There are times where the world of football seems to beckon with the secrets of the spheres - days when it's all symmetry and movement and geometry, a poem about synchronicity and grace. Then there are those other times - and this is one of the beauties of the game - when it's this other thing, when ice-cold rain is pouring down and it's hard to see the lines and the game's suddenly a metaphor for toughness and opportunism, a bitter naked battle of wills between packs of men in a mud pit.
Sunday's game wasn't either of those. Sunday's game was clown shoes, and seltzer bottles, and Yakety Sax:
It could be a mistake of timing. If the game ends after 60 minutes, it's a fairly even goalless draw, shaded by the home side, as you do. Maybe if it went on for 180 minutes, the laughter pangs would've exhausted the home crowd, and the Fire would've surged back in it. As it is, though, history and custom dictate that a soccer match lasts 90 minutes, so Chicago's meltdown from minutes 65-80 (and the hilarity contained within) would be the story. 3-1 Vancouver, and it felt at least that bad.
At least the game lasted just long enough for consolation. Patty Nyarko scored a goal with his head (!) on the last touch of the game, not 10 seconds after Maicon Santos banged the upright with a header of his own. It was all very encouraging, and then the whistle blew.
Nyarko couldn't celebrate his goal properly because, well, I'm sure someone has to follow Louis C.K. on stage sometimes; I'm doubting many consider it a victory lap. More like following the elephants in the parade.
There were distinct warnings that Chicago were going to absolutely slay with this routine - the chuckles when a simple switch so discombobulated the backline in the 47th that no one closed down Kenny Miller 22 yards from goal, for example. Or Bakary Soumare's inspired physical comedy in the 55th, taking two touches while standing on the goal line with Miller closing in.
Still, it takes more than a smidgen of opportunism and a waggle of the eyebrows to really kill it in joke-land. So we came to the 65th minute, and to an exquisite bit of comic set-piece writing by whoever is writing this stuff. The Fire were, at this point, in a scoreless game, and despite being outplayed fairly badly in the second half were still thinking of snatching some points. So came everyone who's not terrible in the air: Anibaba, Soumare, Berry, Larentowicz all clanged forward to fling themselves at the ball, leaving the wispy crew of Rolfe, Nyarko and new boy Shaun Francis to mind the fort. But Chicago corner, so no problem, right?
Picture now me sitting in my bedroom in Flint, Michigan, watching the game. I have a legal pad in my hand, a habit from years ago for games I may write about. I write 65 in the margin, a dash through the double line down the left side, and wait to see what happens. As the play unfolds, I'm scrawling notes in real-time. They read:
65 - Chi corner. Lindpere svc caught Knighton who is immediately looking to break. Lethargic recovery by Fire. K[nighton] gestures "go go", hits 50 yard pass right wing Camilo. C[amilo] 1st touch turns past F[rancis] who relax, Rolfe angle on ball. Rolfe halfass olé tackle. F jets up to cover. R jogs to stop. C use F momentum on simple cut, right foot finish back post. Nyarko track Manneh run weak side.
So many moments just cry out for slow-mo. Why is there no Hot Time digital team to produce a video of, say, Rolfe's hilariously prissy non-tackle set to Yakety Sax? Maybe some bonus footage of the team jogging slowly upfield while the opposing goalkeeper says, "Holy shit! One of the best strikers in the league is now being marked by a gust of wind, a tuft of hair and a soap bubble! Perhaps I shall guide the ball in that direction."
The amazing thing about great performances is sometimes, some very special times, they become something more than just that one performance; a great performance can sometimes become a sort of catalyst for other great performances. And so Rolfe's flying hamster-kick and Francis' yo-yo act inspired the rest of the starting defense to even greater heights.
The Fire came out of the goal chastened, wearing the ‘gosh-darn-it' determination of a born sucker. And so it proved as, almost immediately, the defense demonstrated that perhaps they hadn't thought this whole ‘high line' thing through too well.
Chicago pressed the ‘Caps hard after falling behind - at least, the front-runners did. Word is the memo was passed around the field in a game a telephone, with the defenders last because duh, defenders. Soumare was dazed, as if he'd heard "fetishize" and just gone with it because, y'know, Frank.
So there's the attackers, going all balls to the wall pressing up to the boundary, and the midfield, moving into supporting positions, trying to force a quick turnover - and the backline, standing off in a muddle, all baffled by homophones for the phrase ‘press high.' Kekuta Manneh found himself in a quiet moonlit glade, a creek by his feet, birds chirping, not a care in the world and just short of midfield. Camilo took a shot at beating the offside trap and found another grassy bit of the Shire just 3 yards behind the backs of Messrs. Soumare and Berry, where he took Manneh's pass and strolled in on goal.
Paolo Tornaghi will have better days. He will. Someday he'll look back on this game and think, "Why me? Why?" because, however dignified his mien, this memory will always suck. Being hung out to dry by one's friends, even for the lulz - but this was the moment that didn't. Camilo bore in, dancing leftward out of his reach and, seemingly, into the clear. Tornaghi, sensing the Brazilian's need to clear his footing up, leapt in and speared the ball away, apparently saving a goal.
The bad part (for Paolo and us) came next, as Anibaba, Berry and Soumare gathered in the area, standing off Camilo two yards maybe 10 from goal, providing no pressure on the league's leading scorer, but instead a massive screen for the league's leakiest keeper. 2-0, the crowd was howling, and Tornaghi got to test the limits of his English profanity vocabulary in an entirely consequence-free environment.
The third goal was Manneh's attempt to mimic Camilo - again with Anibaba standing off absurdly close to goal and screening. Like most callback jokes, it was more groaner than laugher.
This wasn't a conventional 3-1 pasting - there were many sequences where the Fire were ascendant. It's easy to imagine the game turning out another way. For example, if Rolfe's subtle sixth-minute shot isn't saved, or Duka's shot in the 27th doesn't slice hard, or Magee's back-post curler in the 60th curls just a little more, the whole story's different. But today, the clowns came to town, and all the other parts of that story became just the things that came before.
It's a tough old world. It's a tough old game. It's a tough business, comedy.