, who is playing for Guatemala on Tuesday night against Belize. While Pappa is scheduled to return to Chicago on Wednesday, the combination of a late international match Tuesday night and the travel makes it unlikely that he will suit up.
As for Dallas scoring leader Brek Shea, even though he has put in some work with the U.S. National Team, FC Dallas confirmed that Shea is flying from New York to Chicago to rejoin the team in time for Wednesday's match against the Fire.
Whether Shea will factor into the game remains to be seen. Between Saturday's 90-minute effort during a 1-0 win over Honduras and Tuesday night's match against Ecuador in Harrison, N.J., Shea has had quite a bit on his plate.
Klopas limited Grazzini's minutes at the start to integrate him with the team by midseason. But even still, Grazzini has endured setbacks -- the latest being a hamstring injury that kept him out of a 1-1 draw against the Houston Dynamo on Oct. 1 and limited him to the final minutes of Chicago's 2-0 loss to Seattle Sounders FC in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup on Tuesday.
"We pushed him the day before [the Open Cup], I talked to him and he said, 'Coach, I think I can give you 10 minutes,'" Klopas said. "My thought was, at that point, if we get to the second overtime to put him in and have him ready to take a PK, because he's one of our guys who's very good on dead balls.
"I want to put the guy on the field more than anything because he's a special player," Klopas said. "But you've also got to respect what the guy says, how he feels and the injury."
Chicago (7-8-16, 37 points) certainly needs Grazzini to be close to 100 percent with three matches remaining.
Plus, midfielder Marco Pappa will be absent for the Fire's upcoming match against FC Dallas on Wednesday at Toyota Park. Pappa joined the Guatemala national team as it prepares for a match against Belize on Tuesday. Pappa had an offensive awakening on Sept. 28 with a hat trick during the Fire's 3-0 road win over Real Salt Lake.
The Fire are six points behind both the New York Red Bulls and Houston Dynamo in the final gasp for a wild card spot. Grazzini's presence will be vital as clearly the team missed him during the majority of the Open Cup match.
"Not having a guy like Sebastian hurt us because he can get the ball in the final third and break the other team down individually, or with his passing," Klopas said. "Having another guy who can get the ball and hold it in situations would have been nice, but things happen. We can't dwell on the past. We've got to move forward and refocus our energy on making the playoffs."
"His creativeness, how he draws players and tries to free up other players, that was missing in the Seattle game, obviously," Fire forward Patrick Nyarko said. "We could have used him, absolutely. The coaching staff didn't want to risk it. He wasn't fit, and we thought other guys could step up. Unfortunately, that day it didn't work for us. But we're happy to get him back for the remainder of the season and hopefully help us for a playoff push. He's been huge for us."
Ferdinand just chatter: During the past several days, rumors were circulating about the possibility of Manchester United's Rio Ferdinand being linked to the Fire, particularly with his contract coming to a close soon.
The Fire have dismissed the validity of these reports and rumors, though Klopas will be screening for any phone calls from Man U.
"Ferdinand and Sir Alex [Ferguson], they have my number if he wants to come," Klopas said. "They can call me, but they haven't yet. That's all I can tell you. The door's open."
Beckerman headbutt costs two more: Real Salt Lake's Kyle Beckerman was handed down an additional two-game suspension by the MLS Disciplinary Committee for headbutting Fire midfielder Daniel Paladini on Sept. 28. Beckerman was issued a straight red card and served a one-game suspension during Salt Lake's Oct. 1 loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy.
BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. -- The Chicago Fire have reached a double-digit winless streak for a second time this season. They are in dire need of a positive outcome when they host Toronto FC on Sunday at Toyota Park.
The Fire are in the midst of a 0-3-7 stretch -- the longest winless streak since they posted a 0-4-7 record from April 9 through June 9.
Chicago is coming off a 1-1 draw against D.C. United, establishing an MLS record with its 15th draw after conceding a second-half lead.
"We've got to keep coming back. I don't think it can get any lower than this," Fire defender Gonzalo Segares said. "We've just got to get up and keep pushing."
Chicago faces a Toronto team that is tied for the second-worst points total on the road with six, posting a 0-7-6 mark away from BMO Field. But the Fire have not earned a win at Toyota Park since their home opener on March 26 against Sporting Kansas City.
Chicago has not lost complete hope on this season as long as the mathematical playoff possibility continues to linger. Besides, the Fire's rostered players have plenty to play for regarding their own futures within the organization.
