The Chicago Fire could not have asked for a better start against the Premier League's Manchester United on Saturday.
They earned an early goal in front of a packed Soldier Field crowd and left a good early impression in their World Football Challenge match. But ultimately the Red Devils' top weapons prevailed, entering the match in the second half and eventually earning a 3-1 victory in front of 61,308 red-clad fans.
"For me, more than anything, we made the game competitive," Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas said.
Similar to Man U's match against Seattle Sounders FC, the Red Devils began the match with mostly backups and then inserted their main arsenal after halftime. The Fire, similar to Seattle, took some of their usual starters out and eventually emptied their bench in the final 10 minutes.
The scoreline might have been a loss, but the Fire at least posted the best showing among the teams that have played the Red Devils thus far this summer. Seattle fell by a 7-0 margin last week, and the New England Revolution posted a 4-1 loss to open the World Football Challenge earlier in the month.
"I felt they didn't just run over us," Fire defender Gonzalo Segares said. "We were able to put a good show and a good game, and I think it definitely will help to boost our confidence in the league, which we need to do better."
Fire defender Cory Gibbs was the game's early hero, heading in a Marco Pappa free kick past Man U goalkeeper David de Gea in the 13th minute to take the 1-0 lead.
"The goal feels great, but I'm disappointed we didn't win because we had a lot of chances," Gibbs said.
Nevertheless, it was an optimistic start as Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson was given an early lead to work with. Johnson made one save in his 45 minutes of work and Chicago went into the half with the lead.
"It definitely gave our team a boost to start off," Johnson said. "Whenever you're able to get up a goal early on a team like that, it does wonders for your team's confidence. We were able to play off of the first goal and come out of the first half, 1-0."
"The Chicago Fire played well," Man U manager Sir Alex Ferguson said. "They were very good in the counter attack -- a lot of pace up front, and they gave us some problems. They could have scored maybe two or three more."
The Red Devils found their scoring groove in the 66th minute, when second-half sub Wayne Rooney capitalized on a deep assist from Rio Ferdinand, posting a lobbing shot into the net to level the match at 1-1.
Rafael da Silva gave the Red Devils a 2-1 lead in the 76th minute, scoring at the near right post against backup Fire goalkeeper Jon Conway with a shot that went between Conway's legs.
Nani padded Man U's lead win the 82nd minute on a communication mishap among the Fire defense, souring what had been a strong start to the game.
Conway and the Fire allowed seven shots on goal in the second half, letting in three Man U tallies.
Grazzini debuts: Fire fans had their first look at midfielder Sebastian Grazzini, who signed with Chicago less than two weeks ago. Grazzini replaced Pappa in the 62nd minute, and his performance was mixed. He certainly had an active 30-minute stint, but there is room for improvement with his connections on the pitch.
"Sometimes it's a little bit hard coming into the game at that moment, but that's our plan with him," Klopas said. "We're pushing him very hard to get ready for the Philly game."
Analysis: Overall, it was a positive day for the Fire. For two-thirds of the match Chicago kept things close with Man U, which cannot be said for a Sounders side that completely fell apart to the Red Devils several days earlier.
Johnson only had one save, but there was a play where Dimitar Berbatov was up close and Johnson stuffed his shot. Berbatov was ruled offside, but the second-year Fire goalkeeper took no chances before the whistle eventually blew.
The same cannot be said for Johnson's backup, Conway. There was miscommunication on one goal and allowed another tally at the near right post, which should have been saved.
It was a rare moment for many of the Fire players and there were enough positives to take away from a two-goal defeat.
The Fire return to the MLS grind in a week and a half, and that is the area where Chicago needs to start fixing things.