Ralph's strike snaps Fire's streak
off an impressive individual effort -- provided the Fire with their first league goal of the year after 327 minutes of play.
Ralph's goal halted Chicago's scoreless streak a half-hour shy of the MLS record for the longest goalless streak to start a season. Fire midfielder Andy Williams found Ralph in the middle of the field 35 yards from goal. Ralph then turned toward the net and simply outran defenders Ryan Nelsen and Ben Olsen before slotting the ball home from 12 yards out.
The defending Eastern Conference champions won their first game of the year, helped in no small part by a third shutout of the season for goalkeeper Henry Ring, who recorded eight saves, while United lost for the second consecutive week after opening the season with a win and a draw.
United, for the second straight week dominated the first half, but fell short in the second. They clearly had the edge in an opening frame marked by tight marking in a muddled midfield and a lack of flow.
Straight off the opening kick, United looked to push the tempo with Jaime Moreno heavily involved. In the fifth minute, Moreno freed Bobby Convey on the left flank. Convey's low cross was redirected just off the bar by Earnie Stewart, who was streaking toward the near post.
In the 26th minute, United again assaulted the Fire back line, as Dema Kovalenko made a perfectly timed run to overlap Olsen. Olsen played Kovalenko into the space on the right side of the penalty area, and Ring did well to save Kovalenko's low, hard shot.
At the other end, the Fire could find no room to move. On several occasions, Ralph found himself with the ball on the edge of the box, but surrounded by black shirts and unable to do anything. Though Ralph used his strength well to maintain possession, he was given few options.
When they weren't blanketing the Fire's attacking players, United's midfielders were advancing on the Fire net. In the 38th minute, Olsen had loads of space in the middle of the park and, after carrying the ball toward the box, fired a shot from 20 yards out, which Ring just pushed over the bar.
The Fire's best chance of the half was produced by DaMarcus Beasley, streaking down the center of the field. Beasley found midfielder Justin Mapp on the right side of area. He had a free shot, but mis-hit it and the ball cleared the bar by several yards.
In the opening minutes of the second half, the teams traded chances and both goalkeepers showed their worth. In the 46th minute, Alecko Eskandarian launched a shot from 12 yards out, and Ring had to dive to the left to punch it wide. Three minutes later, Williams ran onto a through ball on the left and carried the ball almost to the end line. After cutting the ball back, he put a high, hard shot on net, but United 'keeper Nick Rimando knocked the ball in the air and United was forced to clear their lines.
Then just before the hour, Ralph showed his strength and speed in netting the game's only goal. The second-year player, who signed a long-term contract with MLS and the Fire on Thursday, also let his hair down and was the key to the Fire attack all afternoon.
Not long after the Ralph goal, the Fire could have doubled their lead. Ralph played a ball for strike partner Nate Jaqua in the area, and Jaqua nearly slid the ball inside the far post from a tough angle.
Late in the game, the play slowed down as the Fire clogged their defensive third looking to maintain their lead. Referee Ricardo Valenzuela issued three yellow cards in a seven-minute span, and even 14-year-old rookie Freddy Adu got in the act, receiving a yellow card in the 76th minute for pushing Williams.
United made two final efforts came close to leveling the score, first when Kovalenko had a chance from point-blank range in the 81st minute after having beaten the offside trap, only to shoot straight at Ring. A few minutes later, it was Olsen's turn to try to even things. Adu laid the ball off to Olsen at the top of the box, but again the shot was directly at Ring.
Chicago will look to build on Saturday's success when they take on the MetroStars on Saturday, May 1, at Soldier Field (8:30 p.m. ET). United next weekend travels to San Jose to play the Earthquakes at 4 p.m. ET in a game that will air live on ESPN2.
MLSnet.com Man of the Match: Damani Ralph
CHI -- Damani Ralph 1 (Andy Williams 1) 57
Chicago Fire -- Henry Ring, C.J. Brown, Jim Curtin, Kelly Gray, Logan Pause, Justin Mapp (Dipsy Selolwane 64), Chris Armas, Andy Williams (Craig Capano 88), DaMarcus Beasley, Nate Jaqua, Damani Ralph.
Substitutes Not Used: D.J. Countess, Leonard Griffin, Sumed Ibrahim.
TOTAL SHOTS: 12 (4 tied with 2); SHOTS ON GOAL: 2 (Damani Ralph 1, Andy Williams 1); FOULS: 18 (3 tied with 3); OFFSIDES: 0; CORNER KICKS: 5 (5 tied with 1); SAVES: 8 (Henry Ring 8)
D.C. United -- Nick Rimando, Bryan Namoff, Ryan Nelsen, Mike Petke, Earnie Stewart (Joshua Gros 72), Brian Carroll, Dema Kovalenko, Ben Olsen, Bobby Convey, Alecko Eskandarian (Ronald Cerritos 62), Jaime Moreno (Freddy Adu 72).
Substitutes Not Used: Kevin Ara, Troy Perkins, Brandon Prideaux, David Stokes, Doug Warren.
TOTAL SHOTS: 16 (Ben Olsen 6); SHOTS ON GOAL: 8 (Ben Olsen 4); FOULS: 21 (Bobby Convey 4, Bryan Namoff 4); OFFSIDES: 2 (Alecko Eskandarian 1, Ben Olsen 1); CORNER KICKS: 8 (Bobby Convey 5); SAVES: 1 (Nick Rimando 1)
CHI -- Nate Jaqua (caution; Reckless Foul) 20
DC -- Bryan Namoff (caution; Persistent Infringement) 28
CHI -- Kelly Gray (caution; Tackle from Behind) 34
DC -- Mike Petke (caution; Reckless Foul) 69
CHI -- C.J. Brown (caution; Reckless Foul) 74
DC -- Freddy Adu (caution; Pushing, Holding) 76
Referee: Ricardo Valenzuela
Referee's Assistants: Kermit Quisenberry; Bahij Salman
4th Official: Erich Simmons
Time of Game: 1:53
All Statistics contained in this boxscore are unofficial.