How many similes can one craft for mediocrity? How many metaphors? The Chicago Fire have played 27 games in MLS this season; now, after Saturday night's 1-1 draw against Toronto, they've finished deadlocked in 15 of them.
What is there to say? What clever bit of wordsmithing will describe another blown chance at victory? What cunning description will bring home the fact that, in the end, even this marginal non-loss was undeserved? The words become threadbare, desiccated, tattered and patched like the once-pristine playing surface at Toyota Park. This team's sine-wave marginality has drained all its descriptions dry; in every game, there are glimmers of hope; in every game, the promptings of despair. In every game. In every game.
It all began so promisingly. The Fire burst out of the gates ready to exploit a Toronto side both staggering (winless in five) and ill-aligned. The Reds fielded an almost inexplicable 5-4-1 formation against Chicago's 4-4-2, and the Men in Red took advantage by simply waiting for TFC to commit forward, then bursting into the space behind. Chicago's lashing counterattacks produced chance after chance in the first 10 minutes, and Lovel Palmer's headed goal seemed a just reward for such a fruitful skein of looks on goal.
Given a lead, and already predisposed to playing a countering game off the back foot, the Fire seemed comfortable absorbing Toronto's toothless forays as the game unwound into the second half; when Grant Ward was dragged down by Joe Bendik in the 56th minute, it seemed that Chicago's least-favored football squad had finally fought fate down. A penalty kick should have made the lead two, which - when considered against the northerner's shambling attack to that point - might as well have been 22.
Ah, should've. Jeff Larentowicz' decently-struck but poorly-targetted penal was saved rather easily by Bendik, bringing to three the number of PK debacles which have cost the Fire points this season. What is there to say? What metaphor to summon? Mediocre is as mediocre does. And, given reprieve, Toronto found a way back even.
The visitors left it very late, but they did rouse themselves at last. The tying goal was the kind of scrappy set-piece scuffle the Fire have specialized in allowing this season - in the 85th, a corner half-cleared came to Gilberto at the top of the box. The Brazilian headed the ball back toward the goal, where Dwayne DeRosario (held onside by a flat-footed post watcher) was able to poke home to tie the game.
Denied the shutout, the Fire came terribly close to losing the whole thing in stoppage time. Michael Bradley's lovely, searching ball into the left channel let Gilberto abuse Larentowicz with a couple of cutbacks, leaving the Chicago captain staggering toward the end line. Bakary Soumare covered alertly, but for some reason felt the best approach was to try to stand Gilberto up and let the ball run to Sean Johnson, who didn't anticipate this approach, possibly because (with the ball trickling very slowly toward goal) it was, shall we say, high-risk/low-reward.
Gilberto never stopped fighting, and - unable to move the Malian man-mountain toward the goal - finally came upon the stratagem of poking a foot through the center back's legs, nudging the ball past Johnson and into the Chicago goal for what seemed to be the winner.
Say this for the 2014 Fire - when the going gets tough, things get weird. Tonight's weird was provided by referee David Gantar, who whistled Gilberto for a phantom foul on Soumare, saving the point for Chicago.
There's surely metaphors that encompass all this strangeness and mediocrity and well-intentioned not-quiteness. Surely, somewhere. But to find them, one fears, would be to drain them of their power, to leave them as dry and uneven as the patches of new sod at Toyota Park. Best to save them for a season with something left to prove. For 2014, despite all its eldritch oddity, is a lame duck term for Chicago Fire.
The Men in Red (5-15-7) host Eastern Conference leaders DC United next Saturday as the 2015 preseason continues. Toronto (9-7-11) welcome dead-club-walking Chivas USA Sunday afternoon.