"We've got to be realistic -- at the point we're at, right now we're all playing for jobs next year," Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas said.
As the Fire (2-7-15, 21 points) prepare for their final 10 games of the season, many eyes will be on midfielder Sebastian Grazzini, who tallied Chicago's lone goal against Toronto on Thursday.
Grazzini was brought in to be the stable presence in a center midfield position that has needed an able body all season. Following Thursday's draw, the focus was on why Grazzini was taken out in the 72nd minute. One minute after Grazzini's exit to the bench, D.C. tallied its equalizer.
Klopas and Grazzini had contradicting remarks regarding the substitution. Klopas said it was because Grazzini was tiring, but Grazzini said to reporters that the move was purposely made so he could rest up for Toronto.
The Toronto match is now here, and Grazzini has yet to play in a full match with the Fire. Grazzini has two goals and an assist in four games, but he has averaged only 65 minutes per appearance. Defensive midfielder Pavel Pardo, on the other hand, has played the full 90 minutes in all four matches since his midseason arrival.
The substitution should have been a non-issue, because like most Fire matches this season, Chicago could not capitalize on its scoring chances against D.C.
"It all has to do with us building the mentality of not conceding goals when we're up, and trying not to fall behind and having to fight back," Fire midfielder and forward Patrick Nyarko said. "It's been like that throughout the season, and I don't think we're that kind of team yet. ... We need to concentrate and play a 90-minute game for once."
Two defenders are going up against their former teams Sunday. Fire right back Dan Gargan goes against his former Reds, while Evanston-born Dasan Robinson is on the Toronto side after being traded in late July.
Toronto (4-11-11, 23 points) is coming off a Thursday match, but not in league play. The Reds posted a 2-1 victory against Tauro FC in the CONCACAF Champions League Group C opener for both squads in Panama City, Panama. Ryan Johnson and Julian de Guzman netted first-half goals for Toronto.
Toronto has started to turn things around since its four-game losing streak in July. The Reds are in the midst of a 1-0-2 stretch in MLS action, posting a 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake on Aug. 13.
The Fire (2-7-14, 20 points) matched the record set by FC Dallas last season, when Dallas posted a 12-4-14 mark in the regular season and advanced to the 2010 MLS Cup against eventual champion Colorado Rapids.
Chicago continues to lag behind in last place in the Eastern Conference, and in the grand scheme of things, the Fire clearly are disappointed that they could not hold onto their 2-1 lead in the second half.
"If we're being honest, coming into Red Bull Arena and getting a point is a positive," Fire captain Logan Pause said. "We'd only be doing ourselves a disservice if we had our tails between our legs and started writing games off. But tonight we needed three points."
The Fire are now one point behind the eighth-place New England Revolution, which fell to the East-leading Columbus Crew on Saturday. Toronto FC moved up to seventh in the East standings with a surprising 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake.
As for Chicago, Dominic Oduro and Sebastian Grazzini netted back-to-back goals in response to Thierry Henry's early tally to garner a 2-1 lead into the second half. But the Red Bulls' Joel Lindpere equalized in the 63rd minute to salvage a 2-2 draw.
New York had a clear possession advantage in the match, but the Fire orchestrated a strong run in the first half.
Oduro netted his team-leading seventh goal of the season in the 16th minute to tie the score at 1-1. Patrick Nyarko, who had an effective first half with some crisp passing and movement, dished the ball to Oduro from the left side to overcome Henry's ninth-minute goal.
Then in the 24th minute, Grazzini notched his first goal for the Fire, rebounding the ball from Red Bulls goalkeeper Chris Konopka. Konopka became the fifth Red Bulls player to man the net for New York (6-6-13, 31 points) this season.
It was a promising situation for the Fire to head into the second half with a one-goal lead, especially following their 4-2 loss to the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps the previous week. But Chicago could not hang on at Red Bull Arena.
In the 63rd minute, the Red Bulls players were fuming that a hand ball was not called on defender Dan Gargan, who made his Fire debut. Lindpere was able to respond seconds later as he redirected a Dane Richards cross to the left side of the net to tie the match at 2-2.
A pivotal moment for the Fire came in the 56th minute. Forward Orr Barouch was brought into the match for Nyarko. The Fire said that Nyarko left the match because of a migraine.
The Nyarko and Oduro pairing up top, with Grazzini behind them, was effective on the offensive end. Oduro was dropped to the midfield when Nyarko was subbed out, and the match changed from that point on.
