Chicago Stumbles Before Saturday Showdown with New York (on NBC)

It had all the markings (trappings?) of a trap game: At home, against eighth-place Philadelphia—an 8-15-6 team already eliminated from playoff contention—and just three days before a big game on national television against New York, the team tied with the Fire in second place in the East.

The only pushback against all that was the fact Chicago were celebrating their 15h anniversary as a franchise, and club luminaries such as Chris ArmasCuauhtemoc Blanco, and Peter Nowak (yes, the ex-Philadelphia coach who’s currently embroiled in a lawsuit with the visiting club) would participate in a halftime ceremony.

They couldn’t screw the pooch on that occasion could they?

Yes, they could:

Sweet finishes by Jack McInerney and Gabriel Gomez, and a nifty one by Princeton alum Antoine Hoppenot on the third goal.

The loss leaves Chicago tied with New York on 53 points (with the same number of games played), but behind the Red Bulls in the goals-scored tiebreaker.

Sure, they were missing head coach Frank Klopas and left back Gonzalo Segares, both red-carded in the Fire’s last outing (a 2-0 loss to KC at Livestrong Sporting Park), but, as center back Arne Friedrich told the league website, “We forgot to defend.”

That’ll get you every time.

The Chicago–New York tilt kicks off at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC.

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D.C. United 4, Chicago 2: Andy Najar Finds New Position, Sean Johnson Might Want to Do the Same

Okay, that’s a little harsh, we admit. And we like Johnson: He’s a great shot-stopper, and he’s got a voice like James Earl Jones to boot. But man, has he shown a scary tendency for killer mental errors.

He made two in Chicago’s 4-2 loss to D.C. United last night, in a game that also featured United youngster Andy Najar’s debut at right back, which went as well as Johnson’s night went poorly.

Take a look:

Let’s review: In the 19th minute, Johnson—and his defenders—got lazy on a shot to the far post from Chris Pontius, letting it roll through the six-yard box untouched—until Dwayne De Rosario popped up to punch it in for the game’s first goal.

Then in the waning moments—in a play reminiscent of his mistake against El Salvador in Olympic qualifying last March (more on that shortly)—Johnson flailed at a weak shot from Long Tan, allowing it to dribble through his grasp and in for the game-killing fourth goal.

Unfortunately for Johnson, and the U.S. goalkeeping depth chart, these lapses are not isolated incidents. The agile, 6-4 ’keeper has battled mental bugaboos since (at least) the spring of 2011, when a crisis of confidence and a series of elementary mistakes got him benched for several weeks.

A year later he made that disastrous error against El Salvador in Olympic qualifying, aka the Nightmare in Nashville, aka the 3-3 Tie that Sunk U.S. Olympic Hopes and So Much More. See it here.

That Robert Green-esque blunder brought the bridge to London falling down on the U.S. team’s head, and with it a massive opportunity to boost the profile of the game, and Major League Soccer, through the league’s broadcast partnership with NBC, which also televised the Games.

Johnson did bounce back from that gaffe during the 2012 MLS season, putting together a string of solid performances and even one spectacular, 10-save thriller against San Jose in late July. And it was almost enough to erase the memory of Nashville. Until last night.

On the bright side of last night’s young-player ledger, D.C.’s 19-year-old Home Grown player Najar was a revelation in his new role, getting forward dangerously, creating chances, and defending pretty well, too.

United’s win pulled them to within a point of Chicago and Houston in the crowded East standings, where six points separate fifth from first.

MLS Goal of the Week Nominees: Who’ll Finish Second to Sanna Nyassi?

There were some great goals in MLS’s Week 23, from Dane Richards’ sly curl around a defender into the top corner, to Jair Benitez’s terrific free kick.

But they all took a backseat, in our humble opinion, to Montreal attacker Sanna Nyassi’s sensational 70-yard run and sizzling finish past New England keeper Matt Reis.

Take a look:

Note to MLS defenders: do not let Sanna Nyassi build up a head of steam. He becomes unstoppable.

MLS Goal of the Week Candidates

Variety was the name of the MLS goal-scoring game this week, as the golazos came in several forms.

Are you a fan of slick, one-touch passing? Check out the build-up to Toronto rookie Luis Silva’s finish against New England (that’s Reggie Lambe and Danny Koevermans with the combination play there).

How about gravity-defying vertical leaps? Vancouver’s Darren Mattocks, also a rookie, has you covered with a Spud Webb–like leap to connect with Jordan Harvey’s cross against Toronto earlier in the week.

Or maybe you enjoy deadly, looping, long-range accuracy? The first of David Beckham’s two goals against Portland showcased those qualities—and we have a feeling the goal-of-the-week voters will appreciate them. (The “bend” in “bend it like Beckham,” by the way, is as much up-and-down as it is side-to-side.)

Here are all five:

For our recap of all the Week 19 action, click here.

MLS Goal of the Week Nominees: Barklage Leads A Crowded Field

Below are your Week 16 MLS Goal of the Week candidates, and they make up a shiny, sparkling group, from Patrick Ianni’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic impression to Marco Pappa’s I-can-actually-use-my-right-foot screamer.

But we say the award has to go to New York’s Brandon Barklage, for the degree of difficulty of the shot (nine times out of 10 the player flubs that, or sends it way over the bar), the importance of the goal (it put New York in front just before halftime, pacing an eventual 3-2 win) and the context (it came against the team that cut him loose last winter, and it was his second goal of the game).

Take a look:

The winner will be announced on Thursday.

Rising In the East: Chicago

As we said yesterday, the 2012 edition of Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference appears poised to put a dent in the Western Conference’s recent dominance (last three MLS champs, five of last six MLS Cup finalists).

