Thirty-five years ago, President Jimmy Carter gave a speech which has come to be characterized as the 'malaise speech.' In it, he decried what he called a 'crisis of confidence' in the American public - a failure of mass will, expressed at an individual level.
There are those who will try to to convince you that the Chicago Fire are a playoff team this year. "Look at them!" they say, these Livia Sopranos of soccer fandom. "They're just five points out of the playoffs! With a gaaaaaame in haaaaaaand!"
They're lying to you. Just to be clear. This is a club closer to collapse than breakthrough.
I should explain. The Chicago Fire may actually make the MLS playoffs this season - there are any number of ridiculous permutations which could result in this roster staggering into the postseason, fifth or fourth in the East, possibly sporting a new headliner - but they're not a real playoff team. As it stands today, they're the Washington Generals of the playoff scene; the punching bags, little feared even when their effort is lauded. Saturday's exertions were enough to share the points for the 13th time in 21 starts. When you split the points in your place, and the other guys are disappointed, nothing good is generally happening.
The final score - 1-1, for those laggardly to the internet, having not yet played the highlights video herein - had a sense of inevitability. Of course the Fire drew their closest rivals at home. Of course they presented less threat than the visitors. Of course they found a way to hang around. Of course they found a way to blow it without entirely blowing it.
The Chicago Fire find themselves mired in a malaise - impelled to greatness by their past, tethered to mediocrity by their present, they cannot find a way forward. In the words of Jimmy Carter, an unjustly maligned former Commander in Chief:
The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our [club's] will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our [club.]
On Friday, the evening before this match, Jermaine Jones - a national-team midfielder who certainly would have improved the team - turned down the club's offer of a Designated Player contract, then disputed the leaked terms of the contract offer. The gist was that the Fire were simply not big-time enough to employ a player of Jones' quality.
Then, the game. Each squad came out cagey - Columbus favoring a battering ram, in Adam Bedell, up top. The tenor of the match was set thereby: Lumpy, banged-up and limping, a referendum on courage with a side-order of cleverness, and not the other way around.
Grant Ward had played an unexceptional several minutes the last few matches, but for whatever reason, he was alive to the possibilities around him Saturday. When he pounced on a short one-two in the 36th minute and clipped a cross in, planting the ball against Tyson Wahl's trailing arm, he allowed Silvio Petrescu to point at the spot. Mike Magee banged home the resulting penalty, and the Fire led, 1-0.
The Crew sputtered for a response for the remainder of the half, but didn't have to wait long for the response in the second half. Jeff Larentowicz waved at a header, and Federico Higuain was miraculously in a pocket of space; isn't this how it always is for this Fire team? Play well, claw out an advantage, then collapse horribly, revealing the advantage to be the emperor's clothes? 1-1, Columbus, and the visitors took the game by the throat.
Sean Johnson preserved the draw. Three times in a five-minute span he was called on to save certain goals; three times he came through magnificently. Of the 22 points Chicago have gathered this season, Johnson could reasonably claim credit for 10 or so.
At least it wasn't a loss. But the malaise - the sense that the Fire are caught in a web of mediocrity and mendacity - continues unabated.
Chicago (3-13-5) continues its home stretch against New York Red Bulls next Sunday.