As the spine of one of Major League Soccer’s best teams thus far in 2017, the Chicago Fire’s All-Star quartet -- striker Nemanja Nikolic, central midfielders Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty, and centerback Johan Kappelhof -- also were in the middle of the action throughout an entertaining 2017 MLS All-Star Game in their home city.
Each put in a 45-minute shift in a star-studded clash with Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid side, one that ended in a 1-1 draw before the Spanish superclub walked away with a penalty kick shootout.
All four Fire representatives had opportunities to display the elements of their game that landed them on the roster, perhaps none more so than McCarty. After entering the match at halftime, the second-time All-Star was dogged in closing down the opposition and keeping the back line organized, but also provided a signature moment in spurring the 87th-minute equalizer. Though his opportunities on set pieces have been rare this season, the diminutive McCarty has a long history in the league of winning headers in the box, which he did once again to set up Dom Dwyer’s tally.
“For set pieces, maybe Real Madrid doesn’t scout MLS too well, maybe they didn’t know I’m decent in the air,” McCarty said wryly after the match. “Diego (Valeri) played a fantastic ball, I got around my man and I was able to get a good head on it. I’m kind of mad at myself, it was a perfect opportunity to just head it into the goal and it hit into the post. Dom does what goal scorers do and pounces on the loose ball, I’m just glad we scored.”
Up to that point in the match, McCarty -- who was playing in the confines of Soldier Field for the first time -- had been much more concerned with his defensive responsibilities, namely checking some of the world’s most dynamic attackers when they entered the match with fresh legs and looking to put on a show.
“It’s certainly not an exciting sight for defenders and defensive midfielders when you see Bale, Marcelo, Benzema coming into the game to run at you for 30 minutes,” McCarty said. “That’s what it’s all about, the fans want to see the big stars, they want to see the best players in the world on the big stage. I think it was a great spectacle for the fans but for us you just have to defend and hope you can do enough to slow them down.”
Schweinsteiger, who was joined by Kappelhof in the Starting XI, also was pleased with the energy of a match that was played before a sellout crowd of 61,428 -- one which wasn't about to let a downpour at kickoff affect the energy the rest of the night.
“I think it was an interesting game for the spectators, a lot of chances for both sides,” he said. “It was good to represent MLS in a good way, the stadium was sold out, there was a good atmosphere and that was most important.”
Although it was Zinedine Zidane’s side that generated numerous chances in the first half, it was the All-Stars who had perhaps two of the closest calls before halftime. David Villa hooked a shot from inside the box just wide in the 36th minute, and Sebastian Giovinco laced a long-distance shot only inches from the post on the stroke of halftime.
“We appreciate the opportunity and I think we did well,” said Veljko Paunovic, boss of the Fire and MLS All-Star Team. “We didn’t start the game well because of the injury to [Greg] Garza so we had to adjust real quick. But as soon the second half started and fresh guys came on we had a good start. We fought hard and had to play more defensively but I’m very proud of our guys and gave their best and tied the game.”
"Of course they had a lot of opportunities to score goals but also we have opportunities," added Nikolic. "In the second half I had a good opportunities, we had good running behind the opponent, we missed just a little bit of luck to go one against one with the 'keeper. The goal in the last minutes, we deserved it and we put a lot of energy to score that goal. But the most important thing was to send good pictures to the world and we do it."
As for the shootout, which saw Dom Dwyer’s attempt saved and Giovani dos Santos’ effort ring the crossbar, Paunovic had an optimistic view of that outcome that is sure to please Fire fans.
“I know from my experience in soccer,” he said, “when you lose the game like this on PKs, sometimes it returns, hopefully with Chicago Fire in the final of MLS Cup.”