There's little doubt that the Chicago Fire who played Saturday evening against Vancouver are a better team than the one we saw against LA. They were improved - crisper with the ball, craftier without it; better organized, fresher, sharper. The question that remains is a harsh one, though: They're better, sure; but are they good enough?
On Saturday's evidence, the answer is still no. The Men in Red squandered a very promising first half with a flat second, finally succumbing to Octavio Rivero's 86th-minute finish to lose, 0-1. The Fire remain rooted to the Eastern Conference cellar.
This was a case of a game which had very clear stages of play. The first 15 minutes were a Vancouver-leaning feeling-out period, as the Caps fashioned a couple of half-chances. For the remainder of the first half, though, it was the unfavored host Fire who dominated proceedings. The visitors had no answer for the suddenly-persuasive touch, movement and poise of the Chicago midfield. The movement of Harry Shipp and Shaun Maloney particularly impressed, allowing the Men in Red to carve out chance after chance until the halftime break arrived. It wasn't all fancy poses and quicksilver touches, though; Quincy Amarikwa's brawling, balls-out style was another crucial ingredient in what looked like an increasingly potent stew.
The second half was a different matter, as the Fire had somehow left their movement and ideas in the locker room. Weirdly, Chicago discarded the pass-and-move fluidity of the first half for a stationary passing drill, with a predictable level of success. Vancouver played along, content to try to sit back and counter after struggling to control things in the first half.
The winning goal came as the Whitecaps' lightning-fast counter-attack was truly getting cranked up; Mezquida saw a shot smothered by Jon Busch in the 63rd, and Rivero's good look from behind the backline skidded wide of the Fire goalpost in the 74th. Finally, in the 86th, a half-clearance from the Chicago area fell to Matias Laba in midfield, who released Pedro Morales into a pocket of space on the Vancouver right wing. Morales waited for his teammates' runs to cycle, then hooked in a cross to the back post that Lovel Palmer headed awkwardly back across the face of goal rather then out of bounds.
Palmer's unfortunate non-clearance fell to Steven Beitashour, who had been making an underlapping run into the right part of the penalty area. Beitashour calmly cut the ball back to the penalty spot, where Rivero stroked it cleanly into the back corner of the net.
Chicago (0-0-2) travel to San Jose next Sunday to participate in the first-ever league match at the 'Quakes new Avaya Stadium. Vancouver (1-0-1) visit Orlando City Saturday evening.
- Matt Polster had a promising debut as a pure destroyer behind two guys (Shipp and Maloney) who really don't relish getting stuck in. I'm sure he'd like to forget the first five minutes, though, as he came out full of nervous energy and seemed determined to kick every Vancouver player in the first 30 seconds. My notes from the start of the game: 1. Polster stands Manneh up, called for foul. 2. Polster fouls Rosales. 4. Polster fouls Manneh. YELLOW. Literally the first three things I wrote down were fouls by our big, soft-footed rookie. But he righted the ship, and after the first 15 minutes it was his shielding and simple, accurate release passes which built a platform for the Shipp & Maloney show.
- Jon Busch was exactly what we remembered - strong-handed and an astute reader of angles - and he made a few stops in the second half look easier than they were. He deserved a win tonight.
- If there's a reason Michael Stephens didn't start the opener, it's still a mystery after this game. Stephens was exactly what we'd hoped when he was signed: A solid, dependable connecting midfielder who can fit into multiple roles. His slip pass to Shipp in the 37th set up the best chance of the game.
- Kennedy Igboananike may not know it, but we have a rich, fecund history of Designated Player suckage in Chicago, and he does not want his career getting tainted with that stank. That 30 minute stint tonight needs to be near the bottom of the barrel rather than a representative sample if he is to avoid that dread fate.
- Guly do Prado looks both uninterested and vaguely pissed off. Maybe that's just his resting face. But he was useless in another short cameo.