It's just possible that, when 2015 rolls around, the Chicago Fire will look back at Saturday's 1-0 defeat of MLS' hottest team (FC Dallas, undefeated in 10 games) as a touchstone, a template for the Yallop Era of CF97: Patient with the ball, content to keep it and pry at the opponent's defense, aware of the shape and therefore less prone to breakdown; an altogether less-hectic approach. For the first time in a long time, the Men in Red looked like a team that could win games in MLS without heaping helpings of good fortune.
The winner came just as the game was starting to feel like another blown opportunity, another game where the performance said 'three points' and the result said 'one.' Jeff Larentowicz ran down a half-cleared Fire corner on the left side, created a little space and curled in a flat, hooking cross that arced over Dallas' Victor Ulloa and found the head of 5-foot-6 Welsh striker Robert Earnshaw in the middle of the penalty area. Earnshaw still had plenty to do - facing away from the goal mouth, he twisted to guide a glancing header to the back post, where its perfect placement left Raul Fernandez no chance. 83 minutes of probing and prodding had finally produced a goal: 1-0, Chicago, which is how it would end.
The half-written story that Earnshaw's goal erased starred the keepers. Chicago's Sean Johnson made a difficult foot save in the 40th minute, stopping Fabian Castillo's shot from the left channel after Castillo had turned Larentowicz with a feint and a crossover. Fernandez had a pair of nice stops, getting down to spray Lovel Palmer's rasping 35-yard drive in the 16th and racing out quickly to snuff a Quincy Amarikwa breakaway in the 71st.
But this wasn't to be another of the seemingly endless games in which the Fire played well but managed only a point. After Earnshaw's goal, the best of the chances fell to Chicago on the break - Earnshaw was clean through twice in injury time, but Fernandez was equal to each challenge, and the game ended 1-0.
Chicago (5-14-6) not only won the auld trophy (The Brimstone Cup), but also has clawed back into long-shot position for the playoffs with nine games remaining. The Fire are part of a frankly astonishing logjam in the East; seven teams vying for three playoff spots are within five points of each other; four of the Men in Red's next five games come against teams in this standings snarl, starting with a match on Sunday away to New England.
|3||New England Revolution||33||25||1.32||10||12||3||34||36||-2||18||8||16||-10|
|6||New York Red Bulls||31||25||1.24||7||8||10||39||38||1||26||9||13||-8|
Dallas (12-6-8) saw its 10-game unbeaten streak snapped, but remains comfortably in the top four in the West.