After winning a football contest for the opening 70 minutes, the Chicago Fire approached their opponents Saturday evening - MLS Cup finalists Real Salt Lake - and made a unique proposal: How about we do the last 20 minutes or so with Rochambeaux in place of the football? How about we just spend a few minutes kicking each other in the junk? Because this winning at football, that stuff is waaaay too boring.
I'm sorry. I'm not sure that's factual. My notes are sketchy. I'm going on emotional memory. And in my memory, at approximately 9:30 p.m. Central Daylight Time, the Royals' final, and most devastating salvo found Joao Plata - lethal all evening, and doubly so when offside and not flagged - tapping home a Alvaro Saborio cross, simultaneously crunching his boot into thousands of figurative pubic bones across the region. Staggered, we lost.
Real Salt Lake overcame a rampant first half for the Fire to come from behind and win, 3-2, at Toyota Park Saturday night. Chicago's snakebit opening to the season added a new chapter, as they frittered away a hard-won and deserved two-goal lead in the final 20 minutes of the game, losing for only the second time in eight starts in front of a crowd of just under 15 thousand on a lovely spring evening.
The Salt Lake surge was as expected as it was devastating. Chicago had dominated the opening half, playing a canny counter-attacking style that exploited all the weaknesses of the Royals' default shape. The visitors spent the third quarter of the game frustrated, watching the Men in Red sit calmly on a two-goal cushion. Somehow, out of nothing, Joao Plata - the most dynamic attacker on either team - found a pocket of space atop the penalty area in the 70th minute with every defender either marking someone else or just not into it, maaaaan. The tiny Ecuadorian tucked his finish into the near post past a diving Sean Johnson, halving the lead and shattering the Fire's confidence like a cheap Christmas ornament.
Still, it was not yet 9:30 p.m. Central Daylight Time. Still, hope lived on. Around 9:27, the Chicago defense let a crossing ball bounce in the box, allowing an astonished Saborio to trap it with his chest, then slot home to tie the game. Let me say that again: Trap it with his chest, then slot home. In the penalty area. In the 90th minute. Leading (previously) 2-1. Ow, ow, ow, ouch.
Leg-dead, staggered, the Fire were found flat barely 60 seconds after the ensuing kickoff for the final insult, piled as it was upon the previous injuries. Plata, a half-step offside, ghosted behind Greg Cochrane to volley home Saborio's shaped cross. The Royals stride out, untouched in the second, decisive Rochambeaux. The Men in Red ... not so much.
The first half unspooled as the most inspiring 45 minutes of football played by the Fire in some time. The Men in Red, eschewing the temptation to out-Salt Lake Salt Lake, instead set out in a formation that resembled a 4-1-3-2 in possession - urgent and aggressive - while falling into a tight, cohesive defensive seven without the ball. RSL kept the ball (they enjoyed 68 percent possession in the half) but found clean shots harder to come by.
When they did break through to glimpse the frame, Sean Johnson was there to turn them away. Twice, Johnson snuffed out golden scoring chances almost single-handedly. A likely save-of-the-week nominee came in the 39th, when Jhon Kennedy Hurtado's first mistake of the half played Joao Plata onside. The diminutive winger cranked a screamer far-post which threatened to leave Johnson stranded, as he was out part-way to narrow the angle - but somehow he got a hand on the low, knuckling shot, parrying it out for a corner. Earlier, Johnson had stoned the other RSL striker, Saborio, coming out alertly and taking the Costa Rican's attempted chip on the chest.
All of which would've been for naught had not the beautiful, flowing things happened when the Fire had the football. Chicago's increasingly obvious plan - to break at pace against Salt Lake, to wait for turnovers and pounce on them aggressively - would've looked familiar to anyone who watched that other Real, the one from Madrid, dismantle Bayern Munich mid-week. Chicago looked more expansive and exuberant with each breakout, and the Royals were left hacking; both yellow cards in the first half were tactical fouls to prevent counterattacks.
Crucial to the Fire's countering strategy was the positioning and pace of Patrick Nyarko. After turnovers Chicago would look first to release the Ghanaian on the right, and one of those forays led to the first goal. Nyarko, thwarted on the initial move, sought support, and the Men in Red flowed forward as a unit; finding himself facing a double-team, Nyarko had Benji Joya and Lovel Palmer available as outlets.
Choosing Joya was the the right move. The 20-year-old played with both swagger and accountability in his 90 minutes, and it was the latter here. Feinting Chris Schuler off his run, his first touch turned the RSL defender around, leaving Joya with space to drop the ball to Harrison Shipp.
Shipp has been nothing short of a revelation in this young season, and his service on dead balls is sublime to contemplate, but he is often a bit of a aesthete, seldom resorting to the kind of simple walloping he gave the ball Joya fed him. it was only the brilliance of Nick Rimando in the Salt Lake goal which kept Shipp from scoring, diving and getting one strong hand on the low, heavy shot. (As it wound up, it was only the second-best save by Rimando on the night; his feather-touch on Magee's breakaway in the 63rd kept this game alive as a contest.)
Mike Magee, in shades of 2013, was there to clean up. Following Shipp's shot in, he tapped the miracle-save over Rimando and into the net to hand the Fire a surprising 1-0 lead.
It got more surprising from there. Salt Lake had plenty of possession, but all of the best chances were falling Chicago's way. The Fire's tendency to flow into attack as a unit was demonstrated on the second goal, which started with a simple giveaway by the visitors.
The first outlet found Cochrane, who was pressed immediately by Luke Mulholland but stabbed the ball forward to Shipp. The engache stilled the bouncing ball with an immaculate touch, then found Joya, who was bursting forward from his defensive position alongside Jeff Larentowicz. Joya's second touch sprays it out wide to Cochrane, overlapping again, the Fire's tactical approach realized and validated all in a moment.
Cochrane had runs a-plenty to choose from when he went to cross: Magee was running near-post, with Nyarko slanting in from deep far-post and Joya lurking for the cutback. But it was Anangono's run that the cross found - straight down the middle, unmarked, making no mistake with the header. 2-0, Chicago, at the high point, 30 minutes in, 40 minutes before it turned into a nut-kicking contest.
The Fire (0-2-6) don't get any breaks from the schedule, traveling to the Supporters Shield holders New York Red Bull next Saturday. Real Salt Lake (4-0-5) visit Houston in a Mother's Day matchup.