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The Usual Suspects: Fire continue dominance over Columbus

Fire ride grit, 10 golden minutes to 2-1 win in Columbus; Lindpere anonymous, then serves two magical crosses for pair of goals; Duka incisive and energetic in Crew Stadium return; six goals in six outings in Fire shirt for Magee; injuries to Pause, Lindpere cloud picture for Wednesday's USOC game

Dilly Duka's magnificent showing was made even better by his first goal for the Fire.
Dilly Duka's magnificent showing was made even better by his first goal for the Fire.
I'm imagining a heavenly bureaucracy where all the football is kept. Volcanic glass shelves rise into the golden light of infinity; down here where the angels toil, though, those shelves are packed with small panes of diamond, heaven's transparent version of paper. And somewhere in that mammoth bureaucracy, someone is in trouble.

"Jenkins!" the supervisor calls, not that the angel in question is named 'Jenkins,' really, but the actual name is a string of photons accompanied by a trilling interrogative sound, so Jenkins it is. As this is heaven, merely thinking "Jenkins" brings him near. "Jenkins, I know Our Heavenly Father has everyone working on side jobs. Just yesterday I got caught in one of those Praise YHVH flash mobs the Department of Dance and Motion is always doing, the suck-ups."

Jenkins, of course, knows what's coming. He'd expected this conversation last season, if he's completely honest.

"So, J - can I call you J? - great - J, I understand the pressure. And I understand that filing another After Action Report on another game of football can seem less important than, say, your friend Gossamer's report on demonic activity in the weapons trade. I dig it. But we all have our little parts to play, and yours is to file actual-fact reports on this football team, the Chicago Fire."

Jenkins shifts uncomfortably, wishing he could speak.

"See, J, I have here in my hand a couple of game reports. Colorado a few days ago, Columbus yesterday. And what do I find? Do I find them full of intriguing incident, bursting with the sort of half-successes and fatigue that make humans so interesting? Well, sure.

"My problem is that these are CLEARLY FALSIFIED. I mean, seriously, J? You had to have another speedy, athletic forward dispossessing the rookie-of-the-year defender? Another two-goal fightback? Are you expecting me to believe this team just gives up a goal in the first 10 minutes, over and over, and still wins?

"So my question to you, Jenkins, is this ... oh for the love of ..."

The supervisor, now deep in his reaming-out cadence, didn't hear the music immediately, but by this point it has swelled enought to be undeniable: Hundreds of angels, knee-deep in a groove, wind through the aisles of shelves, releasing Jenkins from his chewing-out and from the need to answer.

How does this Fire team keep doing that?

Sometimes, there's no explanation. Sometimes you just gotta celebrate. 2-1, Chicago, as the Fire defeat Columbus for the third time in 2013.

Meanwhile, here on Earth

The Fire entered Saturday's game riding the season's first really good stretch of form - winners of four of five, unbeaten in a month - but calling Chicago favorites for this match would be overstating the case. Columbus, better-rested, had overcome season-ending injuries to a starting centerback (Glauber) and winger (Gaven) one week before in a 0-2 shocker over league leaders Montreal.

It didn't start well for the Fire, and the poor start was hauntingly familiar - for Austin Berry, at least. As he did Wednesday, Berry again dithered on the ball while being pressed by a speedy forward. As he did on Wednesday, he failed to shield the ball from that forward. As he did on Wednesday, he gave up possession with only the keeper to beat 30 yards out from goal.

Unlike Wednesday, though, the forward needed some help. Dominic Oduro careened into the penalty area, Berry on his heels, and tried to skip past Fire keeper Sean Johnson. His cutback was wild, and Johnson didn't touch him, but Oduro's heel-kick sprawl in the area was enough to convince the referee to point to the spot. Johnson guessed right on the penalty, but Frederico Higuain's placement was inch-perfect. Columbus 1, Chicago 0, seven minutes in.

Of course, this meant the Fire had the Crew right where they wanted them. Has there ever been a soccer team so unphased by giving up early goals? Even when captain Logan Pause had to come out just a couple of minutes later, nothing slackened.

The rest of the first half shaped up as a canny, tactical contest. The Fire spent a lot of conversation on how to handle Oduro, whose speed promises humiliations galore to defenders without cover - Larentowicz, coming on for Pause, had a lot of responsibility as the destroyer in front of the back four, and his covering and communication ensured that no further breakaways troubled Johnson in goal.

