After a controversial draw with the San Jose Earthquakes back on July 28, the Chicago Fire's schedule featured three consecutive matches against Eastern Conference teams below them in the standings. For the Fire to be considered serious playoff contenders down the stretch, they would have to take maximum points from those games.
The Fire defeated the New England Revolution 2-1 on Saturday night in front of 17,495 fans at Toyota Park to move into a tie for second place with the New York Red Bulls in the Eastern Conference. While the Red Bulls still maintain an edge on goal differential, the Fire once again showed why style points don't count for much in MLS.
The Fire scored early from a Chris Rolfe penalty kick, and after the Revs equalized only minutes later, the Men in Red were able to keep their composure and take the lead again through Sherjill MacDonald's first goal with the club and pick up their 12th win of the season. Last year, the club managed nine wins for the entire season.
Despite the club's recent form, head coach Frank Klopas said that the club still has a ways to go to get to where they need to be.
"In soccer, life, and in sports, things can turn around pretty quickly," said Klopas in his post-match press conference. "We can't get comfortable. We haven't really achieved anything. We can't relax."
After falling behind early in the past two matches, the Fire made sure that wouldn't be the case tonight.
In the fourth minute, midfielder Patrick Nyarko found the striker Rolfe, who was tackled in the box by Revs defender AJ Soares. Referee Sorin Stoica pointed to the spot and Rolfe was eager to take the penalty kick. His shot went off the left post and in past a diving Matt Reis to give the Fire the early lead in the fifth minute of play.
The goal was Rolfe's fifth of the season and showed that the Fire's recent goal scoring woes may be starting to be minimized.
The Revs weren't down for long though.
Forward Saer Sene found space on the left side of the Fire end and crossed the ball into the box. The ball bounced around before eventually being knocked in by midfielder Fernando Cardenas to equalize the match at one in the 11th minute.
That scoreline didn't last long either as the Fire regained the advantage shortly after.
Nyarko found space on the left again in the 25th minute and was able to put in a cross for MacDonald, who headed it home past Reis to give the Fire the lead again.
The goal was the Dutch striker's first in his MLS career as he looked to silence critics who may not believe he was worthy of a designated player spot.
Nyarko, in his first start since July, picked up his sixth assist of the season.
"I was fresher coming into this game since I've played less minutes in the past couple weeks," said Nyarko after the game. "Also, we were determined to get off on the right foot after going down a goal so often."
The Fire would have the best of the chances the rest of the way, ending the night with 22 shots as compared to the Revs' 7.
Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson had to make only two saves on the night. His 95th minute save on Soares' long distance effort was his biggest. While the Fire perhaps felt they should've added an extra goal or two, the result was the most important thing.
Despite scoring what ended up being the game-winning goal, MacDonald says he wasn't completely happy with the performance.
"I know when you get a lot of chances, you'll going to score," said MacDonald, giving credit to his teammates. "I'm happy to score the goal, but I'm not too satisfied about my game. I'm happy that the team won, but I have to get better."
Despite Klopas' remarks that the club still has work to be done and MacDonald's comments about his play, the Dutchman's strike partner Rolfe said he was happy with the way the club handled this most recent stretch and says the club will be prepared to finish the regular season strong with the remaining schedule of only Eastern Conference teams.
"We put a lot of stress in the fact that this last set of games are all in the Eastern Conference and we really need to take all of them seriously and we've done that," said Rolfe, who was named man of the match. "I think we're really happy with the way we performed and the way that we prepared for these games."
The Fire came into this match already on a two-game winning streak. Following that heartbreaking last-second draw with the Earthquakes in the last week of July, the Fire came from behind to defeat Toronto FC 2-1 at home before having to rally once again to defeat the Philadelphia Union 3-1 at PPL Park. The Fire will hope to continue their winning ways when they play away to DC United on Wednesday night at RFK Stadium.
The Fire were playing without their regular captain Logan Pause after he picked up two broken ribs and pneumothorax in the first half of the Union game. The midfielder is expected to be out 4-6 weeks.
Midfielder Daniel Paladini stepped into Pause's role in the Starting XI to partner interim captain Pavel Pardo in Klopas' typical two holding midfielder formation.
Midfielder Marco Pappa, who will join Dutch side SC Hereenveen at the end of the season, was left on the bench after playing 77 minutes for Guatemala in a 3-3 draw on Wednesday night against Paraguay at RFK. Pappa scored off a penalty kick and added an assist for his country. Pappa ended up coming on as a second-half substitute.
This allowed Nyarko to return to the starting lineup. The speedy Ghanaian winger hadn't started since the Earthquakes match, although he did make substitute appearances in the last two matches. Nyarko's early cross set up Soares' foul in the box on Rolfe, which resulted in the Fire's first goal and followed that up with a statistical assist later in the half.
Also absent from the starting lineup was defender Dan Gargan. Instead the Fire used three natural center backs, putting Arne Friedrich and Austin Berry in the middle and utilizing Jalil Anibaba at right back.
MacDonald, who joined the club in late July from Beerschot AC in Belgium, picked up his second straight start for the Men in Red and added his first goal for the Fire in the 25th minute. He also notched his first MLS assist in the Fire's win over the Union last week.
This meant that speedy striker Dominic Oduro was once again relegated to the bench. Oduro had five goals on the season coming into the match, but hadn't scored since June 23 against the Columbus Crew. Oduro came on in the 71st minute and had a number of golden opportunities to put the game away that he was unable to convert. If Rolfe and MacDonald continue their recent form, Oduro may continue to see more time off the bench or in a midfield role.
The Revolution were coming off a 1-0 loss at home to the Montreal Impact last Saturday. They next travel to Ohio to take on the Crew next Saturday.
Starting XI: Johnson (Yellow: '89); Anibaba, Friedrich, Berry, Segares; Fernandez (Sub: '79 for Videira), Pardo (C), Paladini, Nyarko (Sub: '75 for Nyarko); Rolfe (Goal ‘5), MacDonald (Goal '25) (Sub: '71 for Oduro)
Substitutes: Nolly, Gargan, Bone, Videira (Sub: '79 for Fernandez), Pappa (Sub: '75 for Nyarko), Alex, Oduro (Sub: '71 for MacDonald)
New England Revolution
Starting XI: Reis (c); Tierney, Soares, McCarthy, Alston; Nguyen (Sub: '46 for Feilhaber), Guy (Yellow: '69), Simms, Cardenas (Goal '11) (Sub: ‘68 for Rowe); Brettschneider (Sub: '57 for Bengston), Sene
Substitutes: Murray, Barnes, Lechner, Fagundez, Feilhaber (Sub: '46 for Nyugen), Rowe (Sub: '68 for Cardenas), Bengtson (Sub: '57 for Brettschneider)
Referee: Sorin Stoica