While driving to wonderful Toyota Park after a hot, muggy, Wednesday, I thought luck was going the Men in Red's way. Early-morning weather forecasts predicted an hour of rain right around the 7:30 kickoff time. After some showers passed with an hour to spare, many fans thought we were in the clear. However, Mother Nature rarely follows the script and instead flooded this Fire match with crazy plot twists.
Half an hour before kickoff, with cones and balls ready for warm-ups, a rain delay was announced as a sudden cold front doused the stadium. When the first 15 minute delay arrived, rain was falling in audible sheets. Most of the brave early-arriving supporters inside the stadium sought shelter under the east and west stands. The Section 8 crazies, who were still banging drums and reveling in the usual chants, must have been doing some sort of rain dance because the weather showed no signs of abatement. The few lulls in rain merely shifted attention to the not-so-distant lightning.
But hey, a little rain never hurts the Fire... right?
After nearly a full match worth of delay, a congress of the brightest turf minds of Chicago agreed to play on. Kick off at 9:23 PM. Give credit to the ground crews for some nice aesthetic improvements to Toyota Park, including a new beach in front of goal.
Pittsburgh released a defensively stocked lineup in a 4-5-1. With only one change from their previous match, Pittsburgh moved midfielder Rob Vincent to the back four and introduced midfielder Daniel Earls in his place. Spearheading the attack was Collins John, a name familiar to some Fire fans. The former Fullham, FC Twente, and Chicago striker had scored three in seven matches for the ‘Hounds.
Chicago presented nothing out of the ordinary in their starting 4-4-2. Much like their opponents, a midfielder was moved to the back four with Matt Watson filling in at right back. Returning from extended absences were Logan Pause and Mike Magee. With his appearance, captain and ‘soon-to-be-legend' Pause equals other Fire legend C.J. Brown for most appearances in the U.S. Open Cup wearing the Fire badge.
A cool mist and the cheers of a couple hundred remaining faithful greeted the players before kickoff.
Pittsburgh kicked off but easily lost possession to the Jeff Larentowicz and Pause midfield. The right side was favored for the Fire attack, with Grant Ward linking up with Quincy Amarikwa. Seemingly content to give up possession, the only chain Pittsburgh looked to break was Pause sitting in front of the Ianni-Soumare duo. As usual, Pause found himself on the ground a few times while hounded by opposing attacking midfielders, this time Scottish midfielder Kevin Kerr for Pittsburgh. To his rescue was Patrick Ianni, who almost connected on a solo run up the middle in the 9th minute with Quincy.
With brief spells of possession, Pittsburgh's target men were Collins John and Colombian-American forward Jose Angulo. While not of the same pedigree as his Dutch counterpart, the reigning USL Pro top scorer and league MVP Angulo proved no less of a threat. With John clearly the preferred target, much of the Chicago's physical defense was directed his way.
The first corner was awarded after a Quincy run in the 14th minute. Shipp dialed his own number and dribbled the ball out himself, but failed to connect with target Jeff Larentowicz.
Until the 17th minute, Pittsburgh was containing Fire possession to the half way line. Coming to the rescue for the maligned Pause was Mike Magee, who was even seen in-between the fire center backs in attempts to restore control.
Fire strategy then shifted back to the flanks and had an instant impact. After runs by Ward down the right, Big Jeff Larentowicz crossed from the left to Quincy who nudged the ball towards the rushing Englishman, who danced around a defender and slotted the ball home for his first ever Chicago goal. 1-0 Fire in the 23rd minute.
Pittsburgh's response was instigated by Collins John, who sprayed a pass wide in front of Sean Johnson's box. A few easy falls by Riverhound attackers allowed the Fire to dictate play once again.
With Shipp taking free kicks and corners, Magee and Big Red were the clear targets. Otherwise, Ward was doing his best to turn defenders and find speedy Amarikwa. Smooth interchanges with attack-minded Watson showcased Ward's hard work in maintaining possession. No one was giving more effort to individually turn defenders than our Tottenham loanee.
Some frustration befell the always vocal Magee, who kicked a long ball by Shipp after it went out of bounds. I doubt he was feeling frustrated after what happened next.
Jeff Larentowicz hold up play down the left earned the third fire corner. The inswinging Shipp ball glanced off Big Red's frizzy mane before falling to Magee with a top-shelf finish. 2-0 Chicago in the 39th minute.
Hoping to make a difference again, Pittsburgh looked to threaten Johnson's comfortable post. A Soumare foul on Johnson's left earned Pittsburgh its most dangerous shooting opportunity of the night. The resulting kick fell to Winfield, Illinois native and Pittsburgh defender Andrew Marshall. His side footed shot was seemingly cleared off the line by The Big Red Enforcer, but the linesman disagreed, saying the ball had crossed the line. Pittsburgh had gotten one back. Still the Fire led 2-1 in the 41st minute.
With goal line technology winning many supporters in Brazil at the World Cup, we can only wonder the true fate of that effort. The Men in Red took that 2-1 lead into halftime.
On the verge of second half kickoff, the flood gates opened once more. At times during the downpour, it became difficult to see the other side of the pitch. Lightning light up the sky and thunder rumbled the foundation, begging the question if soccer was going to continue that evening. Further discussion by Fire technical staff during another lull deemed the conditions suitable to play. Kick off for the second half was delayed for more than an hour, finally set for 11:35 PM.
With Fire possession at the restart, Amarikwa continued his excellent hold-up play on the right side while looking for a pass to his fellow attackers. One such pass lead to a foul on Ward by Riverhound defender Brian Fekete just outside the box. The ensuing Shipp kick fell to Magee who (in trying to channel his inner Tim Cahill from the Australia world cup match earlier in the day) looked top shelf again, only to hit the bar. The rebound was blocked by Larentowicz and collected by Amarikwa.
At that instant, a few individuals in suits appeared in the player tunnel and signaled to the referee. This match was over. Officially in the 49th minute, the Fire were declared victors by a score of 2-1.
U.S. Soccer Match Commissioner Nate Boyden made the match ending call, citing nearby lightening as his concern. "We wanted to go a full 90 minutes and it's unfortunate we had to terminate the match," Boyden remarked to the media.
In a condensed press conference, coach Frank Yallop expressed his relief to win a game and emphasized team preparedness throughout the delays. "It had been a while," since the last Fire victory, Yallop reminded. "These games are never easy but we went about it in the right manner," he continued. On giving up a late goal that nixed a comparatively easy clean sheet opportunity: "We seem to struggle to keep a clean sheet."
While most attempted to manage the weather, Yallop also had to manage the players. "We wanted the players to relax during the breaks and not be too into game mode because they would need the energy for a whole 45," he mentioned. "Once we got ready to go to warm-ups, we clued the players in: ‘You should expect to play the full game.'"
Full game or not, the Fire now face a familiar foe in Columbus next Wednesday in the U.S. Open Cup Fifth Round at a hopefully drier Toyota Park.
A weather-shortened match against a third-tier team might not reveal too much about the team following an extended break. Pause struggled to keep control of the midfield and probably would have been subbed off had the match continued. Magee finding his goal scoring boots again as he returns from injury was definitely promising. MOTM goes to Grant Ward for his first Fire goal and individual effort in creating chances from nothing. That determination will go a long way toward helping this team control the attacking third of the pitch in future matches.
"We look forward to next Wednesday and the quest for the Cup," concluded Frank.
So are we. But next time, don't forget to bring an umbrella.
Chicago Fire (@ChicagoFire) June 19, 2014