"When you lose a guy like Patrick, it definitely changes the dynamic of the game. He's such an effective and dynamic player. It's never an easy move [to make that type of substitution]."
"I think things changed when Patrick Nyarko came out," Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas said. "We had to change the way we play. Later in the game, we got tired a little bit, we dropped a little too deep and gave them space to operate. We gave away a lot of set pieces from corners."
Analysis: The Fire abandoned their one-forward formation at the start of the match, and pairing the two Ghanaians was effective in the offensive third. Nyarko's injury certainly affected the team's approach the rest of the way.
The Fire defense once again gave up multiple goals, so clearly some improvement can be made on that end. Chicago gave New York too much space to work with during stretches. At times, the Fire's back line compensated with some key deflections. Yamith Cuesta did not have a perfect match, but compared to the Vancouver game he had a remarkable difference.
Jalil Anibaba's play also was steady, and there really was not much he could do trying to get to Henry's goal. It was a solid, bending strike. However, the buildup of that play was a defensive setback because New York worked the ball with relative ease to set up Henry.
If the Fire were in the thick of a chase for the playoffs, this might have been a satisfactory outcome. But Chicago is in desperate need for victories, and nothing else.
The Fire have a three-game homestand in MLS play, though they have not posted a home win during Klopas' tenure.
A topsy-turvy five-day stretch last week brought out the Fire's best efforts (1-1 draw against the Philadelphia Union) and easily the team's worst performances (4-2 loss to the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps) of the season. Which version shows up this Saturday remains to be seen as Chicago faces the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J.
"It's amazing, because you go from playing the [second-place team in the East] and dominating that game and playing really well, and then going on the road where for me it was a very poor performance," Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas said. "Not the fact that we lost. I just felt the discipline and the stuff that we worked on, we gave up opportunities too, too easy. When you do that and give up four goals, it's difficult to win any game."
The Fire (2-7-13, 19 points) currently own an eight-game winless streak (0-3-5), but they are catching the Red Bulls (6-6-12, 30 points) in the midst of their own struggles. New York is winless in its past five matches (0-3-2) and enters the weekend tied for third in the Eastern Conference with Sporting Kansas City.
The Fire have touted a 4-5-1 formation with Dominic Oduro as the lone man up top in their past couple of matches. Klopas was not ready to say whether the team would stick with that formation or make some tweaks heading into the Red Bulls match.
"When we played Portland and Philly, I felt that both center backs were not really quick," Klopas said. "... When [midfielder Sebastian] Grazzini gets the ball, he needs options and the mobility. We have a guy now that when you do that, he's able to find them. You can see the [first] goal that we scored in Vancouver, it was a fantastic play -- a through ball, a great run by Dominic. This game might be a little bit different."
"I think we've come to believe in the 4-5-1," Fire midfielder Patrick Nyarko said. "The last game wasn't good keeping possession, but we've shown in the past that we can do that. I don't know what Frank is thinking at this point, but I think we stick to that and try not to give stuff away like we did in the first half in the last game."
With only one match to worry about this week, Klopas is hopeful that Grazzini will be able to provide some quality minutes. Grazzini was taken out in the 66th and 56th minutes against Philadelphia and Vancouver, respectively.
Fire forward Diego Chaves (knee) should be an available option as he has been training this week. Defender Cory Gibbs (groin strain) was limited to light jogging during the midweek and the Fire confirmed that he is out for Saturday against New York. That means some two-player combination of Josip Mikulic, Yamith Cuesta and Jalil Anibaba will be team up at center back. Against Vancouver, Mikulic and Cuesta had the start, and Cuesta particularly had some costly mistakes in his first game back from a one-match suspension.
The Fire have faced the Red Bulls on more occasions than any other MLS team this year. Chicago played to a 1-1 draw on June 26 in regular-season play, aided by a Marco Pappa equalizer that got past goalkeeper Bouna Coundoul. The Fire opened the 2011 preseason with a 1-1 draw against the Red Bulls on Feb. 23. And on July 12, the Fire earned an easy 4-0 win over New York in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup play as the Red Bulls brought a mostly reserve squad to Toyota Park.
New York is coming off a 3-0 loss to Real Salt Lake last Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium. The Eastern Conference continues to lag far behind the West performance-wise this year. The first-place Columbus Crew's 34 points entering the weekend would put them in sixth place in the West, giving struggling teams such as Chicago a flicker of hope.
