Before this weekend, the Chicago Fire hadn’t lost a game or given up a set-piece goal under interim head coach Frank Klopas.
They did both on Saturday, conceding twice on set plays en route to a crushing 2-1 defeat at the league leading LA Galaxy.
“We’re desperate, we needed a point more than they did,” Fire winger Patrick Nyarko told MLSsoccer.com by phone after the match. “I thought we came out with the right intentions to go out and win the game and I thought we played pretty well, just gave up two bad set-piece goals and here we are with a loss."
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“It’s real disappointing," Nyarko added. "Everyone is really disappointed because we put everything into it and executed the game plan. We just didn’t finish out the game, lost concentration on a couple plays and got beaten.”
After frustrating LA in the first half with some effective conservative play, the Fire opened things up after the break. Chicago started the second half strongly, controlling the play and generating several dangerous chances.
But the Fire lost the momentum in the 58th, when defender Gonzalo Segares let Galaxy forward Landon Donovan beat him to a David Beckham free kick at the back post for a headed goal.
Chicago answered Donovan’s goal four minutes later, equalizing with a well-worked goal that forward Cristian Nazarit finished strongly.
But the Fire didn’t make the deadlock last long, conceding in the 65th minute, again on a set piece. This time, Beckham did it himself, curling a low corner kick through the legs of three players — including Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson — and into the back of the net for a bizarre goal.
Though they hadn’t given up any dead-ball goals under Klopas before Saturday, conceding on set pieces is somewhat familiar for the Fire, who gave up seven set-play goals in their first 11 games.
“It was just losses in concentration,” Nyarko said of the goals. “[Beckham’s] probably the best set-piece taker in the world and I think that we shut down for a couple of those and they punished us.
“I think we got comfortable with the fact that we haven’t conceded a set piece goal in a while. And against a good team with a good player like Beckham, we cannot afford to do that.”
Despite their difficulties on set plays, Chicago would have left LA with a point if they had put away their opportunities. The Fire, who have struggled with their finishing all season, missed a golden chance in the 72nd minute, when wide-open attacker Marco Pappa hit a Nyarko pass over the bar from 12 yards out.
Though Pappa’s chance was the Fire’s last real opportunity of the match, Chicago still found a way to go out with a bang. The Fire bench erupted after LA midfielder Chris Birchall brought Nyarko down with a harsh challenge in stoppage time, sending players and coaches onto the field and leading to substitute defender Josip Mikulic’s ejection.
Mikulic, who was not in the game at the time of the incident, will be suspended for the July 16 home match against Portland.
The Fire won’t have a lot of time to stew about the tackle or Mikulic’s ejection, though. They play again next Tuesday, July 12, hosting what will be a reserve-laden New York Red Bulls squad in the US Open Cup quarterfinals at Toyota Park — a game for which Nyarko, who had to be subbed off after the challenge, said he should be available.
“We have to take it a game at a time,” Nyarko said. “As much as this is disappointment, we have a quick turnaround and a win on Tuesday would bring our spirits back.”
Sam Stejskal covers the Chicago Fire for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @samstejskal.