'The endlessly malleable game of soccer' is usually pitched as a selling point - look here! The Dutch, faced with inundation, are obssessed with space and geometry, and evolve a style based upon space and geometry! Isn't that fun? The Brazilians adore dance and spectacle, and look what they do, etc., etc.
What is less discussed are the other poles of the football experience: What happens, for example, when it's the first of June, and it's right around 90, and it's freakin' steamy? What happens when both teams want to just sit on the field, drink some water, and trade stories about days when it wasn't all of a sudden this hot? It's not August; we usually build up to these things. Sunday's game against the LA Galaxy gave us some kind of answer: The teams, exhausted, will launch sporadic attacks; some of them will come together into a half-chance. Two of those half-chances resulted in goals Sunday, one for each team, as the Fire started a grueling stretch with a 1-1 draw against LA.
Chicago started the game in a shape they hadn't shown since preseason - a narrow 4-2-3-1 - and with first-time starters Grant Ward at right wing and Chris Ritter in the double pivot alongside Jeff Larentowicz. The high line assumed by centerbacks Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Bakary Soumare, along with the Fire's careful positioning, made the Men in Red's intent clear: This was a tough day, in a tough town, and if measurements were required, la Maquina Roja would be certain that toughness was what's measured.
The game was a series of furtive half-attacks, glimpsed then snuffed, with the occasional ball leaking through, to the surprise of the heat-stroked supporters. LA, seemingly surprised to be challenged, settled into a steady pace of complaint; the Fire grimly returned to their defensive positions and waited for something miraculous to happen.
It happened in the 66th minute. Just as most of the other starters were beginning to really sag - brief time-outs for calf-stretching and water-guzzling were the rule - Quincy Amarikwa still had enough spring in his stride to burst onto a mishit back-pass. Beating one man with a crossover, he caromed into the penalty area, only to be scythed down. Hilario Grajeda didn't hesitate, pointing to the spot over Galaxy protestations the tackle was outside. In any case, Larentowicz stroked the penalty into the side-netting, and the Fire led, 1-0.
The effort to make the game a referendum on grit was working, but every tool is a weapon if you hold it right. Turns out LA has some grit, too, and when Ritter - solid all game alongside Larentowicz - made a naïve giveaway in the 74th, it released Robbie Rogers into the right wing. Rogers has certainly had to dig deep to return to the field, spending more time with LA Galaxy II than the parent club, but on this day, his curling cross was exactly what the visiting Gals needed, teasing ahead of the near-post run from Robbie Keane, sliding behind Lovel Palmer's covering run, to find the left foot of Landon [profanity excised] Donovan. Against a superior plan, against a superior performance, against his own exhaustion (evident as early as the 60th minute), Donovan was there, roofing the cross to tie the game. 1-1.
In the end, each team seemed content to let the clock stop, stumble off the field, and seek hydration. For the Fire, this is just the first of an extraordinarily demanding pre-World Cup week: Wednesday, they play at altitude against Colorado, then Saturday return home to face the Seattle Globetrotters, who are convincingly top of the table. To say a point is acceptable at home is anathema in soccer; but this was, and is. Onward.