"The Eastern Conference has been kind to us," Nyarko said. "Luckily we're still in it. We just need a little bit of a run and we're right back in the mix."
"We just didn't come mentally prepared that day and it showed," Fire midfielder Patrick Nyarko said Wednesday following training. "It cost us big time. We had a series of meetings [this week], and the guys reminded themselves that it wasn't good enough."
Chicago is preparing for a road match against the New York Red Bulls this Saturday, and mental preparation clearly is an area where the Fire turned in a failing grade against the Whitecaps.
"The mentality at this level is the difference maker," Fire defender Logan Pause said. "You give up a goal 30 seconds in, it doesn't feel good. You're starting off with a massive hill to climb. You even it up and you do it right again. Sean [Johnson] makes a huge save on a penalty to keep us in it, and within five minutes of the second half [we give up a goal]. So it's one of those things where we kept taking punches, and I think how we fought back, or the lack of energy and commitment, was frustrating to be a part of."
Nyarko said there might have been a passive element in their preparation for Vancouver.
"I think we let their turf field get into our heads a little bit," Nyarko said. "We watched tape and guys slipping, and stuff like that. I think guys were paying more attention to the field as opposed to trying to play. The field was bad, but I hate giving excuses. We just weren't good enough that day, and mentally we weren't ready."
The bottom line is that this was no ordinary loss. The Western Conference's worst club was upbeat and energetic, while the Fire had more lapses during Sunday's match than in just about every previous game this season. What had been a fairly stable defense under interim head coach Frank Klopas gave up more goals Sunday than it had in Klopas' first seven matches at the helm after replacing Carlos de los Cobos.
"Losing is part of the game, and I can accept it and face it head-on," Pause said. "But there's an element of how you lose, and I think Sunday was a sour taste in terms of how we lost. I think we lost with no fight and no urgency, energy, commitment and attitude, which are especially things that when you're bottom-of-the-table, those have to be musts."
With the Fire sitting at the bottom of the Eastern Conference with a 2-7-13 record, Pause has taken responsibility for the team's woes in his first season as Fire captain.
"I accept and wear the responsibility of being a leader on this team," Pause said. "And I feel like a big portion of letdowns are from my end in terms of leadership and trying to funnel things -- some of the key concepts and principles that we're about, and what it takes. It's been hard. It's an ongoing learning process. But I do take the responsibility of where we are and the mentality of the group, which has been struggling."
Fire sign Gulley, will be added to 2012 roster: The Fire announced Thursday that they have signed 17-year-old Clinton, Miss., native and forward Kellen Gulley as the club's second homegrown player. Bolingbrook native Victor Pineda was the team's first homegrown signing. Gulley is a homegrown player for his recent play with the Chicago Fire Juniors of Mississippi.
Gulley will not be added to the Fire's first team roster until the 2012 season.
Gulley earned eight caps with the U.S. U-17 national team, netting four goals during his 2009-2010 stretch with the squad. The Fire said Gulley will arrive in Chicago on Sunday and train with the first team on Monday.
The players certainly have had to cope with quite a few, and their most recent effort was out-playing the Philadelphia Union on Wednesday, only to manage a 1-1 draw.
Now the Fire hit the road to take on the expansion Vancouver Whitecaps on Sunday at Empire Field.
"We cannot dwell on it," Fire midfielder Patrick Nyarko said. "We've got to look forward. Every point dropped hurts, but we've got to move on."
"It seems like it's been a little bit of a recurring theme this year," Fire captain Logan Pause said. "We don't have enough time to hang our heads and get upset and worry. ... At this stage, ties aren't really helping. We know we need to get three points."
The Fire have not fared well against MLS's two expansion sides this year. Chicago's best result was a scoreless draw against Vancouver on May 7. The Fire dropped both matches against the Portland Timbers -- a 4-2 loss at Portland on April 14, and a 1-0 home defeat on July 16.
The Fire (2-6-13, 19 points) are in the midst of a seven-game winless streak (0-2-5) and in last place in the Eastern Conference. The Whitecaps (2-11-9, 15 points) are in last place in the West. Both of Vancouver's victories have come at home.
Vancouver is in the midst of a six-game winless streak (0-5-1) and is coming off its worst defeat of the season -- a 4-0 loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy last Saturday.
The Fire defense has represented one of the few bright spots on the team this season, and the match against Philadelphia represented Chicago's depth in the back.
