Fire surrender late goal, Sounders prevail
Seattle Sounders FC's Blaise Nkufo netted the game-winning goal in the 88th minute as Seattle defeated the Chicago Fire, 1-0, on Saturday in front of 17,477 at Toyota Park.
The Fire's winless streak has now reached seven matches as Chicago (6-10-8, 26 points) inches further away from the playoff picture and the Sounders (11-9-6, 39 points) improved their postseason position.
On Seattle's game-winning sequence, Steve Zakuani had the initial pass from the middle of the pitch and directed it to the left side toward Nkufo, who then faked a cross to get Fire defender C.J. Brown in the air. As Nkufo brought the ball to his right, he took a shot with Brown lunging with his feet to deflect the ball. But the deflection instead went past him and over Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who was at the near post but couldn't react in time to stop the ball as the Sounders took a 1-0 lead.
"It took a deflection toward the near post where I was, but I just thought it was unlucky," Johnson said. "C.J. made a good effort to block it. It just didn't turn out in our favor. I think the ball just rolled the wrong way for us."
The goal certainly is unlucky from the Fire's standpoint, though Seattle was knocking on the doorstep. It was a back-and-forth match, but the Sounders' quality chances trumped the Fire's opportunities.
The game's best scoring chance before the goal was wasted by Seattle. In the 56th minute, midfielder Zakuani had an open net and pushed the ball wide left on a play where Johnson decided to take a gamble and step up as he, Fire defender Gonzalo Segares and Seattle midfielder Sanna Nyassi converged on the ball. The ball bounced away to Zakuani about 20 feet above the box, but his shot went wide as the Fire dodged a bullet.
There were other close calls. Seattle's Osvaldo Alonso had a clear header off of Nathan Sturgis' corner kick, but missed wide right. In the 37th minute, Nyassi had a cross that just missed Sturgis for a header and rolled by the feet of Nkufo.
The Fire forced Sounders goalkeeper Kasey Keller to make five saves. In the 76th minute, Freddie Ljungberg had a good strike from the left side as Keller had a good read on the ball, dove to his left and batted the ball away from the far right post. Another big moment was in first-half stoppage time, when Marco Pappa took a shot at the near right post and Keller made the save. On the play, Ljungberg creatively chipped the ball over a couple of Seattle defenders to Segares, who then crossed the ball into the middle in the vicinity of Calen Carr and Patrick Nyarko. The ball deflected away, and Pappa converged for the scoring chance but was denied.
"In the front, we just weren't clear with the opportunities that we had," Fire head coach Carlos de los Cobos said. "We didn't have patience. We weren't precise with our last touches in the offensive quarter of the field."
Johnson saved four of five shots for Chicago. The Sounders had a 12-8 edge on shots and a 7-4 advantage on corner kicks. Six corners came in the first half.
Analysis: De los Cobos shook up his lineup, putting former Fulham teammates Collins John and Brian McBride on the bench, with Ljungberg and Calen Carr up top to start. Nery Castillo was unavailable because of a quadriceps injury -- not a hamstring injury as stated by De los Cobos earlier in the week.
Defensively, midfielder Bratislav Ristic was dropped back to right defensive back, and rookie Kwame Watson-Siriboe was used ahead of Dasan Robinson to try to fill the void of Wilman Conde, who was suspended for the match following his two yellow cards against Real Salt Lake.
The Fire did the proper thing by pushing late with only three players in the defensive backfield from the 83rd minute on. But in doing so, that caused things to open up, and Seattle netted the game-winner minutes later.
Following the match, the team's synopsis differed dramatically from what took place. While it was a much-improved performance compared to the Real Salt Lake match, the Fire's defensive marking was inconsistent, and offensively there were certainly some moments where the players' movement off the ball could have improved.
This is not to say that there was lack of effort from the Fire's part by any means, but Chicago has looked disjointed on many levels during its winless streak.
Credit also should be given to Seattle for holding Chicago's offense at bay during the Fire's few scoring moments. And Nkufo faked out Brown with a Michael Jordan-esque move. Many defenders would have bought Nkufo's initial motion of looking to cross the ball.