There are a number of teams in the East with lofty goals and the ability to achieve them this year. We’re not saying the Western dominance will be reversed, but don’t be surprised if there’s a noticeable shift in conference power this year.

Today, we look at the Chicago Fire.

Chicago closed last season as one of the hottest teams in the league, going 7-2-1 down the stretch. But as torrid as their closing run was, it couldn’t make up for their frigid start: The Fire won just once in their first 13 games under coach Carlos de los Cobos. He was dismissed in late May, and after new coach Frank Klopas acquired midfielders Pavel Pardo (148 caps for Mexico) and Sebastian Grazzini (an Argentine who had five goals in 11 appearances last year), the Fire became a very tough out.

They finished 9-9-16, with those 16 ties being both an MLS record (tied—appropriately—with New York) and an indication of what might have been.

This season, with Pardo and Grazzini in the fold at the start, Chicago is aiming high. “We feel we can reach the playoffs,” Klopas told MLSsoccer.com in January. “The [US] Open Cup, the Supporters’ Shield, [those are] things we think we can win. It’s great that we’re setting those goals early on.”

They’ll have their two influential midfielders for the entire season this year, but the Fire did not stand pat during the offseason. They acquired experienced Colombian midfielder Rafael Robayo, 27, from Millonarios, where he was captain and helped lead the club to the 2011 Copa Colombia title.

They picked up goalkeeper Jay Nolly, formerly of Vancouver, to spell Sean Johnson, and they added depth up top with Zimbabwean speedster Kheli Dube. He’ll start on the bench behind new signing Federico Puppo, a 25-year-old Uruguayan who has two goals in three appearances for his nation’s U-22 side, and should make for some interesting announcing sequences when he combines with Fire midfielder Marco Pappa this season.

The Fire also locked in promising striker Orr Barouch on a permanent transfer after he’d been on loan from Tigres of the Mexican top flight, and they picked up some interesting prospects in the SuperDraft, including potential Name Hall of Famers Lucky Mkosana (Dartmouth) and Hunter Jumper (UVA).

Yes, things are looking up at Toyota Park, and if the team stays healthy, it could be looking down at much of the Eastern Conference table come October.

Tomorrow: New York.

MLS Roundup: Dallas Clinches Playoffs, Vancouver Dents DC, Keane Update

FC Dallas locked down a berth in the 2011 MLS Cup playoffs last night with a convincing 2-1 win at Chicago’s Toyota Park.

The Hoops dominated the opening 45 minutes, gettting a goal from Jackson just before halftime and one from Daniel Cruz just after the break.

Sebastian Grazzini pulled one back for Chicago with a brilliant effort in the 86th minute, but it was too little too late for the home team, which was down to 10 men at that point after Pavel Pardo had been shown a straight red in the 79th.

The Fire now stand six points shy of the playoffs with two games to play, and will be eliminated from the postseason if New York wins or ties at Kansas City on Saturday afternoon. In other words, they whiffed in—as Chris Russo would say—a big spot last night, at home against a team that entered the game on a four-game losing streak.

FCD’s goals here:

In Vancouver, the Whitecaps won their second straight game at their new digs, clipping the wings of DC United’s playoff hopes with a 2-1 triumph at BC Place.

We’ve said before that Vancouver might be the best last-place team in MLS history—only now they’re no longer in the cellar. Last night’s win gave the Caps 28 points for the season, one more than New England.

In any event, they are, despite their 6-16-10 record, a dangerous and entertaining side—an ideal spoiler for teams with playoff hopes, as DC discovered. They’re fired up to defend their new home turf, and they have the talent to do it—even without playmaker Davide Chiumiento, who was left out of the 18 last night due to an attitude issue, apparently.

No matter: the Caps scored 40 seconds into the game, when Camilo got on the end of a fine cross by Jordan Harvey (who seems to be enjoying the move from left back to left midfield) and turned in his 12th goal of the season.

Vancouver proceeded to dominate the first half, knocking the ball around crisply, and then, just seconds after the break, the Caps produced an almost exact replica of their opener, with Alain Rochat finding Long Tan for a header to make it 2-0. It was Tan’s first career MLS goal and it was also the first goal by a Chinese-born player in MLS history.

United defender Brandon McDonald made it 2-1 with a 58th-minute header, and DC had a penalty shout in the 76th, when a shot ricocheted off Caps midfielder Jeb Brovsky’s arm, but the pleas were waved off and Vancouver held on to win.

Here is Long Tan’s history-making header:

United—which played last night without Dwayne De Rosario, who suited up for Canada in Toronto on Tuesday—is five points off the playoff pace with three games remaining, all at home.

• Apparently, there’s discord in Denver, where Colorado Rapids coach Gary Smith is citing a “relationship issue” that could prevent him from continuing to work with Rapids’ technical director and former U.S. international Paul Bravo. (Denver Post, via MLSSoccer’s Kick Off.)

“We need to be able to come to terms with what both of us are at the club, or we need to move on,” Smith said. “One of us does, anyway.”

Not the best way to head into tomorrow night’s Rocky Mountain Cup game against Real Salt Lake, where a victory would clinch a playoff spot for the defending champs. (RSL is already in the postseason.)

• Galaxy striker Robbie Keane’s injury is worse than first reported, and Republic of Ireland manager Giovanni Trappatoni is not happy that the player went the full 90 against Andorra last Friday instead of reporting the injury and coming off. The coach said Keane “made it worse” by playing a full game with the injury.

No word yet from Los Angeles coach Bruce Arena on the prospect of competing in the playoffs without his top striker.