Second half goals from Andy Williams and Jim Curtin were enough to carry the Chicago Fire to a victory 2-1 Wednesday night at Soldier Field, but an early goal from Deportivo Saprissa's Alonso Solis turned out to be the difference maker in the two clubs' CONCACAF Champions Cup semifinal series, which Saprissa won by a 3-2 margin. Saprissa will move on to the final of the regional club competition, where they will face the winner of the CF Monterrey (MEX) - LD Alajuelense (CRC) semifinal series, while Chicago bows out of CONCACAF's showcase tournament in the semifinals for the second time in three appearances.
"We came up one goal short tonight. We took the game to them and had plenty of chances, but we just couldn't get that goal to push it to even up the series," said Fire assistant coach Denis Hamlett, who ran the Fire from the sidelines for the suspended Dave Sarachan. "We'd be a little bit worried if we weren't getting chances. When you have as many chances as we had today sooner or later they're going to start going in. Tonight was in some ways a good night because we finally scored some goals, now we've just got to build on that."
After coming into tonight's match with a two-goal deficit in the series, Chicago looked to press the action from the opening whistle. The effort nearly paid off in the 5th minute when forward Damani Ralph dribbled along the left endline and slotted a cross to fellow striker Dipsy Selolwane, whose touch just in front of the goal sent the ball just outside the near post. Six minutes later Saprissa would bury its only quality chance of the game when Solis took advantage of a defensive miscue to put the Costa Rican side up three goals in the series. Fire defender Kelly Gray attempted to cut off a diagonal pass 35 yards from goal, but failed to corral the pass, which fell to the feet of Solis. In his debut with the Fire, goalkeeper D.J. Countess was left one-on-one with the Solis, who netted his second goal of the series on a low-angle shot to the left post, putting "Los Morados" up 1-0 in the match.
The Fire's finishing touch continued to hide through the end of the first half despite the creation of several quality chances. Williams forced Saprissa goalkeeper Francisco Porras into a stellar diving save to his left in the 28th minute on a laser of a shot from 25 yards out. Porras came up big on two occasions just one minute later, first stopping DaMarcus Beasley's low shot from the top left corner of the penalty area and then snagging a Justin Mapp cross that was popped up inside the goal box by a defender. The Fire's bad fortune continued into first half added time, as Selolwane's shot from near the penalty spot was batted down by Porras. Beasley then pounced on the rebound and roofed the chance into the top of the netting but was deemed offsides and the half ended 1-0 in favor of the visitors.
Chicago's all-out attack continued in the second half, and this time the pressure would result in the Fire's seemingly endless goalless streak coming to an end. Beasley began the play in the 55th minute, as the speedy midfielder collected a pass near the midfielder stripe and raced the ball up the middle of the park. Beasley was dispossessed around 25 yards from goal, but Selolwane snared the loose ball and brought it towards the top of the penalty area, where he slotted a pass to the right side of the area for Williams. The Jamaican international would do no wrong with the chance as he buried the ball into the upper left corner, tying the match at 1-1 and ending the Fire's streak of 415 minutes of scoreless soccer, a mark dating back to the Fire's last home match in Champions Cup play against San Juan Jabloteh on Mar. 24.
The "Men in Red" continued to press the issue, but chances by Mapp in the 59th minute and back-to-back opportunities from Selolwane and Ralph in the 65th minute all came up dry. Selolwane, who led the Fire with seven points during the tournament, again just missed in the 75th minute after his turn-and-fire attempt from 10 yards out trickled wide left of Porras's net. Later in the minute Ralph and Beasley would team up for a stellar give-and-go attempt, with Ralph chipping Beasley into the left side of the penalty area. However, jubilation quickly turned into disappointment as the crowd realized Beasley's apparent goal had hit the left side netting of the goal.
Chicago found signs of life in the 86th minute when the towering combination of Nate Jaqua and Curtin hooked up to bring the Fire within one goal in the series. Jaqua was able to get on the end of a Williams free kick on the right side of the area, which the second-year striker was able to head it towards the far post. With Porras off his line, Curtin was able to kick high a re-direct the ball across the line to give the Fire a 2-1 lead in the match. Williams had the best opportunity to draw the series even, but his shot in the 89th minute sailed high.
Countess was not the only member of the "Men in Red" to debut Wednesday night, as midfielder Sumed Ibrahim also made his first professional soccer appearance. The native of Ghana and the Fire's third round selection in last January's MLS SuperDraft entered the match for Selolwane in the 77th minute.
Chicago will have no time rest, as the "Men in Red" will travel to the Nation's Capital this weekend for an Eastern Conference showdown against former captain and Peter Nowak, 14-year-old phenom Freddy Adu and the rest of rival D.C. United this Saturday, Apr. 24 at 4 p.m. CT. That match will be televised nationally on ESPN2's "MLS Soccer Saturday" broadcast.
Fire Man of the Match: Andy Williams (Chicago Fire)
SAP - Alonso Solis (unassisted) 11
CHI - Andy Williams (Dipsy Selolwane) 55
CHI - Jim Curtin (Nate Jaqua) 86
Deportivo Saprissa (4-4-2): GK-Francisco Porras; D-Andres Nunez, D-Reynaldo Perez, D-Daniel Torres, D-Ronald Gonzalez; M-Francisco Alfaro (Wilson Munoz 68), M-Try Benneth, M-Saul Phillip; M-Jose Lopez (Walter Centeno 61), F-Alonso Solis, F-Esteban Santana.
TOTAL SHOTS: 4 (Jose Lopez 2); SHOTS ON GOAL: 2 (Andres Nunez, Alonso Solis 1); FOULS: 11 (Alonso Solis 3); OFFSIDES: 5 (Alonso Solis 3); CORNER KICKS: 0; SAVES: Francisco Porras 8.
Chicago Fire (4-4-2): GK-D.J. Countess; D-Kelly Gray, D-Jim Curtin, D-C.J. Brown (Capt.), D-Leonard Griffin (Nate Jaqua 45), M-Logan Pause, M-Justin Mapp, M-Andy Williams (Kelly Gray 92+), M-DaMarcus Beasley; F-Damani Ralph, F-Dipsy Selolwane (Sumed Ibrahim 77).
TOTAL SHOTS: 24 (Andy Williams 6); SHOTS ON GOAL: 10 (Andy Williams 3); FOULS: 11 (C.J. Brown 4); OFFSIDES: 1 (DaMarcus Beasley 1); CORNER KICKS: 8 (DaMarcus Beasley, Andy Williams 3); SAVES: D.J. Countess 1.
SAP - Ronald Gonzalez (caution, Deliberate Handball) 31
CHI - Logan Pause (caution, Tackle from Behind) 43
SAP - Ronald Gonzalez (caution; Tackle from Behind) 93+
SAP - Ronald Gonzalez (ejection; Second Caution) 93+
Referee: Gilberto Alcala (MEX)
Referee's Assistants: Greg Barkey (USA), Craig Lowry (USA)
4th Official: Michael Kennedy (USA)
Time of Game: 1:53
Weather: Cloudy and 55 degrees