First Half of the Double? Done
You can add one more trophy to the Fire's trophy case, which is already bulging after only nine years of existence. With a 3-1 win over the Los Angelas Galaxy on Wednesday night in Toyota Park, the Fire captured the U.S. Open Cup in what, hopefully, will prove to be the first half of the "double" (ie, winning the upcoming MLS Cup, as well.)
Amazingly, this is already the fourth U.S. Cup won by the Fire to go along with the MLS Cup won in 1998. Equally amazing, the Fire is now 11-1-1 in its last 13 games. Man, I love tossing around the word 'amazing' to describe the Fire.
The 3-1 scoreline wasn't nearly indicative of how close the game was. After the Fire controlled much of the first half and took a 2-0 halftime lead with a pair of goals in a six minute period (Nate Jaqua in the tenth minute and Andy Herron in the 16th), the Galaxy dominated long stretches of the second half, halving the deficit on a goal from Alan Gordon in the 51st minute and then continually pushing forward and looking very much up to the task of finding the equalizer until Thiago settled things with a victory-sealing strike in the 88th minute.
Ironically, while many have been quick to bemoan Jaqua's inability to use his height to capitalize on headers, he actually had to dive low to head in his goal. Justin Mapp, whose crosses were involved in the Fire's first two scores, sailed in a cross from the left side that C.J. Brown and Herron both got touches to before the ball bounced nicely in the direction of Jaqua, who had to stoop to knock it in the net with his noggin. One of the several other Fire players who stand on the short side might have had to jump. (I jest, I jest.)
Herron's goal? If you can, catch the video of Herron's goal, which was pretty, pretty, pretty. A cross, again from Mapp but from the opposite side of the field this time, found its way to the head of Herron, who deftly touched the ball ever so lightly just past the inside the far post and into the side netting. It couldn't have been placed any more perfectly.
After Ivan Guerrero nearly turned the game into a 3-0 rout by hitting the left post early in the second half, the Galaxy survived the near death blow and attacked relentlessly. While it is hard to find much criticism with Fire coach Dave Sarachan at the moment, this brought about the old dilemma of his tendency to sit on a lead and play all defense, which can be maddening, scary, and often backfires. Sarachan didn't immediatley make any defensive subs, but it seemed clear that the orders were to hang back and wait for the counter attack. This provided for nearly an entire second half of intense moments as, at times, it seemed inevitable that the Galaxy would equalize. Far more than I would have liked, I found myself turning to the clock to see how much time we had to kill off - and, good Lord, that clock seemed to be moving slowly.
In the end, it moved just quickly enough.
Immediately following the game, the entire Fire team headed directly to the wild Section 8 crew of lunatic fans behind the north goal and thanked them for their endless chanting, singing, undying love and general craziness. It was nice to see a team who appreciates its passionate, dedicated, diehard fandom. It was also nice to see the giant trophy being paraded around Toyota Park. I can't think of a better way to christen the place in its first year of existence or a better way to get get the good vibes settling into every seat, nail, post, and rafter.
It was also nice to see Chris Armans involved in the celebration, though decked in a suit and heavy jacket. The ageless captain was unable to play after picking up a red card in the semifinal win over D.C. United, but we all know the Fire probably wouldn't have been there without him.
By the way, sitting in the fourth row, I got to see Landon Donovan pull his disappearing act up close. It's a neat trick, really. It's like he's there but he isn't. Yes, he's great at disappearing in big games and, though he was involved in the Galaxy's goal, did little in this one. I was also able to hear the plenty of heckling Donovan received. Now, maybe I'm mean-spirited for enjoying it, but I can't say he didn't deserve it. For a guy who wasn't accomplishing much himself, he certainly was prone to throwing hissy fits and commanding his teammates around. Blech.
Anyway, as hot as the Fire is at the moment, and with the U.S. Open Cup now safely in their possession and tucked away in the trophy case forever and ever, the mission at this point is clearly to reach the MLS Cup on November 12 and capture the double. Can this be done? The Unknown Column sees no reason why not.
Here we go now.
Player ratings (On a scale of 1-10; 10 being Maradona in the 1986 World Cup, 1 being Landon Donovan in the 2006 World Cup.)
GK - Matt Pickens - 7: Continues to play steadily in the place of the injured Zach Thornton. Looked shaky once or twice, but actually made two fantastic saves in the immediate buildup to the Galaxy's lone goal. Where was the defense at that moment? It was great to see Thorton immediatly race from the bench to his understudy after the final whistle to offer congratulations, bad hammy and all. Ah, team camaraderie.
D - Tony Sanneh - 7: Watching him commandeer the middle of the defense these days, I can't help but wonder if Sanneh wouldn't have been a better choice than Eddie Pope in a similar position for the national team in the World Cup. While Pope has clearly lost a step (or three), Sanneh seems to still be at the top of his game, or close to it, despite his age. He even came forward in attack to calmly set up Thiago's clinching goal with a patiently taken, well-placed pass.
D - CJ Brown - 7: Much like Sanneh, the vet seems to be as steady as ever. Involved in the first Fire goal and helped to keep Donovan and the entire Galaxy attack in check all night.
D - Gonzalo Segares - 6: Can look shaky at times, but all in all, the lefty did a steady job on the left side. The Galaxy was relatively quiet coming down its right side so credit to Segares is due here.
M - Nate Jaqua - 6: While I still feel uncomfortable seeing Jaqua man the right side of midfield, he did score the first goal, so credit where credit is due. Rather quiet for the rest of the night, but no big mistakes, so no complaints.
M - Logan Pause - 6: As usual, played a quiet role as a defensive midfielder. Nothing flashy, but the Galaxy attack was stymied and did little in the way of coming down the midle where Pause was located.
M - Diego Gutierrez - 7: Ejected for two yellow cards in the 89th minute, but left to a standing ovation for doing exactly what he always does - playing the role of the steady holding midfielder helping to control things in the center both offensively and defensively. Played without his partner in crime, Chris Armas, which made his work on this night that much more important.
M - Justin Mapp - 7: It can be argued that, on this night at least, Mapp was a better attacking midfielder than Donovan. His crosses were heavily involved in the Fire's first two goals. Mapp always looks dangerous when playing in the center just behind the forwards, as he did last night - and much better than when he plays on the flanks.
M - Ivan Guerrero - 6: Did his usual steady job on the left side of midfield. Rarely lost the ball and kept the Fire's attack in motion when called upon on the left flank. (He also had to deal with the annoying antics of Santino Quaranta for much of the night. For the record, I can see now why Santana played his way out of DC and why he hasn't been seen with the national team since the 2005 Gold Cup. He spent much of his energy jawing at the crowd and generally displaying a glaring lack of maturity. Which is a shame. He has some talent.)
Andy Herron - 7: His goal was a beauty and he was involved in several other near-misses and other various Fire buildups. Has scored in three straight games now and, as always, looks like the Fire's most dangerous option up top.
F - Chris Rolfe - 6: Relatively quiet, but found himself in the center of a handful of attractive Fire buildups. Seemed to drop back in the second half at times almost into a midfield role.
D - Dasan Robinson - 6: Came on as an added fourth defender in the 82nd minute and helped prevent the Galaxy from scoring the equalizer until Thiago sealed things.
M - Thiago - 6: Came on in the 85th minute and scored only three minutes later, though Sanneh did most of the heavy lifting on the goal.
D - Jim Curtin - Incomplete: Came on in injurty time so was never involved in the action, but it was nice to see his floppy red hair out there for the final minute or so.