The best thing you could say about the Fire's performance tonight is that they did the business. It was never really pretty in the sense that they never finished the chances set up by their creative players. That's not to say they weren't in control. In fact, they had the ball a majority of the time, about sixty percent of the time, and they completed seventy seven percent of their passes. They had 6 corners in the first half. And using the eye test, you could tell they were totally in control.
They knew that they needed three points tonight - especially going into the halftime break scoreless. In the press box, we all gathered around to watch the final few minutes of the Revolution-Crew match; any result save a New England win would help the Fire. It finished New England 3, Columbus 2 - so going into the second half, the team knew they needed the three points to put themselves in the driver's seat in the playoff race.
Thanks to a soft penalty finished cheekily by Mike Magee, the Fire got the three points they needed Saturday night, 1-0, over Toronto FC. The win vaulted Chicago into a tie for third in the Eastern Conference with one game left in the regular season.
"I looked at it. Believe me every time I went back - I saw 2-2 then I saw 3-2 - you look at that," Chicago manager Frank Klopas said.
Thus incented, Chicago started the second frame well. Juan Luis Anangonó, despite not scoring, was always dangerous. He was everywhere around the ball, and hustled for 90 minutes.
"Juan does so much work off the ball that he's a threat every time we get the ball to be able to play in depth, and he stretches the opposing team out," the coach said.
"In the first half, we could have done a better job with his movement and finding Mike [Magee] between the lines because there were big gaps between there and we didn't find him enough. But he works so hard with the ball, without the ball - he's creating opportunities and it's going to come."
In the 49th minute when Austin Berry banged one off the post on a corner kick, the sense that something was about to happen began to build - and what happened were more shots. Jalil Anibaba had one in the 50th from way down town. Patrick Nyarko spent some time making the defense on the right hand side look ridiculous, weaving through double-teams and frequently leaving Ashtone Morgan for dead.
The 62nd saw some of the weirdest officiating I've ever seen in a back-to-back sequence. Jeff Larentowicz got booked for what may or may not have been an elbow to the face - to his face? Then Alex forces a handball just outside the arc at the top of the box, presenting a fantastic free-kick opportunity.
Mike Magee stepped up and hit it into the wall, and the attack petered out. Another missed opportunity. But wait! A whistle! The referee points to the penalty spot! A handball in the Box! Penalty!
To be sure, there's some question about the call. Jonathan Osorio's arm was tucked inside his body, looking to protect potential future progeny. However, he turned his back, and subsequently, moved his arms into a position where the ball would strike them, and not his chest. Ether way, the whistle blew and Magee stood poised to give the Fire the advantage.
Addressing the ball while facing a packed and rocking Section 8, Toyota Park echoing with chants of "MVP! MVP! MVP! MVP!," Magee did a Sammy Sosa home run hop and floated a delicate chip just past where Toronto keeper Stefan Frei had stood before diving - a panenka, perfectly weighted.
"I tried to take a little glance at the goalie, and the approach is that I had to score. Like I said, the goal was a little smaller than normal. Normally I get up there and don't think twice about missing, and this time the last one off the back of the post was on my mind, so I figured I couldn't hit it off the post if I shot it up the middle," Magee said of his effort in the locker room post-game.
TFC only threatened once. A low drive from a second ball off a free kick looked like it was ticketed for the bottom corner, but was pawed away by Sean Johnson, who seemed to come out of nowhere in his pink kit.
The Fire penalty was the only goal in it. Chicago stayed strong through the closing 20 minutes. Anangonó struck the woodwork twice afterward, once hitting the outside of the left post and once of the bottom of the crossbar. "The positive thing is that he's creating opportunities," Klopas said. "I think it's going to come and, as a forward, you have to have a mentality that you want the next opportunity, regardless if you're missing or not."
The bottom line is this: The Fire go into the final game at New York tied for third, with potential outcomes as bad as finishing seventh and out of the playoffs, to as good as finishing third and skipping the play-in game.
However, all good outcomes have one thing in common - all require Chicago to get maximum points at Red Bull Arena in next Saturday's regular season finale. And they know this, as evidenced by this quote from Patrick Nyarko: "We need to get our own result to get us in. I think we have experienced guys we are not going to pay attention that and will stay focused on the game at hand, which is New York and will be a tough game."