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Still In The Hunt: Fire 2, Union 1, MLS #21 recap

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Fire show the awesome power of a fully-operational early lead in rare road victory; Nyarko posts goal and assist in another all-action performance; Magee scores again to claim league lead

Danny Cruz is a split second from hurling himself to the turf while shouting "AHH! C'mon ref!" Jalil looks on bemusedly.
Danny Cruz is a split second from hurling himself to the turf while shouting "AHH! C'mon ref!" Jalil looks on bemusedly.
John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

There used to be a book on Patrick Nyarko, and the book went something like this: Terrifying to defend on the dribble, but shoots like a U7 wingback. Concede space and edge toward cutting off the pass. Wait for him to run out of room. Last evening in Philadelphia, while most of the soccer world was gibbering over a certain new DP in Seattle, Patty Nyarko took to the field like a cartoon strongman, waved 'the book' at the crowd of over 18,000, and tore it in half with his bare hands.

Spurred by a goal and assist from their Ghanaian winger, the Fire won for only the second time this season outside Toyota Park, defeating Philadelphia 2-1. The win keeps Chicago within five points of the fifth and final playoff spot.

One of the characteristics of the Fire's disappointing early-season form was a tendency to start games in a funk - the Men in Red have played from behind game after game in 2013. Saturday was a different matter. The Fire were energetic and aggressive in the early going, and their sprightly start was rewarded with a rare first goal in the ninth minute.

The play started with Jeff Larentowicz stepping forward to claim a loose Union pass deep in Philadelphia's midfield zone. Big Red astutely offered the ball to Mike Magee, who took a touch and found Chris Rolfe pulling back into the space Larentowicz had vacated. Rolfe's return through ball to Magee got the MVP candidate into the penalty area, where both Philly centerbacks shifted to cover him. Seeing the space vanish, Magee opted to spray the ball wide to Joel Lindpere, who waited on the left flank.

Creeping in from the other side, Nyarko waited outside the back post, and when Rolfe - running hard near-post - let Lindpere's cross run, Patty was suddenly wide open 12 yards from net. And there's where the strong-man act happened: The book would have him darting to the endline, maybe trying to center to Rolfe or Magee, but instead Nyarko tore it asunder. Taking no extra touches, he lashed a shot to the back post which a shifting Zach MacMath couldn't lay a finger upon.

Given the precious commodity of an early lead, Chicago looked much more fluid and dangerous than the Union throughout the first half. The trio of Nyarko, Rolfe and Magee stayed in constant motion, using space well and conserving energy. At one point in the 31 minute, Magee got after Rolfe for pressing high on a back-pass to MacMath, gesturing toward the (open) space to his right. The message: Keep your powder dry and stay compact.

It appeared for a time that staying compact would be enough. With the exception of some Keystone Cops moments toward the end of the first half, the defensive shape of the Fire was impressively coherent throughout the evening. One sequence around the 55th minute was telling - Philadelphia held possession, and after a wayward pass the Fire looked to counter. Chicago's countering through ball was intercepted, though, and the Union jumped forward, hoping to find the Fire wrong-footed - only to find, after a single pass, that Chicago's two-banks-of-four shape was unbreached, waiting.

Given that Chicago weren't going to be picked apart, Philadelphia went to an aerial game, aided by several fouls in the attacking zone. On the night, the Union attempted 32 crosses - 32! - and the Fire committed 17 fouls, including six around the penalty area. The halftime withdrawal of Raymon Gaddis for newly-signed Fabinho brightened Philly's attack, as well - Fabinho's first involvement led to a rare bit of combination play from the Union, and set up Conor Casey for a pullback opportunity which trickled just wide.

The Union's bang-it-home approach tied the game in the 61st. A foul by Bakary Soumare set Seba Le Toux up for a free kick from the right wing, and his near-post service was into a dangerous area, just short of the near post. Sheanon Williams was well-marked, but laid out for the ball courageously. His bravery was rewarded by fate when he missed the ball on the full stretch but caught it on the bounce with his ass. Sean Johnson, stumbling while trying to change directions, could only watch as the ball wandered across the goal line. 1-1, Union, and the Fire's season trembled and shook.

It could've been worse but for Johnson. The Milkman, fresh-delivered from winning the Gold Cup, displayed his usual outstanding shot-stopping capability the few times Philadelphia broke through on goal. A double-fist save off Jack MacInerney in the 41st and a stunning one-hander in the 54th maintained the Fire's lead earlier in the game, and his cat-quick tip over the bar on Amobi Okugo's header in the 65th smothered what seemed to be a post-goal Philadelphia resurgence.

Frank Klopas clearly wasn't content with another road draw. In the 67th, he put on Dilly Duka and Quincy Amarikwa for the fading Lindpere and Rolfe. Chasing is tiring work, and now the Fire had to chase. But not for too long, though.

It was Nyarko, again, who made the goal. Much like last week - when Nyarko dispossessed Corey Ashe deep in his own end, then set up Magee for the tying goal - it started with an astute tackle. In the 75th, Philly new boy Leo Fernandez was two minutes into his debut for the squad when he finally got his first touch, but Patty didn't give him a chance to settle, pouncing on him at the top of the arc and winning the ball.

Future MLS MVP Magee had seen that movie before and alertly moved into a pocket of space high in the penalty box, where Nyarko's prompt pass left him time to survey his options. MacMath came steaming out from goal, but Magee calmly waited for him to spread out to cover the back post and shot over him. 2-1, Fire, in a must-win game, on the road, against a team in playoff position. We have wept and fasted, wept and prayed; has our moment come 'round at last?

The goal was Magee's 14th in MLS play this season, his eighth in 10 games since coming to Chicago, and gives him the lead in the Golden Boot race.

Chicago saw the match off expertly after claiming the lead with 15 minutes to play, aided by fresh legs from Klopas' surprisingly deft substitutions. Daniel Paladini joined Amarikwa and Duka off the bench, and each pressed and ran selflessly after coming on, allowing the tiring starters to stay compact.

The Fire (8-9-4) play DC United Wednesday at Toyota Park in the U.S. Open Cup semifinal before returning to league play vs. Montreal next Saturday. Philadelphia (9-7-7) hosts DC United next Saturday.

Notes

- Set piece nerves: Chicago's shape in the run of play is very solid, but their marking and clearances on set pieces is infuriatingly awful. Philadelphia's entire offense down the stretch involved getting free kicks or corners, 'putting one in the mixer,' and hoping for the best - and it consistently worked. Only SJ's heroics and a goal-line clearance from Alex kept this from being a sad story of a sad team who sadly couldn't clear a ball in the box and now is sadly full of sadness.

- Whining, crying Philly: It's a little easier to understand how Philadelphia has gotten so many red cards against opponents after watching this game. Danny Cruz's play, in particular, is infuriating - completely reckless and out-of-control, but somehow still constantly aggrieved and whining. The first two yellows, against Anibaba and Alex, were drawn by Cruz, who seemed astonished that someone wasn't sent packing. The Alex tackle was particularly choice, as Cruz ran him over then complained about stumbling on his prone body. PRO, get it together.

- Whither our DPs?: You'd not know it by looking at the team sheet, but the Chicago Fire actually have two (2) designated player strikers on the roster. Neither made the team sheet today. Inverse moneyball!