I have a friend who is your standard soccer-hater - catcalls when he sees me watching, chides my efforts to convert him. His main sticking point, after 10 years of slow argument, is that the games can routinely end in draws.
"What's the point?" he says, his voice indicating this truth, at least, is self-evident. "You play a whole game and no one wins?" I have an answer to the thing ready - about the unsatisfying binary of win/lose, and the pleasingly baroque combinations of bad win/good win/terrible draw/satisfying draw/miracle draw/bad loss/encouraging loss etc., etc. He has not found it convincing.
What I wish I could do is this: Plug him into the narrative of a soccer club somehow - like make him really feel it in his bones. Put him in the moment that we in Fire-land are in right now - the promising preseason, the horrid start, the raft of questions and concerns - then have him watch last night's draw 1-1 with RSL. Have him see the team play a coherent and scrappy game, on the road, against one of the league's better sides, and snatch a point with a moment of skillful desire, and I think he'd get it. I think that's the last I'd hear of it.
Because this was one of those draws - the ones that feel like a win. Our defensive shape was coherent and sound. We didn't hang our heads when we gave up another gut-wrenching late goal. And when it all went to hell, there was usually Sean Johnson there to bail us out. Is it too late to hope? Has the fever broken?
Amarikwa f--- yeah!
Despite having the ball less than half as much as RSL, despite completing less than half as many passes - despite a completely predictable statistical whitewashing, the Fire leave with a point thanks to one divine touch from Quincy Amarikwa.
The Fire had scrapped hard but just lost the lead a few minutes before. Saborio's 78th-minute goal was both devastating - he beat Bakary Soumare, who'd been pretty damned good in the air until then - and predictable. The Royals had pressured relentlessly throughout the half. It would've been easy to assume that the lead was theirs on merit, and geez we'd played pretty well up until then, and gosh my legs are so heavy ...
Enter Amarikwa, whose legs assuredly aren't heavy. It was a nothing play. The Fire had the ball for a throw on the right, about 30 yards out - which means, inevitably, an Anibaba long throw to Berry's head for a flick-on. As we had tried this maneuver something like 3.8x10^5 times already without success, and as Berry was well-marked on the header, it looked like nothing much was doing.
Amarikwa, though, didn't get the memo. Reacting first to the loose ball, he took two quick steps and laid out, scissoring to reach the ball at head height, lashing it past the stock-still Rimando in goal. 1-1, delightfully, improbably.
Two banks of four + SJ = tough
The Fire were announced as a 4-2-3-1, but without the ball were very much a 4-4-1-1, and those two banks of four were the basis for this solid showing. While RSL had a great deal of the ball, the quality of Chicago's marking and communication prevented Morales, Gil and Grabavoy from playing between the lines, blunting the Royals' creativity.
One segment in the 36th minute illustrated the difficulty for RSL. In transition, Grabavoy, Joao Plata and Morales worked a quick triangle combination at the corner of the penalty area. The Fire had men back, but this is exactly the kind of play which has unlocked our defense again and again - quality movement means someone shears off unmarked, and we're left hoping Sean has a miracle in him.
This time, no miracle was needed, because the communication trumped movement. Ever see a cop movie where the bad guy's trying to get out of town, and the cops sort of smirk, saying "You can't outrun a radio."? This was like that. For a moment, it looked like the Royals had one; just as quickly, it vanished when Soumare and Berry, with Pause arriving divvied up the marking assignments cleanly on the fly.
On those moments when his defense came apart, Sean Johnson was astute and decisive. He settled nerves by leaping onto a ball at Finley's feet in the 3rd minute; he easily covered a back-post bender, completely unsighted, from the same man in the 31st. In the second half, as RSL continued to push relentlessly for the lead, he made three crucial interventions - punching out a teasing Wingert cross intended for Finley in the 53rd, parrying a long-range screamer from Wingert (again) in the 57th, and most impressively tipping a hooking, goal-bound Morales free-kick onto the bar in the 76th.
Chicago are now 2-7-2 (8 pts.) in league play, while RSL is 6-5-3 (21 pts.). The Fire return to action Wednesday, May 30, when travel to North Carolina to meet the Charlotte Eagles from second-division USL-Pro in the third round of the US Open Cup.