From calculus we get the idea of the asymptote: A curve that is tangential to a line ... at infinity. The two, curve and line - the wavy curlicues of equation and the flat simplicity of the goal - are very, very close for most of their existence through grid-space, achingly, heart-wearyingly nearly touching without. ever. getting there.
In fact, they never get there. Infinity, right? It's the 'second Tuesday of next week' of mathematics. It never actually comes. It's very close, though, close as your tongue is to your teeth, close as that heartbeat that just went and the other that just went after it while you read this. A half-breath away, forever.
And the Chicago Fire of 2014 are asymptotic to victory.
It's not that it's hard to understand the Men in Red starting the game both flat and fiesty - this was the team's third game in six days, with travel between each. Some of the starter's souls were still in transit from Colorado (having caught up as the team was flying out of Denver to come home, then left behind again); it's hard to be anything other than reactive and surly when one's spirit is so greatly diminished. In the first 30 minutes, Seattle's possession and swagger rubbed the young, road-weary Fire the wrong way, and the game became a series of bitter grievances, like everyone really needed a nap.
Chris Ritter celebrated his third career start by tangling with Obafemi Martins in the seventh minute, with each earning a yellow card for their trouble. (Martins would hit the showers before halftime, as Benji Joya cruelly thrust his face against Martin's hand. Did I mention we had the Seattle feed in Michigan?)
Martins' main foil on the night was his former teammate, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado. When Martins masterfully controlled a deflected Brad Evans cross in the 31st minute, Hurtado was right on his back hip, unable to stop the clinical back-post finish. Hurtado's two yellow cards were expended in pursuit of the Nigerian trickster. Martins' second goal, a simple rolled penalty kick after sending Johnson the wrong way, was thanks to Hurtado's robust two-footed challenge in the penalty area.
So, 40 minutes in, the Fire are completely adrift. They're the curve just at the moment when it starts to bend toward its goal; they're down two goals, down a man, leg-dead and frustrated after 220 minutes of full-blast mediocrity in six days. They're stumbling around right at the edge of a yawning abyss - just let go, just fall, and it's all over. Seattle wins 5-0; the season's a lost cause.
That didn't happen, largely because of the presence of Harry Shipp. At the moment that he turned this contest from an exercise in black cosmic despair to something else, Shipp's number was written on a substitute card - Patrick Ianni stood on the sideline, ready to replace our homegrown wonder. The Fire, down two goals, would trade Shipp for another centerback.
They didn't because the 22-year-old ran onto a Quincy Amarikwa through ball - a role reversal almost too astonishing to believe - pulled the ball over to his right foot, feinted as if to shoot, then crossed over to his left, leaving Chad Marshall stumbling in his wake. Shipp finished simply in pinpoint fashion to the back post; in the aftermath, Martins' fists were assaulted. Just a goal down and suddenly playing 10-on-10, the Fire were energized.
But they're not the there men. They're the nearly men. The asymptote. Seattle started the second half with a couple of quick chances, but the Fire, seeming energized, answered with a couple of their own - a Jeff Larentowicz header from Shipp's lovely delivery, Quincy Amarikwa's desperate stab on a clever short-corner sequence from Shipp and Grant Ward.
Late in the game, all the subs spent, the fatigue of this very long, very hot week showed itself; Chicago's defenders, particularly, were obviously exhausted on their feet. Lovel Palmer, who played 90 minutes Sunday and today and 50 minutes Wednesday, was particularly affected; the cramps limiting his mobility were obviously part of the problem in the 78th minute, when Lamar Neagle was afforded enough time to settle, measure and then strike from 17 yards in super slo-mo. At 3-1, with 12 minutes left and a Fire defender literally walking slowly around the pitch, the game as a competitive contest was over.
But: Asymptote. Closer and closer. Amarikwa finds Shipp in the right channel, and he takes advantage of the space to launch an absolute howitzer under the crossbar. Palmer's still limping; he's actually standing on the left wing when Juan Luis Anangonó is stoned by Seattle keeper Stephen Frei in the 89th. Frei was equal to a flurry of crosses from the Men in Red, and the whistle peeped an end to the Fire's fourth loss of the season.
It was frustrating, then infuriating, then inspiring, then frustrating, then hopeful. It was a loss, but it was involving, and oh, so close. Asymptotic to a win: Our 2014 Chicago Fire.
The Fire (2-8-4) get a few days off before they face the Pittsburgh Riverhounds in US Open Cup play. Seattle (10-2-3) host the Washington Generals at some point in the Open Cup; I may need to check my notes on that, though.