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We're Not Bad, We're Just Drawn That Way: SKC 1, Fire 1, Recap

Fire overcome shaky start to trade goals, split points with defending champs

Sean Johnson's eight saves kept the Fire level today.
Sean Johnson's eight saves kept the Fire level today.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

(Editor: With apologies to Jessica Rabbit for the title.)

If you're one of those doughty believers maintaining the hope that 2014 will be a season in which the Fire challenge for the playoffs, you'd've been forgiven the temptation to turn off this game less than five minutes after kickoff. Sporting Kansas City were pressing Chicago more tightly than one of Dom Dwyer's kit tops, and the Men in Red were handling it poorly, skewing passes wide and high under the completely predictable pressure.

There's another way to watch this season, though, and it's the way I mentioned in the run-up to kickoff - as a sort of extended preseason for 2015, when the coaching staff and front office expect to actually achieve some results. Viewed that way - taking a sort of 'but extrapolate it to next year' approach to the game - this 1-1 road draw in Kansas City can be seen as encouraging.

Chicago started poorly, but eventually settled into a comfortable approach against the best pressing team in MLS, with homegrown rookies Harrison Shipp and Chris Ritter particularly sharp in finding space to keep the ball. As has been the case all season, though, generally positive play was undone by crucial failures in touch or ideas:

- Off the opening kickoff, a loose Patrick Ianni pass is pounced upon by Benny Feilhaber, whose attempt to spring Dom Dwyer spins long;

- In the 12th minute, Lovel Palmer - his simple options cut off - hacks the ball long, where Aurelien Collin calmly chipped it forward to Feilhaber. Unprepared to have the ball running straight back at them, the Chicago defense retreats in a panic as Feilhaber finds Dwyer angling in from the left - but his low shot is smothered by Sean Johnson;

- In the 22nd, Jhon Kennedy Hurtado gets charged down in the corner by Jacob Peterson, who wins the ball and whips a low cross in to Dwyer in the area. Dwyer's first touch pops up on him, forcing him to try a difficult bicycle kick which Johnson again smothers at the near post.

So it wasn't exactly a shock when a defensive miscue opened the scoring. Chicago had solved the initial Kansas City pressure well in the 34th minute, with Ritter, Palmer and Hurtado forming neat triangles. The ball came to Ianni with Dwyer a few paces off, lurking; Ianni's terrible first touch was like blood in the water. His second touch wasn't much better, trying to play the ball with his exposed left foot, and Dwyer stole in to take the ball cleanly off the Fire man. One touch and a simple finish later, and the Sporks led, 1-0.

The home side were having more of the play, but Chicago weren't entirely supine. Magee came close in the 31st minute, gathering a sumptuous, raking 60-yard ball from Ritter on the left wing and breaking in alone on goal, only to see his back-post finish hit the base of the goalpost and bounce wide.

A subtle tactical tweak led immediately to the equalizer. The Men in Red swapped Grant Ward and Alex on the wings, asking each to play on his off-foot side and stay a bit narrower. Alex was immediately called into action, pressuring a half-clearance in the Fire's right channel and dispossessing Seth Sinovic less than 30 yards from the Fire goal. Magee, seeing Alex's success coming, ghosted in from the left unmarked, took the Brazilian's pass expertly, and stroked a simple finish past onrushing KC keeper Eric Kronberg.

The second half played out like an uninspired sequel to the first half - the same basic template, but less interesting. Even the changes seemed uninspired: Dilly Duka replaced Alex at halftime - just when Alex seemed to be clicking - and was invisible before a four-minute stretch where he picked up a soft yellow and scuffed a shot badly after a rare good team buildup. Matt Watson's arrival for Grant Ward signalled the end of CF97's interest in winning the contest - never an exciting development.

Indeed, after Duka's sad roller which was cleared off the line, the Fire seldom threatened, instead falling deeper and deeper into the defensive shell which has generally presaged a late-game collapse for the club. Today, though, Johnson was equal to every attacking thrust, and the harbingers of doom were held at bay.

The Fire (2-10-4) travel to Atlanta on Wednesday for an US Open Cup quarterfinal match, then visit New England next Saturday as they return to MLS play. Sporting KC (7-5-5) return to action in Montreal against l'Impact next Saturday.