BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. - Blaise Nkufo is becoming quite the headliner for the Sounders FC.
One week after recording the club’s first hat trick in a 4-0 road win over the Columbus Crew, he scored an 88th minute goal to lift Seattle to a 1-0 win over the Chicago Fire at Toyota Park on Saturday and further distance themselves from their rivals in the playoff race.
The Sounders improved to 11-9-6 on the season and 7-1-3 in their last 11 matches.
“Tonight was one of those games where you pull up your sleeves and just battle and fight,” Sounders FC head coach Sigi Schmid said. “We knew Chicago was going to come out with great intensity but for them it was a playoff game. We had to make sure we matched their effort and I thought we did a good job of that.”
Seattle was tested early in the game, as Marco Pappa had a scoring chance in the fourth minute, but Keller knocked away the shot and Calen Carr missed high on the putback attempt.
Along with the pressure on Seattle’s defense, Chicago also took a bit of a physical tact in the game. In the ninth minute, Seattle earned a pair of corner kicks and on the second one, Patrick Ianni butted heads with Chicago defender Kwame Watson-Siriboe and was left with stitches above his left eye. Later in the match, Jeff Parke had a similar fate when he bruised his nose in a collision.
Seattle’s first great scoring chance came in the 37th minute when Sanna Nyassi sent in a perfectly placed cross from the right side. However, it narrowly missed the head of Nkufo and the foot of Nathan Sturgis and went through for a goal kick and the Sounders were left wondering if that would be their only chance.
In first half stoppage time, it was Pappa again nearly putting the Fire on the board. This time it was on a bouncing ball through the Seattle box. Pappa got his foot on it and crunched it into Keller, who made the point- blank save to keep the game scoreless going into halftime.
“There were some chances they had early and certainly Keller made an absolutely huge save,” Schmid said. “Maybe I am so used to seeing it from him over all the years you being to expect it, but that’s what great goalkeepers do - they come up with a key save that keeps you in the game. He certainly did that for us tonight.”
Chicago dodged a bullet early in the second half when Fredy Montero headed a James Riley cross toward the goal, but Sean Johnson was there for the close-range save.
In the end, it was Nkufo making the difference for Seattle.
He passed to Steve Zakuani on a run into the middle, then took off up the left side. Zakuani returned the ball to the Swiss striker, who faked a shot to evade CJ Brown, then ripped a shot that deflected off Brown's leg and into the net for his fourth goal of the season, giving the Sounders the lead for good in the 88th minute.
“We missed a few chances so it was like, it’s either now or never,” Zakuani said. “So I just sort of broke away and Blaise made a good run, I found him out wide and he did the rest. He cut the guy well and shot the ball on frame and that’s all you can ask for. It takes a deflection but when the ball goes in the goal, we’ll take that at this stage.”
Seattle is now tied for sixth in the MLS Cup playoff standings, even with the San Jose Earthquakes with 39 points.
Their next MLS match comes at Qwest Field next Saturday against Toronto FC. First up though is a CONCACAF Champions League group stage match with CD Marathon from Honduras on Wednesday night at Qwest Field. Tickets are still available for the CCL match at www.soundersfc.com.
Sounders FC - Blaise Nkufo (Steve Zakuani) 88
Fire - None
Sounders FC - Kasey Keller, James Riley, Patrick Ianni, Jeff Parke, Leo Gonzalez, Sanna Nyassi (Roger Levesque 82), Osvaldo Alonso, Nathan Sturgis (Alvaro Fernandez 78), Steve Zakuani (Tyrone Marshall 91+), Fredy Montero, Blaise Nkufo.
Fire - Sean Johnson, Bratislav Ristic, CJ Brown, Kwame Watson-Siriboe, Gonzalo Segares (Deris Umanzor 58), Patrick Nyarko, John Thorrington, Logan Pause (Collins John 83), Marco Pappa, Calen Carr (Brian McBride 64), Freddie Ljungberg.