The Chicago Fire dropped a 2-0 decision to Costa Rican powerhouse Deportivo Saprissa tonight in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champions Cup semifinals at Estadio Nacional in the Costa Rican capital of San José. With tonight's loss, the Fire drops its all-time record in the tourney to 5-3-2 and heads back to the Windy City with a two-goal deficit in the home-and-home series, which will continue next Wednesday, Apr. 21 when the Fire hosts the two-time Champions Cup champion Saprissa at Soldier Field beginning at 7:30 p.m. CT
The winner of the series will host the victor of the LD Alajuelense (Costa Rica)-Monterrey (Mexico) series on Wednesday, May 5 in the first leg of the two-game Finals series. Alajuelense has the upper hand in that match-up, as the Costa Rican club defeated 2003 Mexican Clausura Champions 1-0 tonight in Alajuela, Costa Rica.
"Well, we've been through this before, where we were at a deficit playing on the road in this tournament," said Fire Head Coach Dave Sarachan. "We have to believe that when Saprissa comes to Chicago next week we can get the job done. They're a good team. Today was a very hard fought, competitive match and unfortunately the referee didn't allow the game to flow the way we all had hoped. We just need to get ourselves back on track in the attacking end of things. It wasn't an easy day for either team, but we still we feel we can get back to Chicago on Wednesday and finish the job."
Both teams had their chances in the first half, with the host team pressuring the Fire with creative passing and speed. The Fire's superb defending was highlighted by goalkeeper Henry Ring, who kept Chicago in the game by making four saves in the first half. Ring, who, prior to the match, had not allowed a goal in 287 minutes of play, came up particularly big in the 8th minute, when Francisco Alfaro's shot from 10 yards out was denied by the South Carolina product.
The game took a drastic turn in the 30th minute of play, when Saprissa's Victor Flores received a red card after a ferocious challenge on veteran Chicago defender C.J. Brown. But the Fire's one-man advantage was short-lived, as two minutes later, Fire midfielder and captain Chris Armas would also exit the match after earning his second caution. Immediately following the controversial decision, Guatemalan referee Carlos Batres would send a third man off the field, this time asking Fire boss Dave Sarachan to exit the match. The calls caused the crowd to erupt, and Armas and Sarachan were escorted off the field by security guards in shields.
Just prior to the break, Fire forward Damani Ralph broke lose of his defender and made a run towards the goal, but his shot sailed high over the crossbar of Saprissa 'keeper Francisco Porras.
In the second half, Saprissa benefited from the exceptional play of leading goal scorer Alonso Solis (22 goals in domestic play), who was finally awarded for his efforts with an insurance goal off an 18-yard rocket in the 71st minute. Just ten minutes earlier, Solis' close-range shot had been blocked by the Fire's central defenseman, Jim Curtin. Saprissa's first goal was scored by midfielder Andres Nunez in the 50th minute. Nunez blasted home his 10-yard shot and eventual game-winner past Ring to give his team the lead.
The Fire will return to Chicago tomorrow after playing three consecutive matches on the road (MLS and Champions Cup play combined) and prepare for its MLS Home Opener against the Dallas Burn this Saturday, Apr. 17 at Soldier Field (7:30 p.m. CT, Comcast Cable). The Fire will then host Saprissa in Leg Two of the Champions Cup semifinals on Wednesday, Apr. 21 at Soldier Field beginning at 7:30 p.m. CT
"It's a tough stretch we know that, and we're going to rely on our full squad of players, for sure," said Sarachan on the mental and physical state of the team. "I was pleased with the guys that came in tonight, and the effort they put in. Logan [Pause], Dipsy [Selolwane] and C.J. and even the reserves that came in today were solid. So we're going to rely on those guys to get the job done."
The Fire is the lone American team remaining in the tournament, as defending MLS champions San Jose Earthquakes were eliminated last month by Alajuelense. The CONCACAF Champions Cup is the longest running international club competition in the region and has crowned the champion club of the Confederation since its inception in 1962.
SAP - Andres Nunez - 50'
SAP - Alonso Solis - 71'
Fire Lineup: GK-Henry Ring, D-C.J. Brown, D-Jim Curtin, D-Evan Whitfield (Kelly Gray 74), M-Nate Jaqua, M-Logan Pause, M-Chris Armas, M-Andy Williams (Craig Capano 77), M-DaMarcus Beasley, F-Dipsy Selolwane (Justin Mapp 78), F-Damani Ralph.
UNOFFICIAL STATS: SHOTS ON GOAL: 4; FOULS: 17; CORNER KICKS: 5; SAVES: *
Saprissa Lineup: GK-Francisco Porras, D-Daniel Torres, D-Victor Flores,
D-Reynado Perez, M-Gabriel Badilla (Try Benneth 71), M-Andres Nunez, M-Saul
Phillip, M-Francisco Alfaro (Walter Centeno 57), M-Alonso Solis, F-Gerald
Drummond, F-Armando Alonso (Alvaro Saborio 57).
UNOFFICIAL STATS: SHOTS ON GOAL: 11; FOULS: 13; CORNER KICKS: 9; SAVES: *
SAP - Gabriel Badilla - 16'
CHI - Chris Armas - 29'
CHI - Henry Ring - 30'
SAP - Victor Flores - 31' (RED)
CHI - Chris Armas - 32'
CHI - Chris Armas - 32' (RED)
CHI - Dave Sarachan - 33' (EJECTED)
Referee: Carlos Batres (Guatemala)
Weather: 70 degrees and windy