By ANTHONY ZILIS
Last season, Chicago Fire goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra won his team’s backup spot in an exhibition match against Club America.
Dykstra’s performance was impressive, and he eventually beat out former MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Jon Busch for this season’s starting spot.
Rookie goalkeeper Sean Johnson had a similar chance to impress Fire coaches Wednesday, getting the starting nod in the Fire’s 1-0 loss to Paris St. Germain. While his performance in the opening match of the Sister Cities International Cup wasn’t all shaky, the former Central Florida goalkeeper’s professional career didn’t get off to the start he would have hoped for.
“Sometimes we are very demanding of some players,” Fire head coach Carlos de Los Cobos said. “But we need to understand that this young player, maybe he can become better, but we need to understand that when a player is younger, they make mistakes, because it’s the way that they need to learn.”
The 20-year-old was tested in the 14th minute, as midfielder Ludovic Giuly placed a cross on the head of Clément ChantÃ´me, whose header hit the ground in front of a sprawled-out Johnson.
The ball bounced over Johnson, who frantically reached for the ball to no avail. The ball bounced into the back of the net for the game’s only goal as the Fire fell to the French side in front of about 9,500 fans at Toyota Park.
“I take full responsibility, I was in good position and the ball took a little divot. I should’ve gotten a little better push for it and just parried it away to be safe … but you live and you learn,” Johnson said, later adding that most of the improvements he needs to make are mental.
Johnson wasn’t given much help with the ball at his feet, as Paris St. Germain forwards constantly pressured Fire defenders, who were forced to pass back to Johnson in pressured situations. The most notable passback coming off of a C.J. Brown header, which looked more like a shot on goal, in the 16th minute.
Offensively, the Fire challenged only in spurts and failed to register a shot on goal in the first half.
Patrick Nyarko continued his standout form, showing his speed and touch on the ball on the left side, but his efforts failed to bring the Fire level.
Issues on offense have become more glaring each game for Chicago as the pairing of Brian McBride and Collins John up top keeps failing to produce.
“When we play with Brian and Collins together, it’s difficult to penetrate, because they are very similar in their way to play,” de Los Cobos said.
Stefan Dimitrov had the Fire’s best chance of the game in the 86th minute when Mike Banner sent him one of several well-placed crosses, which Dimitrov controlled and lifted just over the bar. De Los Cobos mentioned Dimitrov as someone he may look to for minutes in future games.
De Los Cobos was also impressed by Banner, who played his natural left midfield position in the second half, as opposed to left back, which he played early in the season.
“I like the team that finished playing tonight, with Mike Banner playing from the left and Patrick Nyarko playing from the right, maybe that’s a good option for us,” de Los Cobos said.
Despite deficiencies shown, the Fire played close with a French Ligue 1 team, and de Los Cobos will take the positives as his team moves on to the consolation match against Legia Warsaw on Saturday.
“We stayed close to tied in the match,” he said. “It’s a different team from last season and some players are maturing with this kind of match that we have.”
NEWS & NOTES
Paris St. Germain featured two players who have reported interest from MLS in former Chelsea midfielder Claude Makelele and midfielder Ludovic Giuly.
De Los Cobos confirmed interest in the two on Tuesday.
Giuly spoke only in Spanish after the game and questions focused mainly focused on the World Cup, where Mexico will meet France in Group A.
Makelele was made unavailable for interviews following the game.
The Fire will next play Legia Warsaw in the consolation game at 6 pm on Saturday after the Polish side lost 1-0 to the Serbian team, Red Star Belgrade.
The second match of the day ended ugly. Both teams received a red card following a scuffle in the box after a second half filled with shirt-tugging, hard tackles, and yellow cards.
In the championship game, Paris St. Germain will play Red Star Belgrade, which had a large and organized contingent of fans on Wednesday. The championship will follow the consolation game.
Rookies Kwame Watson-Siriboe and Corben Bone also received playing time. Watson-Siriboe made his Toyota Park debut in the 69th minute, coming on for C.J. Brown, and Bone came on in the 79th minute for Baggio Husidic.
One Fire player with special interest in Saturday’s game is Polish defender Krzysztof Krol.
Krol is currently on a one-year loan deal from Polish league team Jagiellonia Bialystok.
Despite de Los Cobos’ concession that it is difficult playing John and McBride at the same time, having a forward similar to McBride isn’t all bad.
McBride, who will turn 38 in June, is in his 17th professional season and won’t be able to play 90-minute games throughout the year.
“He’s a very professional player,” de Los Cobos said. “But he’s not at the start of his career. We need to take care of him.”