Meanwhile, the team was starting to find joy going forward in the person of Dilly Duka. Duka's form has grown immensely since his acquisition in the preseason. Here - placed in the free-roaming winger slot usually patrolled by Patrick Nyarko - he showed Columbus what they were missing. Tackling neatly, escaping from danger, using the ball well, picking the right moments to attack, Duka was outstanding. The movement in the final third between Duka, Magee and Rolfe consistently pulled the Crew's defenders apart; only tiny misconnections and Rolfe's poor touch kept Chicago off the scoresheet before halftime.

Within seconds of the second-half kickoff, it was clear that someone had said something to motivate the Fire. Everything that worked in the first half was now on display, but a half-tick faster. The body language of the Crew players communicated dismay.

Joel Lindpere, who'd done a perfectly creditable if rather anonymous job in Duka's usual tucked-in, more-responsible left wing slot, suddenly remembered that he has started for years on a UEFA national team, damn it! He and Gonzalo Segares tried a series of two-man games to get free for a cross - the third attempt took, and Lindpere curled an absolute peach of a cross waist-high across the top of the six-yard box.

Columbus' marking was all fouled up by the interplay that led to the cross, leaving Duka completely alone on the back stick, and he made no mistake with it: All tied at 1, with all to play for. The goal was Duka's first in a Fire jersey.

That seemed like a whole lot of fun, so Chicago tried it again. This time it was simpler - the Crew's Chad Barson pinched in to protect the channel, leaving Lindpere alone on the wing. Two quick passes found him, and his cross - slightly higher this time, but otherwise a carbon copy of the assist not two minutes before - found Mike Magee ghosting to the back stick.

Magee doesn't miss those, at least not since coming home to Chicago. The goal - Magee's 10th in league play - gave the Fire a 2-1 lead, and the striker his sixth in six outings since joining the team.

Never let it be said this Chicago team isn't pragmatic. Given the lead, the team immediately switched into game-killing mode, which can be frustrating to watch, since the Fire are not adept at simple possession. Sean Johnson got warmed up for his big finish by handling a few tame long-range efforts, but it was his stops down the stretch that preserved the precious road win.

Again and again, the men in red invited pressure, which is understandable since the backline was playing 15 yards deeper than usual to account for Oduro. This meant the central tandem of Larentowicz and Paladini had to drop deep as well. Once Lindpere's hamstring twanged, shortly after his second assist, the team pulled apart into two entirely separate units: the defense and central mids playing a zonal-marking etude while the front four pressed and looked for joy on the break.

It didn't work incredibly well. Higuain, in particular, is exceptionally canny about finding space and using space, and our collapsed-flat defensive structure gave him a great deal of freedom atop the box. Two different efforts from the Argentinian seemed goal-bound only to have them turned aside by Johnson; when he turned provider, springing Oduro on a slashing run, again the Fire keeper was there to stone the Ghanaian.

Chicago (5-7-3) hosts Orlando City in an US Open Cup quarterfinal on Wednesday. Plenty of tickets available!

Columbus falls to 5-6-5.


Pause, Lindpere injured: Midfield depth has been a growing feature of this squad, and it looks like that feature will be tested again in Wednesday's Open Cup match against Orlando City. Team captain Logan Pause came out in the 12th with an undisclosed injury - on the MLS Live feed he looked like maybe he was fighting concussion symptoms; we should know more by tomorrow afternoon. Lindpere's problem in the 53rd was his right hamstring, so it's safe to say he's at the very best doubtful for Wednesday.

Still thin in the back: Apparently Arne Friedrich is retiring. Mas defensors, por favor, Senor Leon - muchas gracias.

Sega on song: If Duka's performance was a glimpse of his hoped-for potential, the man charged with providing width on the other side of the field - Gonzalo Segares - may have been even better. Segares was 9/10 for me last night, looking wise and skillful while providing a masterclass in wingback positioning.

The funnel: Draw a line starting at the conjunction of the midfield stripe and the sideline; it ends at the top corner of the penalty area on that side. Do the same for the other side, mirrored, naturally. This is 'the funnel' into which the Crew fell Saturday night.

Chicago hunts in packs along each sideline, hounding the ball infield - how many times did Sega/Lindpere or Duka/Anibaba pounce into double-teams? How often was the space found in the center? Columbus found little joy on the wings all evening as the Fire funneled play into the center of the field, counting on their solid diamond of Pause(Larentowicz)/Soumare/Berry/Johnson to snuff out the resulting half-chances.