Pause dropped to right back with the debut of Pavel Pardo at defensive midfield. Typical right back, rookie defender Jalil Anibaba, was brought into the match after center back Cory Gibbs got injured in the opening minutes. Josip Mikulic also stepped in at center back for Yamith Cuesta, who had to sit out Wednesday's match for a red card suspension.
Mikulic and Anibaba both had solid efforts teaming up at center back.
"We've got a deep team," Pause said. "Josip is more than capable and played a fantastic game. You see a young and up-and-coming player who's hopefully here for a long time in Jalil step in and do a great job. You just hope that Cory has a quick recovery. That's one of the reasons why you have to count on all 30 players."
Cuesta returns, but Gibbs will miss Sunday's game with a left groin strain. As for Pause, he has adjusted to his new defensive duties.
"It's just a completely different role," Pause said. "Playing holding mid, you're kind of just the anchor. Right back allows me to get up and down a little bit."
The ongoing problem for Chicago is the inability to finish chances this year. The Fire have netted only six goals in their past 10 matches. Chicago's leading goal scorers Marco Pappa and Dominic Oduro have been sitting on five tallies apiece for more than a month.
The Whitecaps' offense clearly rests with Frenchman Eric Hassli, Vancouver's first designated player. Hassli leads the Whitecaps with eight goals this season. He has three multi-goal games, and his most memorable performance was a two-goal effort against Seattle Sounders FC on June 11. His second tally was a superb right-footed strike from the right side that was driven past Sounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller and just inside the left post to salvage a 2-2 draw.
At this stage, the last-place Fire (2-6-13) need to throw out all the punches with 13 matches remaining on the season.
Chicago is coming off a 1-1 home draw against the Philadelphia Union on Wednesday. The Fire were the better team in the run of play, and much of the credit can be directed toward Grazzini.
"He can create, he can make the final pass -- he's dangerous," Klopas said. "He's exciting for the fans to watch. Definitely brings something different to the table."
The Argentine midfielder was incredibly active from side to side, made aggressive pushes forward, tracked back when necessary and was creative with the ball. His mere presence out there seemed to have a snowball effect where other Fire players also demonstrated an increased aggressiveness, piecing together some good strings of passing and crisp movement with and without the ball.
"He can draw two, three players and leave a guy free," Fire midfielder Patrick Nyarko said. "For wide guys like myself and Marco [Pappa], it gives us more chances to be more advanced, rather than coming deep for the ball and try to create from there. We can get the ball wherever and try to run at players and find you in the final third where you can be more of a threat. Rather than coming all the way back, that's the ability [Grazzini] brings in. We fed off of that. It's just unfortunate that we couldn't get the win."
"When he gets the ball you need a lot of mobility and movement," Klopas said. "I think Dominic [Oduro] made great runs with Patrick and Marco, and I think that we created many chances. It's just unfortunate about the quality in the final third, the concentration. It's stuff that we've been working on."
Grazzini arguably was the best player on the pitch between the two teams. Klopas said that Grazzini signaled that he was tiring and was then subbed out of the match in the 66th minute. But his increased tiring was not evident. Grazzini maintained a high work rate.
As a defensive midfielder, Pardo's impact typically won't be as evident as Grazzini's. But the Guadalajara native stepped up with the Fire's lone goal and he would have added an assist in the 34th minute if Oduro finished his high-quality scoring chance behind the Union defense.
"It was just fantastic to see the first game," Klopas said. "Not just because he scored a goal, but the leadership qualities on the field and how good he was with the ball. In the first half he made a great pass to Dominic that was a breakaway, brings the ball down. Stuff like that gives us another attacking dimension."
Because of Cory Gibbs' leg injury in the opening 10 minutes, Klopas was forced to burn an early substitution. That meant Pardo had to play the full 90 in his debut.
"With him, I was less concerned with his fitness, even though he's been with us for a week," Klopas said. "He's a guy with tremendous experience, great pro. He's always taking great care of himself or else he wouldn't have played so many years at that level, for sure. And he was smart. You could see in the first half that he knew when to run, where to be, not waste energy foolishly when you're running around, and that's what you get with him."
This will be a difficult week for both players as the Fire quickly prepare for a road trip against the Vancouver Whitecaps on Sunday. But clearly both players' presence will be vital for Chicago down the stretch.
"You saw what two experienced players will add to this team," said Fire captain Logan Pause, who shifted to right back with Pardo's presence in the starting lineup. "I think their work, not only on the field but in the locker room and off the field, is going to be huge for this group."
