There's always something more one wants, y'know? Three weeks ago, Fire faithful would've shed blood for a 2-1 home win over the defending champs - their own blood, someone else's blood - we were past the point of being picky. What we needed, everyone agreed, was wins. Wins will cure everything. Win a couple games, and no one will give a damn about the manner of it.
Turns out that's not exactly true. Every new result is a new context, and in this new context, the Fire - winners of two straight, scorers in 10 straight, conquerers of the Supporters' Shield winners and the MLS Cup winners consecutively - are suddenly not beggars for scraps from the table. We got want we wanted; we won a couple games; and now the feeling shifts. Where there was desperation and black humor is now half-ease and anxiety. The manner of the wins becomes a concern. When you're winning, you've got something to lose. Chicago won, 2-1, hanging on desperately despite a man advantage for the final 25 minutes of the contest.
"There's room for improvement in any performance, and it's no different in this one," Fire manager Frank Yallop said. "The defensive side of things is not quite right yet, and again it's not just the back four. It's the whole thing."
Once again, the Men in Red surrendered control of a game they'd shown signs of dominating. Mike Magee broke his penalty jinx in a big way, rolling home two spot kicks in the first 15 minutes, and the Fire's movement and ideas going forward exposed the makeshift nature of the Sporting back line.
The first was earned in the fifth minute, on perhaps the Fire's third attacking foray. Kansas City had come out in a 3-5-2 - a formation that's fallen out of favor against modern, high-pressing single-striker sets, but one that offered an extra measure of security for 17-year-old center back Erik Palmer-Brown. Palmer-Brown comes highly touted, and it wasn't hard to see why - despite being the youngest defender in MLS history, he was technical and decisive while being physical enough to stand up to the leverage-plus game of Quincy Amarikwa. Thing is, he's really green, and Chicago's offense is run by the kind of minds that devise elaborate bank heists; none more so than that of Harrison Shipp, who found himself in a pocket of space 25 yards from goal, with Chance Myers caught just a half-step upfield and Amarikwa blurring in behind. Shipp's through ball seemed to emerge fully-formed at Amarikwa's feet.
Quincy threatened to round the keeper, but Eric Kronberg gave him the option of taking a tumble, which he gratefully accepted. Magee strode to the spot like a dude who'd been there before who was conspicuously not thinking about the times he'd been there before. Whatever his state of mind, his stuttering run had Kronberg going right, and he poked it into the left corner: 1-0, seven minutes in.
Then it was youth's turn in the roaster. Palmer-Brown stood up Benji Joya on the endline and the ball spun loose into the penalty area - but Joya was first to the second ball, and Palmer-Brown's pull on his shoulder was more than enough to earn the second penalty in a quarter-hour. Again Magee went left - Kronberg guessing correctly this time - and again his placement was pinpoint. 2-0, Chicago.
Funny thing about champions, though - they're seldom champions just by accident. Despite missing their best attacker, their first four center backs, and (most often) their dignity, Sporting are nothing if not relentless, none more so than Dom Dwyer. Dwyer had the half's best chance fall to his feet - Igor Julião's lovely 50-yard ball coming perfectly into his stride, his touch immaculate, and his back-post finish just ... nearly ... in before striking the base of the post and bobbling out.
The chance seemed to galvanize the Fire defensively. Kansas City was already on high alert; all the conversation on the field was about marking and responsibility. The teams settled into a period of tense negation, killing off the final 25 minutes of the first half and the first 20 of the second largely with stunted possessions in the middle third. When Palmer-Brown drew his second yellow of the half, reducing the visitors to 10 men, the result seemed a foregone conclusion. Chicago had smothered Sporting on even terms; how could the final 25 minutes be any different?
Dwyer had already provided a warning, and now he made it good. Benny Feilhaber, so nearly part of the 30 gathered at Stanford for the USA, instead was in Bridgeview, and his free kick from 45 yards curled in immaculately to meet Dwyer's run. Set-piece defending has been this team's Achilles' heel all season; here, it appeared that Dwyer was able to angle his run to cut off Lovel Palmer and nod home in the 68th: 2-1, and oh my goodness have we ever been here before.
Somehow, the Fire were unwilling or unable to keep the ball against the 10-man champions. Sporting had a penalty shout in the 74th, and Chicago committed (I'm checking my notes here) 7,522 fouls in difficult positions in after the Kansas City goal. The sky turned black as tar, and the world came unmoored from ... no, I'm sorry; I was holding my breath. For 20 minutes.
The experience of these minutes might best be described by transcribing my notes:
86 - Pause foul gives SKC FK from 22. Gd spot just left of arc. BF shot glances off wal (does job) for corner arrrgh make it stop
88 - Sinovic gives Lovel Palmer a concussion WITH HIS ASS
90, 91, 92 - KC set pieces deep STOP FOULING
93 - Ellis 2nd bite of apple after corner, sharp low centering pass finds Myers running near post; his flick toward nr post is wide. Fuc[the remainder of this entry redacted, but is full of Germanic gerunds]
96 - Foul in dying seconds - one last FK ARGH NO NO NO
Which is where we'll leave it. It was horrible, it is beautiful. It's better to win than not. But this stuff ...
"If that's the way we're going to win games," Mike Magee said, "I feel like I only have a couple of games left in my career."
We feel you, Mike. We feel you.
Chicago (2-6-2) travels to Columbus on Saturday to meet the Crew. Kansas City (5-2-4) hosts Toronto Friday evening.