For me, this game turned on one move: When Frank Yallop went to his bench to insert more offense, he had Alex at his disposal. Atlanta did not.
Alex, Chicago's Brazilian midfielder still working his way back from injury, dramatically altered the Fire's makeup after coming on in the 80th minute, bursting with ideas and leading a late-game Chicago renaissance, as cf97 pulled away late to win, 3-1, in the US Open Cup quarterfinals.
The host Silverbacks gave as good as they got for 75 minutes against a nearly first-choice XI from the Fire. Despite losing three starting attackers to red-card suspension, Atlanta looked more comfortable on the ball than Chicago, with Blair Gavin particularly influential against a cf97 midfield that seemed half a thought and half a step off the pace. In contrast, the Men in Red had familiar problems keeping the ball, displaying an alarming tendency to cough the ball up even on the least adventurous of simple possession passes. More worrying, Atlanta had clearly seen film of Columbus' 3-0 public execution of the Fire, as they found space again and again behind Greg Cochrane on their right flank.
In short, Chicago were outplayed early on. Mike Magee responded to the team's ineffectualness with frustration, losing the plot entirely in the 30th minute after getting no call on a foul by Mike Randolph. Magee - who had spent a good bit of the previous five minutes with arms extended, berating the officials - kicked out at Randolph, who had run on past, but whiffed. Atlanta provided the actual thuggery, true to their reputation, as Jesus Gonzalez ran to the defense of the area just behind Randolph's legs, slugging Magee. Both were sent packing, and the game would finish 10-v-10.
Insanely, sacrificing the 2013 MLS MVP in exchange for a midfielder starting in the NASL worked in the Fire's favor. Atlanta tried to rework their shape on the fly, while Chicago opted to simply play with a single striker and maintain a staid, boring, but stable 4-4-1. The hosts' rhythm in the final third never hit the same flowing heights after Gonzalez' dismissal.
The Fire broke the draw shortly after halftime. Harrison Shipp spun a low in-swinging corner into the box which Jeff Larentowicz glanced onto goal. Atlanta keeper Derby Carrillo spilled the rebound almost onto Quincy Amarikwa's feet, and he made no mistake, roofing it from five yards out. 0-1, Fire, and 40 minutes from a semifinal.
Nothing is ever easy with this team, of course. It goes without saying that Deon McCaulay equalized not four minutes later, right? (At some level, though, as a fan of the game, the equalizer was exactly what the game needed - spare a thought for the horrors which might have lay on the other side of, say, the 60th minute and the Fire still leading 1-0. Picture five defensive midfielders surrendering possession, lined up five yards in front of the area, forever. Their effort is etched on their faces. The pain, on ours.)
Half-chances came and went until Alex came aboard. The Fire were playing with four attacking players, reduced to three after Magee; Shipp in particular was hamstrung by a lack of willing foils for his intricate combinations and measured through-balls. The introduction pf Alex - for club legend Logan Pause, whose play oscillated between comedy and pathos - changed the mixture just enough.
It started with something as simple as his positioning. Alex, pressing higher up the field, naturally bumped Shipp a bit higher - meaning Shipp was on hand when the Silverhawks fluffed a clearance in the 81st. Shipp slid a ball into recent signee Matt Fondy, on in relief of Amarikwa, and Fondy kept the ball on an arcing dribble through the penalty area which finally saw him scythed down. Larentowicz stung the penalty kick, and a host of people wearing red shirts with a white stripe across the chest breathed just a bit easier: 1-2 Chicago, and less than 10 minutes left.
The insurance goal was a lively bit of opportunism. Atlanta were clearly going to be overcommitted, down a goal in a knockout competition, so when Alex ran onto a bad pass, he displayed little hesitation. Surging through the left channel, he fed Grant Ward, who was flying in from the left wing. Ward's sharp right-footed shot was saved, but left Carrillo little chance to hold on. Alex, trailing, was left the simplest of finishes to kill the game off.
The Fire now must travel to the Pacific northwest for the semifinals of the Cup; they will play the winner of this evening's Seattle-Portland matchup on August 13. They'll need to be better, but it's a cup competition - anything can happen.