Soccer. Football. This magnificent madness. This whirling disco ball, this muddy allthing. Football, you fickle, beautiful contest, you sport of savages and savants and sirens, thank you again, we pray. For if football cast us down - if football make us unquiet, and doubtful, and suspicious - doesn't it stand to reason it can lift us up? And we it? And so on?
Somehow, the Fire found a way to keep a clean sheet in an MLS match again, and somehow they made a bit of inspiration in the third minute stand up for a win, 1-0, in New England Saturday night. The win, Chicago's third of the season, was a good example of the kind of mental toughness one associates with clubs not listed with a "16." before their name in the league table - after three games in the previous 10 days, after a week living out of suitcases, the Men in Red showed up ready to play, and brought home three points.
The game will be remembered for two moments. The first was Quincy Amarikwa's goal in the third minute, which was a product of the Fire's aggressive pressing. Lovel Palmer tried a wayward long ball forward to Amarikwa, which was easily cut out by New England's AJ Soares. Soares, confident of his next pass, tried to one-touch the ball forward 25 yards to Daigo Kobayashi - but Jeff Larentowicz was already closing that option down, and tackled the ball away with a crisp crunch, where it fell to Mike Magee.
Magee's response made it clear he'd spotted Amarikwa's run before the ball came his way. Taking a touch away from pressure, he hooked an arcing through ball into the space behind the Revs back line. Amarikwa, a specialist in these kind of hand-fighting angled runs, beat Andrew Farrell to the first bounce, headed the ball onto his right foot, and lashed home a finish over keeper Bobby Shuttleworth's shoulder before he could raise his hands. 1-0, Fire, and the scoring was complete for the evening; only 87 minutes to play.
In between there was some football, and it was generally characterized more by words like 'crunch' and 'bite' than 'flair' and 'inspiration.' Chicago played a high line throughout, trying to stop New England from passing them to death in midfield, and it seemed to work well - the Revs quickly resorted to lobbing balls over the top, with little threatening play to show for it. The Fire seemed terrifyingly content to settle into a shape and play defense, but still created several good chances through Amarikwa's fight and Shipp's liquid skill. The best of the near-misses came in the 14th minute, when Shipp pounced on a quick restart and dribbled through the disorganized Revs back line, curving a back-post finish from 18 yards that Shuttleworth just tipped wide for a corner.
The second moment which will stand out is Sean Johnson's otherworldly penalty stop in the 86th minute to preserve the tie. I'm not going to get tangled up in whether the call to award the penalty was a good one; sometimes injustice is a necessary part of the narrative, and let's leave it at that. Whatever happened before the penalty -whatever negative shoots of possibility spoke of failure and disappointment for the Fire - Johnson gathered up and tore out by the roots with a save that will be featured in the Chicago Fire 2014 highlight reel.
It has to be said that Chris Tierney didn't get all of it - his left-footer was struck carefully but with no real venom. Johnson started Tierney's run-up just left of center, the Milkman daring Tierney to go right; but as soon as the Revs wingback approached the ball, Johnson exploded forward and sideways, narrowing the angle and anticipating the shot's flight. Still, it had a chance - only Sean's right-handed stab kept it out of the side-netting.
The save wasn't over, though. After glancing off Johnson's very strong glove, the ball wobbled toward the post, obviously spinning madly. There it was, right there - the Fire's season in a nutshell: Almost but not quite very good, and so almost but not quite even mediocre. Almost a save. Almost a win. Coulda been a contendah. It's all right there. Asymptotic. The nearly men.
Take a moment to consider Sean here: He's been wildly successful in his career, but his history is marred by one particular game: The USA Olympic qualifying meltdown against El Salvador in 2012. He's soldiered on, swears he's put it behind him; and saves like this he could present as proof positive. After stabbing the goal-bound penalty into the air, Johnson landed and gathered himself almost instantly, springing up to claim the ball after it kissed the post but before it could land again and spin into the goal, as was its seeming destiny.
So here we find ourselves, Fire nation, halfway through 2014 - still deep in the table, still winners of just three in 17 - and yet find a way to see a little light. We won a game on the road, on turf, playing the high pressure we'd been led to believe was the way forward. Sure, the team we beat has lost five on the trot. We're one of those five, thankyouverymuch. And we owed them one after Anangono's ill-fated assertion of authority.
A week that could've seen this thin roster collapse instead sees us through to the semis of the Open Cup, and somehow climbing an Eastern Conference just stuffed to bursting with mediocrity. Time will tell whether this was a true sunrise for this Fire team under Yallop, or just another embittering false dawn - but for now, it's enough to see the horizon lightening a bit, and wonder, and hope.
Chicago (3-10-4) get an entire week to prepare for the next game, home to Philadelphia. New England (7-2-8) don't get that courtesy, traveling across the country to face the Galaxy Wednesday evening.