The expansion Timbers swept the season series against Chicago this year, and Saturday marked Portland's first road victory after going 0-5-2 in its previous seven road matches. Chicago (2-6-12) has lost back-to-back games after falling to the Los Angeles Galaxy the weekend before.
"We knew it was a must-win game for us in terms of just mental preparation," Fire defender Cory Gibbs said. "We're not saying that our season is over. But mentally it was a game that we ... not had to win, but we wanted to win for our fans. It didn't go our way."
The difference was a questionable penalty kick call and ultimate PK goal by the Timbers' Jack Jewsbury in the 25th minute to give Portland (6-9-3) the 1-0 lead.
The Timbers' opportunity stemmed from Fire defender Gonzalo Segares who referee Elias Bazakos called for bringing down Portland's Jorge Perlaza in the box. Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson guessed correctly and dove to his right on Jewsbury's PK, but the ball was out of his reach.
"When I saw the ball coming in I tried to poke it away," Segares said of the foul, which he felt did not include any incidental contact. "I know I felt it. I know I kicked it. The trajectory of the ball, I went inside when Perlaza was trying to come inside. The referee decided to call the PK. I'm very frustrated."
"Am I happy about it? No, but there's nothing I can do about it at that point," Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas said. "You live with that. Obviously I thought we could have done better before the opportunity got there."
The Fire nearly found the equalizer before halftime when a Gibbs header hit the far right post in the 44th minute. Fire midfielder Daniel Paladini took the corner from the left side and found Gibbs on the near side, but Gibbs' header was just off the mark and the Timbers' defense cleared the ball away.
"We set the play and Jalil [Anibaba] did well setting the pick on my man," Gibbs said. "I headed it far post, and I hit the post. Just unlucky."
The Fire had to play down a man for the final 30 minutes as Yamith Cuesta picked up two yellow cards in a span of six minutes and a subsequent red card ejection in the 63rd minute. Despite playing down a man, Chicago tried to push. Second-half sub Orr Barouch even hit the frame in the 68th minute.
But following the match, some boos were heard as Chicago could not pull even with Portland.
"We've not been delivering for them," Fire midfielder Patrick Nyarko said. "We owe everything to them. They have the right to boo us or whatever it is. We know we're putting our all out there, trying to get the result. In this circumstance it's tough with a man down and dubious calls like that."
Analysis: Gibbs' sentiment of it being a must-win moment certainly rings true to where Chicago stands at this stage of the season. The Fire had an expansion club that had not posted a road victory, and the Fire did not deliver at Toyota Park.
Gibbs and Barouch had their chances, and Marco Pappa was denied twice by Timbers goalkeeper Troy Perkins in the 90th minute and stoppage time. The Fire came close.
The Fire started relatively flat on the offensive side in the first half, and there just was no flow to their attack. Dominic Oduro's decision making was off the mark -- hesitating to shoot in situations where he should pass, and shooting when he had other options close by. Pappa was guilty of the same on a couple of occasions.
One positive for Chicago was Johnson's play in the net. He posted six saves in a dramatic difference from the first time the Fire played the Timbers and lost 4-2.
The Fire had not allowed a set-piece goal during Klopas' first seven games at the helm. But David Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy put an end to that trend, as the Galaxy scored twice on set pieces en route to a 2-1 victory over Chicago on Saturday at The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.
Beckham scored directly off of a corner kick for the game-winner, and he provided a corner kick assist on a Landon Donovan header. Cristian Nazarit scored the Fire's lone goal in between Beckham's corners, with all three goals coming in an eight-minute span.
"We got too comfortable against the wrong team," Fire midfielder Patrick Nyarko said. "We lost concentration on a couple of goals, and that's unacceptable. A lapse of concentration against a team like this, they'll take advantage of it."
The Fire (2-5-12) suffered their first loss under Klopas (1-1-6). It also marks Chicago's first defeat since a 2-1 loss to the Philadelphia Union on May 21. The Western Conference-leading Galaxy (10-2-9) extended its unbeaten run to 12 games.
On Saturday, the Galaxy offense came to life in the second half, highlighted by Beckham's 66th-minute corner kick goal. Beckham took a low, driving corner from the left side and found the net. The ball eluded several players, including Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson and Nyarko who was trying to cover the back right post.
"It went through Jalil [Anibaba], Sean, and I couldn't see the ball until it was in the net," Nyarko said. "It was bad defending on our part."
