Ain't nothing ever easy.
Chicago Soccer Club dug themselves a grave this season, dug it deep and square - two wins in the first 10, seven points of the first 30. To their credit, they refused to lay down in that grave and die. Despite a harrowing run of form for their best returning player (Chris Rolfe) and Sherjill MacDonald's dissolution into a recursive loop of selfies and fast food, the Fire built a muddy stairwell game by game and trudged out of that grave. Last week, Chicago finally stood above the lip of the hole - stood up and took a look around: Houston's only two points out there, right? The two points we gave up by falling asleep in injury time? Damn, it's almost like we're in fourth.
Saturday night in Columbus, the Fire couldn't lurch away from the pit. Arms windmilling, Columbus gave them a short, sharp push, sending them tumbling back down into the moist, cold September soil. Chicago lost, 3-0, and it could've been worse.
At some level, what one needs to know coming out of this game is the following: There are five teams in the hunt for the final two playoff positions in the Eastern Conference - Chicago, Houston, New England, Columbus and Philadelphia. By crumbling utterly on the road to the Crew, the Fire lost ground to every one of them except Philadelphia; they now stand sixth in the conference, a point behind the Revolution and (ominously) four behind the Dynamo, with only five yet to play.
But the manner of the defeat is almost more painful than the cascade of outcomes branching from it. The Fire have adopted a lovingly patronizing tone with the Crew; this is like waking up from a mugging and finding out your baby cousin did it. And that the crucial, game-killing moment fell to Bakary Soumare - the same Soumare who nearly melted Twitter a fortnight ago by swearing at a coworker - feels a bit too on-the-nose; who's writing this stuff?
Because how else to respond? The defense was poor throughout. If it wasn't Soumare, it could've been Gonzalo Segares, who had a shocker almost from the kickoff. The first goal, in the 15th minute, came when Segares was caught - as he was several times on the evening - both quite high and extremely narrow, tucked into area in front of Soumare. Jairo Arrieta won a wild stab at a 50-50 ball in the area, jabbing it to the left side of the Fire penalty area, where Segares wasn't. Dominic Oduro, late of Chicago, motored into the space left him - which amounted to roughly half the penalty area - and lashed his 11th goal of the season to the back post. 1-0, Columbus, and the Fire, still muddy from climbing, teetered on the grave-mouth.
Then came Soumare's red. Every tragedy includes a healthy dose of ill luck, and the cantankerous centerback can certainly make a case that he was put into a difficult position when Austin Berry whiffed on a header at midfield in the 30th minute. It was Arrieta again creating difficulty, sprinting hard away from Berry in midfield and beating Soumare to a single touch 25 yards from goal. The Malian seemed bereft of tricks in this extremity, gaming legging it until beaten, gamely scything down the Columbus forward outside the area, then gamely slumping off to the locker room with a red card.
We could spin some moments of promise into a hopeful reading, imagining a universe just one branch away that leads, in our imagination, just a couple of more branches away, to a universe three or four branches that-a-way; in that universe, the Fire win this game and are still in charge of their fate. In this one, it was all Columbus.
Sean Johnson was unfortunate on the second goal. The goal itself was pedestrian - the sublime Frederico Higuain sent him the wrong way, then rolled it in the corner - but Johnson was unfortunate to be in that position. It appeared that the third-year netminder had avoided Arrieta - yes, again, Arrieta - but Juan Guzman felt otherwise, pointing to the spot.
Need we carry on? Must we watch the muddy climber's fall back into the pit in hi-def, on slow-mo? Can we turn our faces away?
In other results, New England rallied to edge DC, 2-1, while Houston humiliated Chivas USA, 5-1. Both results were terrible for the Fire.
Chicago (11-6-12) host Montreal next Saturday at Toyota Park. Columbus (11-5-14) is away to Dallas the following day.