By ANTHONY ZILIS
Practice was a little different this week for the Chicago Fire than it had been in previous weeks.
No longer do the Fire have a 42-day winless streak hanging over their heads after defeating Philadelphia on Saturday at Toyota Park, and a more chipper feeling was the result.
The Fire want to keep that feeling for the next two weeks, while Major League Soccer breaks for the World Cup.
“It’s huge and we’ve talked about carrying the momentum from the last game, and hopefully we can stick to our game plan and win the game. Then go into the break and come back fresh and continue,” Patrick Nyarko said.
To do that, they’ll have to beat Colorado Wednesday night in Bridgeview, Ill., in the two teams’ final game before the break.
Toyota Park has not been the friendliest of confines to the Fire in recent years. This season, Chicago is 2-3-4 at home in all competitions.
Even Saturday’s win couldn’t be called an exhibition of the most attractive soccer. The Fire played defensively for much of the game and even brought every player into their defensive third at a few points, prompting Philadelphia coach and Fire original Peter Nowak to criticize the Fire’s style.
“The team that is supposed to play attractive soccer, attacking soccer at home played with 10 guys in the back, behind the ball,” Nowak said. “I think we expected something different. It was difficult to bring them down. I believe that in our league this kind of stuff is not supposed to happen.”
Fire head coach Carlos de Los Cobos defended his team’s style, saying they played very well defensively.
“All of the time, this is not our intention. Not all the time, when teams have the ball do they have control of the game,” de Los Cobos said. “We waited the moments to break. If you check the record of the match, we had more opportunities to score. They have the ball, but it’s not enough.”
C.J. Brown said this lack of intensity may come from a players’ lack of routine at home.
Playing while living a normal home life, he said, is much different from staying in a hotel and playing games.
“We don’t go into it saying we’re going to play a certain way at home and a certain way away. It’s more of a personality thing. When you play at home, maybe you tend to relax a little bit more, and the game seems to look a little slower or we look like we don’t press or pressure as much,” Brown said.
“At home games, we should have an advantage, and I don’t think we have taken advantage of that opportunity.”
To do that the Fire will have to beat a Rapids team that is fighting for second place in the Western Conference. World Cup snub Conor Casey will have to be a main concern for the Fire defense as well as speed on the wings from Omar Cummings and Colin Clark.
Chicago won’t have to worry about midfielder Pablo Mastroeni, who is suspended after receiving a red card in Saturday’s game against Columbus.
The Fire have speed on the wings of their own, with Nyarko likely returning to his normal right side after playing on the left on Saturday.
“I feel like if we play 90 minutes, stay concentrated, we are a tough team to beat, and we can win pretty much every game we play,” Nyarko said. “Warming up into games, 10 games into it, there’s really no excuse. We hope to stay disciplined and play well throughout the rest of the game.”
A win would put the Fire one point behind third-place Toronto FC.
“It’s very important. We need points,” de Los Cobos said. “If we get three points, we are close now. Compared with other teams, we play a few less matches. For that reason, we need to win games.”
De Los Cobos said he would probably stay with the same lineup he did in Saturday’s game, with the exception of Nyarko possibly playing on the right side instead of left, which he played Saturday, and Marco Pappa playing on the right.
Nyarko played on the left Saturday to take advantage of Union defender Cristian Arrieta’s lack of speed, de Los Cobos said.
Collins John has returned to training but will not start. He will be on the bench for the game, though.
Despite saying that Brian McBride and John are too similar to play together at times, de Los Cobos still plans on lining up the two together when John is healthy.
This is the Fire's expected lineup for Wednesday night's game.
Much has been made about the unpredictability of the new World Cup ball.
MLS has used the same ball all season. Fire goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra knows what the World Cup goalkeepers are going through, familiarizing themselves with the new ball.
“In preseason, we struggled a lot. Especially when the team went down to Mexico. The ball was just sailing and carrying in high altitude, so I think that might be an issue some places in South Africa,” Dykstra said. “It’s going to be interesting to see how they handle it. Obviously the forwards love it and goalkeeper hate it.”
Nyarko will be watching his native country, Ghana, very closely during the World Cup.
Ghana will be without star Michael Essien, who is out with a torn hamstring.
“I have faith in the guys that played in the (African) Nations Cup without Essien and made it all the way to the final,” Nyarko said. “I think at least we’re going to make it out of the group, and depending on the draw we get in the second round, I think we can make it.”
Nyarko hopes to get the call to Ghana’s team sooner rather than later. For United States fans who hope to add Nyarko to the group of speedy wingers in the U.S. pool, Nyarko said he isn’t considering getting citizenship to play for the red, white and blue.
“No, I haven’t really thought about it. If I had an option, I would play for Ghana,” he said.
“I’m doing my best at the club level, and I feel like if I work hard at the club level, the call is going to come. I’m just trying to stay patient right now.”
As for predictions, Nyarko isn’t going with favorites Spain or Brazil.
“My pick is Argentina,” he said. “Most of my teammates don’t agree with me, but I think they just need six great games by Messi and they’ll win it. I think that they have a great team that on any odd day can beat any team. Spain is still the favorite but Argentina can beat them.”
After playing in three straight World Cups, this year will be the first time Brian McBride gets to watch the tournament with his own family.
“I’m gonna be a fan. I’m looking forward to watching the game and I’ll be cheering for the US,” McBride said. “It’s probably going to be the same as for you. I’ll be watching and enjoying it, not having the intensity, but also being able to kick back and enjoy every aspect of it.”
McBride played with US forward Edson Buddle on the Columbus Crew for 2001-05. Buddle struggled at times during his MLS career but has hit his stride at the right time, scoring nine goals in nine games this season to put him on Bob Bradley’s squad.
“You talk about being at a young age and having talent, and he had that. It was a little more difficult to put it together for him, and now it seems like he’s put it together at the right time. I’m proud of him,” McBride said.
“It’s great to see an American, someone of that quality persevere through some periods he knew he could get through. Now, from everything I hear he’s working his tail off.”
The World Cup won’t be without familiar faces for Brown, who compiled 15 caps in his own right for the national team between 1999 and 2003.
Head coach Bob Bradley is one of the connections, coaching Brown from 1998-2002.
“Bob (Bradley), he’s the guy that gave me my opportunity, and he was the guy that gave me the opportunity with the national team,” Brown said.
Damarcus Beasley played with Brown from 2000-2004 on the Fire.
“I don’t want to take any credit for it, but I got a chance to play against him and work with him and, as a defender, I used to like try to kick him, and he’ll tell you that all the time. Hopefully I helped make him stronger and get used to stuff like that.
Carlos Bocanegra, captain of the US team, played with Brown on the Fire’s back line from 2000-2004 and won MLS’s Defender of the Year Award in 2002 and 2003.
“Bocanegra came in, and you always knew he had the chance to play overseas at the next level,” Brown said. “His first couple of years he was kind of feeling it out. Then I think in his third year, he realized, ‘I have a great opportunity,’ and he got serious and got it the best shape I had ever seen. He obviously took advantage of that and now he’s captain of the national team.”