In the 58th, Beckham sent the corner kick in from the right side and found Donovan on the back left post for a 1-0 lead. Donovan rose above Fire defender Gonzalo Segares and headed the ball into the right side of the net.
The Fire quickly recovered from Donovan's goal. In the 62nd minute, Nyarko sent a right-footed cross from the left side of the pitch and connected with Nazarit. Nazarit drove his header underneath Galaxy goalkeeper Josh Saunders and into the net to tie the score at 1-1.
The match ended on an ugly note when Nyarko was taken out by the Galaxy's Chris Birchall in second-half stoppage time. Birchall was shown a yellow card, and the Fire took exception to a harsh challenge that could have been ruled a red. Fire forward Diego Chaves immediately rushed in, and multiple players left their respective benches. Fire defender Josip Mikulic, who was a reserve, was shown a red card.
Analysis: The end result certainly did not paint the picture of how the match went in the early going.
The Fire's game plan was effective throughout the first half and the early stages of the second half. Donovan's 58th-minute goal was the first attempt the Galaxy had on net, so the Fire had a positive impact during this difficult road match. Once Chicago allowed some Galaxy set pieces on a regular basis, that played into the host team's hands.
Chicago had some good chances to put some momentum in its corner. Fire defender Anibaba had a scoring chance in the 45th minute. Anibaba appeared to be squared up to put his header on frame, but he pushed it wide right of the net. Early in the first half, Nyarko worked his way into the box from the left side, but the Galaxy's Gregg Berhalter slid in to deflect Nyarko's 14th-minute chance away from the goal.
Fire midfielder Marco Pappa could have had a stronger performance. He missed a glaring chance to level the match in the 72nd minute. Nyarko made a quick move to get around the Galaxy's Bryan Jordan on the left side. He provided a perfect setup for Pappa, but he sent his shot over the crossbar.
The Fire have had plenty of draws -- as well as a win -- that were poorer performances than Saturday's loss. But there is no question that Klopas will reiterate his set piece emphasis moving past this game.
Chicago's team-record 11-game span without a victory was an unavoidable talking point over a two-and-a-half-month stretch. But with a road win against the Columbus Crew last week, the Fire are now switching gears for a second straight positive outcome against another Eastern Conference foe.
"We feel like if we match their intensity, the soccer part will take care of itself and we can get a result," Fire midfielder Patrick Nyarko said of the New England match. "Especially on their home field."
Over the past several seasons, the Fire have had the upper hand against the Revolution in regular-season play. Chicago's last regular-season loss to New England was on May 6, 2007, at Gillette.
The Revs had a short recovery time this past week, playing Toronto FC to a scoreless draw on Wednesday at New England.
The Fire and Revolution have some work to do in climbing up from the bottom third of the East standings. Chicago (2-4-8) and New England (3-7-5) are tied for seventh place in the conference with 14 points apiece.
With Marco Pappa's continued international duty for Guatemala in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the Fire will continue to go with their outside midfield combination of Dominic Oduro and Nyarko. Nyarko had a strong second half against Columbus last week, and he will have a few battles this Saturday against the Revolution's Kevin Alston.
"With Kevin, even if you're aggressive, you still are going to pick your moments to go forward," Nyarko said. "It's just playing smart, basically, going into the offensive end. When we get on the break, we should be lightning quick."
The Fire are healing up a bit among the defensive group, which has not surrendered a goal in the three matches with interim head coach Frank Klopas at the helm.
Center back Josip Mikulic (clavicle fracture) trained this past week. But don't expect Klopas to change anything on the defensive line, especially with those three straight shutouts in the books. Yamith Cuesta and Cory Gibbs should remain the center back duo heading into Saturday.
"I think he feels better, but I think physically he's still a little bit away, just from a fitness standpoint," Klopas said of Mikulic. "But it's good that he's out here training."
The win was Chicago's first since its March 26 home-opening victory over Sporting Kansas City, and it snapped a team-worst 11-game winless streak.
"It's always great to get a win, especially going this long without one," Fire midfielder Patrick Nyarko said. "It's a happy locker room, and rightly so. Things haven't gone our way, but we have kept at it and kept fighting."
Nazarit's first goal was a long-awaited moment for the Fire (2-4-8). Second-half sub Orr Barouch had the initial attack on the sequence, fighting his way in between the Crew's Julius James and Josh Gardner, then forcing Columbus goalkeeper William Hesmer into making a save to his right. Nazarit was there for the rebound and had an open net in front of him to give Chicago the lead.
