The Chicago Fire handled 2010 MLS runner-up FC Dallas with composure in their season opener, earning a 1-1 draw on Saturday in the first leg of the Brimstone Cup at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas.
Uruguayan forward Diego Chaves netted his first MLS goal for the Fire as both teams scored within the first 20 minutes. The Fire, who regularly were handed red cards during the preseason, actually benefited on Saturday with Dallas defender Brek Shea getting ejected in the 55th minute.
Though the Fire could not get the go-ahead goal while up a man for most of the second half, getting a road draw against a tough Western Conference squad was a satisfying beginning to the 2011 campaign.
"Sometimes you tie and don't feel very good [about the result], and sometimes you tie and feel like you win," Fire head coach Carlos de los Cobos said. "At the end of the game, I am not very happy about the result, but I am happy about the effort of the players."
The Fire got off to the start that they wanted as Chaves netted a goal in the 17th minute for the 1-0 Chicago lead. Just before the goal, official Terry Vaughn whistled Dallas for a foul, even though Chaves had an advantage and probably could have been allowed to play on. Nevertheless, Fire midfielder Marco Pappa took the subsequent free kick outside of the box, with defender Cory Gibbs getting a strike on goal against Dallas goalkeeper Kevin Hartman. The rebound bounced to Chaves and he put the ball in the back of the net.
But the Fire's early jubilation quickly evaporated as FCD's Milton Rodriguez tied the score at 1-1 in the 18th minute. Zach Loyd did the bulk of the work as he dribbled past Fire rookie defender Jalil Anibaba and midfielder Bratislav Ristic on the left side of the pitch. Loyd fed the ball to Rodriguez, who had a back-heel shot as Logan Pause was marking him closely, but not quite close enough.
The Fire came close to garnering the lead early in the second half when Chaves hit the crossbar in the 49th minute. Gaston Puerari took a corner kick from the left side, with Pappa providing a backheel pass while he was turned away from the goal. That lead pass went right to Chaves, but his shot was a shade too high as FCD's shaky defense escaped unscathed.
The critical moment of the match came in the 55th minute when Shea, playing as a left-center back, was red-carded for a foul against Puerari. Vaughn felt strongly that Puerari was ahead of Shea, and because Shea was the last defender, the red card was pulled.
Shortly after, the Fire had their best scoring chance of the match in the 60th minute as Puerari eluded Brazilian defender Jackson and had a one-on-one attack against Hartman. But Puerari's right-footed shot hit Hartman's left foot.
"It was a little bit disappointing," Pause said of the Fire's absence of a go-ahead goal with a man advantage. "We were up a man for about 30 minutes, but we need to keep things in perspective. Coming in here and getting a point is fantastic. It's the first game of the year, with a new group, and the guys showed a level of commitment that I am proud of. So I think we are on the right track."
Dallas maintained its offensive attack despite being down a player, but FCD could not take advantage. In the 84th and 87th minutes, 2010 MLS MVP David Ferreira took a pair of free kicks from the left side, and on both occasions he went for the goal. But Ferreira's curling strikes both sailed wide left as Dallas did not force Johnson or the Fire defense into making a stop.
Johnson made two saves on the night, while Dallas' Hartman had five saves.
Analysis: The Uruguayan tandem of Chaves and Puerari showed some good life on a front line that was lacking a consistent attack during the 2010 season. Though both players missed prime scoring opportunities in the second half where they could have opened up a lead, Chaves' and Puerari's work rate was strong -- something Fire followers should be optimistic about following this opener.
The Fire introduced their new 3-5-2 formation in regular-season action, but midway through the first half it morphed into a 4-4-2, with Gonzalo Segares dropping back from the midfield to play at left back and moving Gibbs to left-center back. Considering the nature of Dallas' game, the 4-4-2 probably was a better alignment to open the match in the first place.
During the week, it was unknown exactly what midfield lineup De los Cobos would go with. But the decision to open with Patrick Nyarko on the bench was puzzling to say the least.
The team's assists leader from a year ago and probably the Fire's best playmaker should have been out on the pitch from the very start. A player with Nyarko's quickness and creativity is too valuable on the bench. De los Cobos did bring in Nyarko late in the first half for Ristic. It wasn't the best of games for Nyarko, whose timing of his passes was a bit off, but his energy was a plus as always.
All in all, it was a positive start to the Fire's season as they prepare for their home opener on Saturday, March 26, against Sporting Kansas City at Toyota Park.