Much has been made this season about the grizzled old-timers and precocious rookies who comprise the Chicago Fire's roster, and with good reason. The unexpected contributions of players like Tony Sanneh and Dasan Robinson, as well as the comeback of Chris Armas, have done much to fuel the Fire's recent resurgence. But as the Men in Red celebrated their 3-1 U.S. Open Cup triumph over the Los Angeles Galaxy Wednesday night, it was the Fire's crop of seasoned youngsters who deserved most of the accolades.
There was Nate Jaqua nodding home the opening goal just 10 minutes into the contest. Then you had players like defender Gonzalo Segares and midfielder Logan Pause, who helped bottle up the Los Angeles attack. And then there was the scintillating play of Justin Mapp, who tore apart the L.A. defense in the first half with several killer passes.
It was Mapp's havoc-creating free kick that led to Jaqua's opener, but that served as a mere prelude to his jaw-dropping display six minutes later. As Mapp carried the ball down the right wing, he looked to be well contained by Galaxy defender Ante Jazic. Then in one swift movement, he not only avoided Jazic's challenge, but turned and delivered a pinpoint cross to Andy Herron, who despite being sandwiched by two Galaxy defenders, managed to put his glancing header just inside the far post for a 2-0 Chicago lead.
It's the kind of performance that has taken some time for Mapp to develop. His early years with the Fire, as well as his first few appearances with U.S. national team, were best illustrated by the sight of him continually taking on defenders, whether it was the right play or not. And while the Mississippi native would routinely draw oohs and ahs for his solo runs, the fact that they often went nowhere left the impression that he was a one-trick pony. Now that the fifth-year veteran is beating opponents with a better mix of passing and dribbling, one gets the sense that a more mature player is beginning to emerge. And while his tendency to fade from matches is still a problem that needs to be addressed, it would seem that more appearances with the national team are in his future.
The same could also be said for players like Jaqua and Chris Rolfe, who at ages 24 and 23, respectively, appear to have their best years in front of them. And when you add in the likes of Thiago, it's clear that the Fire have a group of young players -- all age 25 or younger -- that is as deep and gifted as any in the league.
Of course, this could prove to be both a blessing and a curse. One only has to look at the impending breakup of the New England Revolution -- who seem certain to lose the services of young stars such as Clint Dempsey and Shalrie Joseph -- to realize that keeping a young, talented squad together is more difficult than it looks. But with regards to the Fire, that date would seem to be at least a few years into the future, meaning that their recent surge is more trend than fluke.
That said, Chicago got vital contributions on Wednesday from its more senior players as well. Diego Gutierrez held the midfield together while C.J. Brown was rock solid in defense. And it was Sanneh, in a ridiculous show of unselfishness, who laid on Thiago's game-clinching goal two minutes from time, when he just as easily could have scored himself.
Sanneh's heroics aside, the performances from the Fire's older veterans weren't flashy, but they were consistent, which stands in sharp contrast to those of their Los Angeles counterparts. The midfield trio of Cobi Jones, Paulo Nagamura and Pete Vagenas was practically overrun in the first half, and while all three players recovered to have a more telling impact after halftime, the damage had been done.
In many ways, this lack of consistency mirrored L.A.'s season. A poor start was followed up by some improved and at times breathtaking play, yet the team ultimately came up short.
The Galaxy also got few, if any, breaks on Wednesday. Not only did Jaqua appear to be offside on his goal, but some downright lenient refereeing by Terry Vaughn, in which some heavy challenges from Segares and Gutierrez were punished with lectures rather than yellow cards, helped the Fire blunt most of the Galaxy's first-half attacks. That Gutierrez was later sent off for two bookable offenses was immaterial. The tone and result of the match had been decided long before he got his marching orders.
In the end, each team got what it deserved. The Fire won the first trophy of the season, and now have their eye on an even bigger prize, the MLS Cup. Given its deep roster and obvious momentum, Chicago appears to be a team that is more than capable of going all the way. At the least, the Fire's presumed cage match with D.C. United in the conference finals has all the makings of a compelling game.
For L.A., its last place standing in the Western Conference means the Galaxy will likely miss out on the playoffs, despite their improvement under new head coach Frank Yallop. And the Galaxy's league and cup failures will also serve to cap off a miserable year for Landon Donovan. To be fair, Donovan did all he could on Wednesday night, setting up Alan Gordon's goal, and bravely throwing himself around the box in a futile attempt to pull his team level, yet it wasn't enough.
Combined with his disappointing performance at the World Cup, Donovan will now have the entire offseason to think about his failures at both club and international levels. Being reunited with Yallop (who coached Donovan when the two were in San Jose), should ease the pain, as you can be sure that the Canadian is already thinking of how he can further revamp his squad. But Donovan's hurt will no doubt run deep, proving that being young and talented isn't everything.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.