"He created a lot out of nothing," Nyarko said of Barouch's effort on the game-winning sequence. "He beat the defender and did an excellent job. He's not a one-dimensional player, and he can beat you off the dribble."
Before that goal, the pattern of missed chances was the usual story line. Gaston Puerari had two close-range scoring chances in the 62nd and 66th minutes, with Nyarko setting him up on both occasions. But one shot went over the crossbar and the other was blocked by James.
Barouch had a couple of scoring chances when his attempt was blocked by James in the 72nd minute, then his 79th-minute strike from just outside the box hit the frame of the goal.
Nyarko was the most consistent attacking presence among the Fire players, especially in the second half.
"They gave me the green light to go ahead and be myself," Nyarko said. "In the first half, I was a little indecisive. When we went into halftime, they told me to do what I do best -- be aggressive and go into an attack mode."
Chicago moved ahead of the New England Revolution in the Eastern Conference standings, and both sides will meet next Saturday at Gillette Stadium. The match wraps up the Fire's three-game road trip, which was preceded by scoreless draws against Seattle Sounders FC and Sporting Kansas City.
Under interim head coach Frank Klopas, who replaced Carlos de los Cobos on May 30, the Fire have yet to concede a goal. Columbus did not put a single shot on goal against Chicago as Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson and his defense turned in another clean sheet.
Klopas made multiple changes to his lineup that he utilized against Kansas City on Thursday. Rookie defender Jalil Anibaba returned to right back in place of Bratislav Ristic. Baggio Husidic and Nyarko started ahead of Daniel Paladini and Corben Bone in the midfield. And Diego Chaves started ahead of Nazarit. Nazarit entered Sunday's match in the 79th minute for Chaves and scored the game-winner less than 12 minutes later.
Analysis: The Fire were the more dominant side in terms of both possession and scoring chances, so it was only fitting that Chicago ultimately gained the advantage on the scoreboard.
Nyarko got into a groove that was reminiscent of his assist-heavy 2010 campaign. Nyarko was the prime setup man for the bulk of Puerari's and Barouch's scoring opportunities. If the Fire improved their finishing touch, he would have had multiple assists on Sunday.
This was a big victory for Chicago on so many levels. It was the boost that the Fire needed to start making a climb back up the standings. The Fire are fortunate to be playing in the Eastern Conference, where even through this winless stretch, Chicago still has some time to move into a playoff position.
It was a much-needed win for Klopas, who has the task of showcasing a team that was mostly assembled under his watch. And it was a necessary win to keep some general interest within this club. Let's face it -- under an 11-game winless streak, the fans were understandably growing restless.
Two of the Fire's next three matches are against East foes: New England on Saturday and the New York Red Bulls on June 26. Chicago has been trying to get over the hump for some time now to make a move in the East standings. Perhaps the Fire's first road victory will serve as that long-awaited moment to turn the tide.
While the Galaxy (2-1-3) has not officially ruled out Donovan for Sunday's game (he is questionable on this week's injury report with knee inflammation), the odds of the team pushing to bring him in over the weekend and see game-time action looks bleak at the moment. Donovan missed Wednesday's scoreless draw against Toronto FC and last Saturday's 1-1 draw against D.C. United.
L.A.'s roster is heavily depleted heading into Sunday's game.
Galaxy midfielder David Beckham was issued his fifth yellow card of the season this week and will subsequently miss this weekend's match. Juninho was booked twice on Wednesday and has to serve a one-game suspension. And the MLS Disciplinary Committee extended midfielder Jovan Kirovski's suspension to a second game for verbal abuse of an official following the April 9 match against D.C. United. Kirovski served a red card suspension Wednesday and now has to miss Sunday's game.
Carrasco suspended, fined for Nyarko hit: Seattle Sounders FC midfielder Servando Carrasco was suspended for one game and fined $500 for his reckless challenge against Fire midfielder and forward Patrick Nyarko last Saturday. Nyarko was dealt a blow to his shin in the 90th minute, and had to leave the match, which resulted in a 2-1 win for Seattle. The challenge was severe, but Nyarko only had a bad bruise and played during Chicago's 4-2 loss to the expansion Portland Timbers on Thursday.
Carrasco received a yellow card, but the MLS Disciplinary Committee announced Friday that his challenge endangered Nyarko's safety -- a pretty obvious conclusion for anyone who watched the match and the replays. Carrasco will miss the Sounders' match against the Philadelphia Union this Saturday.