Are you not entertained?
The 2014 Fire almost certainly will not go down in memory as a great team - too many failures have already piled up, too many weaknesses exposed - but say this for them: By God, do they make a show of it. Saturday night, the boys from Bridgeview got as close as MLS gets to Broadway, and they put forward a performance worthy of the boards. By turns simpering, swaggering, fortunate and snakebit, Chicago somehow pulled out a 5-4 victory over New York Red Bulls. The win is the team's first of the season, in its ninth game.
New York Red Bull, a rich, well-appointed football team
Chicago Fire, a ragamuffin football team
The action was begun, as it so often is in great drama, by a simple twist of fate. The Chicago Fire, visiting the big city for the first time since an embarrassing meltdown in October, get a stroke of fortune - a goal out of nothing almost immediately! Harrison Shipp's low pass to Mike Magee found Magee in an offside position - or would have, had Magee run onto the ball. New York keeper Luis Robles, caught between watching Magee's potential finish and attacking the bouncing cross, could do nothing to keep the ball from nestling in the side netting. Four minutes in, and the Fire led, 0-1.
The Red Bulls reacted, almost to a man, with the haughty aggression typical of the gentry. These foundlings have already become boring, said Eric Alexander's cutback cross to the back post. I say we thrash them, then retire home for tea, replied Tim Cahill's thunderous header over Greg Cochrane. 1-1, barely 90 seconds after the Fire claimed the lead.
Still, somehow, the scrappy underdogs stayed in it. Chances came and went for the New Yorkers; Jamison Olave spraying a header just high in the 20th, a Cahill foul ending a promising approach in the 24th. Still the Fire stayed around, keeping the ball well in patches, looking for a seam.
They found one in the 38th minute. Harrison Shipp, whose play has been a revelation in this early season, received the ball in yards of space near midfield, and - in a near carbon-copy of his assist against New England - threaded an immaculately-weighted through ball into space for Mike Magee. The ball slid in behind the back line, zipping past just as Magee's run started in earnest, but checked up on the New Jersey grass, staying away from the ever-alert Robles. Magee, the 2013 MLS MVP, played onto his left foot, couldn't find the lift he needed to beat Robles, who came out aggressively, and the chance went begging.
As before, New York responded as if affronted. Their pressure after the near-miss was withering, and Benji Joya became its victim, trying to turn out of a midfield double-team and instead coughing the ball up to a certain Mr. Thierry Henry. Henry handled the resulting 3-on-2 like true royalty, moving swiftly to punish the up-jumped pretenders while allowing his lieutenant, Bradley Wright-Phillips, to claim the glory. 2-1, New York, and order was restored. We went to intermission with this lesson firmly in mind - getting uppity gets you punished. Just lay there nice and easy, and no one gets embarrassed.
It was around then, around halftime, that it became a musical, a spectacle; in every sense, a game to remember. But one needed that opening tension, that opening dynamic, to give context to an astonishing second 45 minutes. The Red Bulls, aristocratic, having the better of things, reacting with a visceral anger to misfortune; and the Fire, downtrodden, hanging on and trying to see through it.
The revolution began shortly after second-half kickoff. Quincy Amarikwa's outside-in diagonal run wasn't tracked by Kosuke Kimura, and it was a simple matter for the team's leading scorer to glance his fifth goal of the season past Robles, tying the game at 2.
An odd thing happened after Chicago's second goal: They stopped thinking of themselves as 'underdogs,' and started thinking of themselves, potentially, as 'winners.' The Fire's defensive posture in the early parts of the second half spoke of a team determined to show that their current hard-luck status was, in fact, due to hard luck, and not any deficiency of character or talent. After turning the ball over in the Red Bulls' zone, the Men in Red would, rather than retreating to a defensive block, simply start defending wherever they already were, and to devastating effect.
Shipp's second and third professional goals were the result of that kind of defending. On the second, Patrick Nyarko's astute step into Roy Miller won the ball, and his intelligent dither allowed time for Amarikwa's run to clear the area before feeding Shipp, unmarked from 15 yards, where he finished unelaborately back-post. 2-3, Chicago.
It was the third goal of Shipp's hat trick which showed New York this Chicago team weren't no ragamuffins, no sir, and it came, again, from pressure. Magee got muscled off the ball by Red Bulls enforcer Olave, but rather than jogging back in defeat, Magee kept dogging Olave deep in the defensive end. The Colombian centerback had certainly seen enough of this, and left the ball to Kimura, down near their own endline.
Shipp, joining in Magee's pressure, caught Kimura waiting for the ball and nipped it away, bursting into the penalty area. Kimura's desperate, lunging defense could do little as Shipp shifted the ball onto his right foot and curled it around Robles to double the lead, also finishing off his first career hat trick. 2-4, and we're not done yet: Nyarko added another on a cross-slash-shot which served, as if it were needed, to emphasize that fortune smiled upon the ragtag Fire.
Then came the crisis of confidence: What if we're downtrodden because we deserve it? What if we're winless because we suck? Stunned by the expansion of the lead to seemingly unblowable proportions, the Fire fell into the defensive shell which cost them so greatly against Salt Lake. The introduction of wise older heads, in the form of Logan Pause and Gonzalo Segares, probably helped slow its progress, but the panic within the Men in Red was on full display in the final 20 minutes of this game.
Bradley Wright-Phillips cannoned a half-clearance to cut the lead to 2, 3-5, then His Royal Highness, Thierry the First of His Name, informed Kevin Stott that Mr. Hurtado didst molest his person within the penalty box in a most ungentlemanly manner. Duly chastised, Stott awarded a penalty kick, which Henry thoughtfully allowed Wright-Phillips to bang home. 4-5, with 15 minutes left; can it all just go away?
To say the Fire made maximum drama of the final act is damning with faint praise. Reluctant to possess the ball, Chicago instead retreated into a terrified shell, visibly willing the clock to run at every opportunity. Sean Johnson preserved the margin with an incredible one-on-one save against HRH Henry in the 82nd, and somehow, some way, the game ended with the Fire on top; the strings came up; the overture played with extra verve; the whole world simply burst forth in song. 5-4, Fire - annnnd, curtain.