If we know anything in this very young 2014 MLS season, it's this: When leading at Providence Park, for the luvva Zoroaster, someone on the back post put a body on Gaston Fernandez. Please. Someone. Please.
Fernandez' 79th-minute tap-in - his second, identical goal in two weeks of play - meant the Chicago Fire return to the midwest with one point from their first two games after a 1-1 draw in Portland against the Timbers.
Chicago were perhaps slightly fortunate with the result, as the Fire ended the game with 10 men and a badly ailing left back in Gonzalo Segares, but the point seems nothing but justice for a bright and hard-working opening 60 minutes. The starting XI was a stark contrast with last week's looks-like-2013 lineup: Out went '13 stalwarts Patrick Nyarko, Dilly Duka, Juan Luis Anangonó and Chris Rolfe, replaced with supersub Quincy Amarikwa and new acquisitions Benji Joya, Harrison Shipp and Matt Watson.
The new boys may not have a ton of MLS experience, but they responded to the always-fierce crowd in Portland with surprising calmness and organization. Notably, the Fire's shape - so loose and fearful from the opening moments last week - was aggressive and tightly-packed, making the Timber's plan A of playing quick combinations through midfield a minefield of frustration. Again and again in the first half, Portland surrendered possession in one pass after finding no outlet against a dense and active Chicago structure.
In contrast, the Fire were finding some joy in combinations, with Alex and Amarikwa bursting forward through space opened by Shipp's ghosting runs. Each forced saves from Timbers 'keeper Donovan Ricketts in the first 10 minutes. Finally in the 17th, Amarikwa turned Portland center back Norberto Paparatto in the penalty area, then used the yard of space it bought him to slow his run, framing the Argentine for a foul little-earned.
Fire captain Jeff Larentowicz made no mistake from the spot, and Chicago looked a good value for their lead, 0-1. The game grew chippier as the Timbers' frustration rose, and the Men in Red's physicality - while effective - made for a heart-pounding finish to the game.
By the 60th minute, the Fire had picked up four yellow cards to none for the hosts, but it was the introduction of Nyarko that really signalled the beginning of the Weird. Nyarko, annually one of the top recipients of thug-love in the league, apparently decided that today, March 16, 2014, was the Day. All. That. S#!t. Stops.
Subbed on in the 64th, Nyarko got a quick yellow for a robust tackle, then - with five minutes left in regulation, all the subs blown and the team now clinging on to a draw - absolutely destroyed Diego Chara at midfield in an attempt to break up a counter-attack, drawing his second card and an early shower. The situation grew more dire, asSegares picked up an injury which made his participation nearly ceremonial, leaving the Fire with eight healthy field players over the final few minutes.
Thankfully, mercifully, the Fire held on, earning their first point of the season, while Portland was left rueing their second consecutive home draw.
Chicago (0-1-1) comes home to Toyota Park to host New York Red Bull next Sunday, March 23. Portland (0-2-0) hits the road for the first time, traveling to Colorado to play the Rapids on Saturday.
- Joya really looks the part as a two-way midfielder - both responsible and adventurous, with an amazing motor. And I know his decision-making isn't all that, but at his age I was busy drinking half a keg of Busch and sleeping through class, so I've got little complaint.
- Shipp is legit, too. He's got some growing to do - anticipating the speed of recovery of guys at this level is something that's still coming - but his calm on the ball, and his runs without it, are absolutely first class. As the first 90 minutes from a Homegrown player in a Fire badge, it was so very encouraging.
- Soumare and Hurtado deserve more mention than this short game-story gives them. Soumare was decisive and sharp throughout, intervening at least twice in the penalty area when chances seemed imminent. Hurtado is just what I hoped - a smart, determined and responsible covering centerback.
- Matt Watson is one of those invisible-glue guys. In fact, his game reminds of nothing so much as vintage Logan Pause, from when we were good before, remember? Always working, clean with the ball, turning up here and there with a key tackle just as you're thinking "haven't seen Watson for a minute."
- Larentowicz garnered a lot of criticism on Scott Fenwick's postgame podcast, criticism I frankly don't understand. Big Red was measurably more cogent today, serving in that organizational role, while also a bit cleaner with the ball at his feet. I'll take another look at this in the week ahead, but I didn't see whatever was bothering them.