Charles Reep was a retired RAF wing commander whose writing, in the 1950s magazine Match Analysis, basically foreshadowed the entirety of Internet football culture. As an outsider to professional soccer, all he had to go on was his observations of the games, the notes he made on those observations, and the thoughts which rose up when he contemplated his notes and observations. If he were 20 today, he'd be writing here at Hot Time.
Reep's writing was influential, though, so much so that he is credited as the father of the ‘long-ball style.' His observation that most scoring plays are the result of a sequence of three or less passes - three! - explains most of the tactic: Stop playin' about, that data shouts, an' hoof it toward th'goal!
Put up against this great wall of pragmatism is, in most teams, a desire to ‘play football' - you know, to play it the fun way, moving and passing, keeping the ball, being clever. But Reep's formulation is one of the great constants of the modern game - it's always there, peeking over one's shoulder, anytime the opposition seems to have more of the ball: "Get i'out!" it shouts. (Charles Reep's tactics have a Scots accent.) "Stop playin' abou'!"
The Fire came into Friday's showdown with first-place Kansas City unburdened by messy ideas about their place in the table, or their chances on the evening. Sporting's possession game would have most of the ball, as they have in virtually every game in 2013; Chicago would have to fashion chances quickly, and on the margins. The last meeting between the two teams had been over in the first 10 minutes; the Fire would have to find a way to protect fledgling centerback Hunter Jumper, who would be making his first start in the middle, uhh, lemme check this, uhh - ever.
In addition, a media meltdown by a front office apparatchik had created a mood of resentment and confrontation among many of the most hard-core Chicago supporters. Their banners declaring "BUSINESS AS USUAL WILL NOT BE ACCEPTED BY THE PEOPLE OF CHICAGO," instead of being displayed pregame and struck before kickoff, were left blanketing whole sections throughout the contest - a contentious backdrop for a contentious game.
The Fire made the most of their surroundings, painting themselves in the bloody rage of their fans to grind out a spectacularly pragmatic 1-0 win. Most of the Fire's effort was expended in the unsexy task of organizing - this victory was won not by one man, or one goal, but by two banks of four and 90 minutes of selfless effort.
We should make mention of Hunter Jumper. After a sketchy first few minutes found him a half-step late for tackles, Jumper got his one chance to make a difference in the game. Jalil Anibaba's first cross off a set piece was blocked, so he tried again, this time rifling a dipping ball to the back post. Mike Magee's quick reaction kept the ball from sailing over the line, and he turned his only touch back toward the penalty area, where stood Jumper.
‘Stood' might be a bit much - kneeled? Jumper had a defender on his hip, but in getting untangled from a previous skirmish he found himself with the ball shoulder-high, dipping, and him on his knees. He did the only thing he could do: He stooped to head it, getting just enough, ending with his face in the Toyota Park dirt and the ball trickling over the goal line.
That, in essence, was the game - a scrappy play that somehow Chicago finished despite ending up face-down in the dirt. Gloriously, astonishingly face-down in the dirt. After that strike, in the 13th minute, Kansas City had most of the ball, but the Fire had most of the good chances, playing as a pure turn-and-counter team.
This was a team defensive effort, but the team benefitted greatly from the inclusion of one of its newest parts, defensive midfielder Edigio Arevalo Rios. Playing as an anchor for the midfield, Rios' ability to read the game and snuff out attacks just at the moment of crisis was a godsend. Again and again, Sporting's attacks would build along a predictable crescendo, the tempo and pressure rising, only to be cut short by an intervention from our Uruguayan designated player.
If anything, the final score should have been more flattering. Chicago had two great chances in the second half, but neither was finished. In the 65th, Chris Rolfe won a ball from a pressing Aurelien Collin at midfield and strode in on Jimmy Nielsen completely unmarked, but his shot drifted inches wide. Then, in the 73rd, Rolfe's replacement, Juan Luis Anangono, was a fingertip Nielsen save away from opening his Fire account on a spectacular swivelling volley.
Football can be many things, and is about many things, always. Friday, in Chicago, it was about the effort of the group being greater than the sum of its parts. It was about pragmatism, and grit, and going straight at goal. It made the Eastern Conference race a real shootout down the stretch. And somewhere, one imagines, Wing Commander Reep (ret.) is smiling.
Chicago (10-10-4) gets a long week to get well, as they don't play again until next Sunday's home game against the Dynamo. Sporting KC (11-9-6) play Tuesday in Honduras in CONCACAF Champions League play.