If the Chicago Fire are to make the playoffs - if they're to extend their season into that series of crap-shoots - then let it be because they were playing like this. The Fire dominated Brimstone Cup foe FC Dallas in the first hour, streaking out to a deserved 3-0 lead, on their way to a crucial 3-2 win Saturday in Frisco, Texas. The win pulls the Fire into a three-way tie for fourth in the Eastern Conference with Montreal and Philadelphia.
Whatever Frank Klopas said to the team before the game worked; the Fire controlled the opening stages to an astonishing degree. Chicago pressed high into the Dallas end from the first whistle, with Juan Luis Anangonó leading the line. Anangonó's work, with a four-man group of Mike Magee, Alex, Dilly Duka and Patrick Nyarko behind him, meant Dallas had difficulty even moving the ball into midfield.
The absence of Uruguayan midfield titan Edigio Arévalo Rios allowed vice-captain Jeff Larentowicz to slide back into the anchor role he played earlier in the season. Freed from the need to burst forward toward the arc, Big Red out-Rios'd Rios, elegantly breaking up plays with a touch, nudging runners off their line, all while keeping the ball with surprising deftness.
The forward pressing group, backed by Larentowicz, allowed Chicago to keep the ball for much of the first half; the Texans likely felt like the losers in a gridiron game defined by field position. Anangonó broke the deadlock in the 24th, breaking from a deep position to win a near-post header off a corner kick. His flicked effort found Dallas keeper Chris Seitz moving toward his near post, meaning it nestled into the netting near the back post undisturbed. 0-1, Chicago.
Klopas' embrace of a player-focussed, flexible 4-4-2 has seldom looked wiser. Duka and Nyarko - particularly Nyarko - worked insanely hard to keep possession, pinching in as necessary to win the ball back. The expectation that they would still assist with Dallas' very fast, very direct wing players, Castillo and Jackson, meant that they were constantly moving at a fast jog, in-out-in-back-out-in-out, etc., to cover the space. At times, the Fire seemed to be playing a 4-6-2 - everyone, everywhere, all the time.
It was in this period when Alex made his presence known. Tough enough to track back, stout enough to run all day, clever enough to make things happen, Alex poked Magee back into a tie for the Golden Boot in the 42nd minute. Moving into a pocket of space, the Brazilian lashed a shot from 22 yards that seemed headed for the far corner. The ball glanced off the helpless Magee's upper arm, deflecting into the opposite corner for his 19th goal of the MLS season. 0-2, Chicago, and Dallas looked dejected.
The Fire came out in the second half notably subdued. Playing the percentages with a two-goal lead, they conceded a bit of possession to keep their shape. Jalil Anibaba rendered that decision genius by touching down a half-cleared corner kick in the 52nd, then lashing a curler to the back post that a diving Seitz could only wave at. 0-3, Fire, and the party was on.
Kenny Cooper did his best party-crasher bit, netting a brace to bring the score back to 2-3. The second goal, a penalty, was something other than iron-clad: Jackson wrong-sided Gonzalo Segares, and the veteran left back was pressing on him, looking for a chance to stab in. A step into the penalty area, Segares blocked the ball, Jackson tumbled to the grass, and everyone in navy gave the universal "no no no" wagging finger to no avail. Cooper's penalty sent Sean Johnson the wrong way and cut the lead to one, 2-3.
The final 15 minutes saw the Fire go into extreme-safety mode. Wells Thompson and Logan Pause came on and clocked in for the unsexy job of taking the game out behind the shed and standing on its neck until it stops moving. Sean Johnson proved equal to the squiggles of madness that leaked through, and Chicago moved into a tie for fourth in the Eastern Conference with two games to play.
The Fire (13-7-12) host Toronto FC in their final home game of the season next Saturday, October 19. As always, as ever, three points will be vital. FC Dallas (10-11-11) has two games left to play the kids and figure it out for 2014. The Hoops will also have a chance to have a say in the Supporters' Shield race, as their next match is Saturday afternoon, when they host Seattle.