It was supposed to be a night of new beginnings when the Chicago Fire took on the San Jose Earthquakes Sunday night - and in many ways, it was.
The Earthquakes played their first official match at the beautiful Avaya Stadium. Fatai Alashe scored his first MLS goal. Ty Harden score his first MLS goal ... well, you get the point.
San Jose was the main beneficiary of the 'firsts' during a 2-1 victory over the Fire, who have now fallen to a historically woeful 0-3-0 on the year - a 'first' the team did not want. The Fire did have some firsts on the night, including their first goal, but their first win and even their first draw in 2015 was nowhere to be found.
It would have been nice to add "solid set-piece defending" to the list of firsts for the Fire, but unfortunately that consistent flaw reared its ugly head in a big way in San Jose. The Earthquakes got on the board early at the 5-minute mark courtesy of U.S. National Team prospect Fatai Alashe. The young defensive midfielder took advantage of the trademark "corner kick scramble" the Fire are becoming known for defensively and headed home the first goal with Sean Johnson nowhere to be found.
The usually-steady goalkeeper had a rough day at the office Sunday, starting with the corner kick in the fifth minute. San Jose's midfield revelation Matias Perez Garcia sent in the corner kick that drew Johnson off his line. But Johnson failed to clear or intercept the corner, which found the head of both Clarence Goodson and Ty Harden before falling to Alashe who was on the goal line with no keeper around.
The quick 1-0 lead ignited the already amped San Jose crowd. Chicago supporters were left to think the Fire were ready and willing to play the role of the punching bag for San Jose's stadium-opening extravaganza. Just as the Fire began to flash some promise of offense, the Earthquakes struck again in the 20th minute when a backup center back scored his first goal in 100 appearances.
Garcia once again delivered the free kick that led to a Goodson shot on goal. Johnson was up to the initial task but served up a rebound in the most dangerous part of the field. Harden attacked the rebound with the urgency of a man seeking his first goal and finished a sliding attempt to put San Jose up 2-0. Adailton lost his mark a bit on the play, but it's hard to believe Johnson on his best day would have let such a goal occur.
Down 2-0 and Johnson showing uncharacteristic cracks in his game, Fire fans were likely getting flashbacks to the 5-1 massacre in San Jose last year. But after the second goal, some positive "firsts" for the Fire began to play out.
Joevin Jones, starting his first game as a left-side forward after playing left back and midfield earlier in the season, showed his initial foray up front could pay dividends. Jones made the key pass in the Fire's first goal of the season, finding Harry Shipp near the top of the box. Shipp darted quickly to his right before shooting low across the face of goal to find the back post for a needed first-half response.
Second half starts well
Heading into the halftime with a glimmer of hope after a strong ending to a poor start, the Fire seemed like their first draw could be in sight.
When the second half started, fans were treated to a positive first when David Accam took the field for the first time. He immediately displayed his speed and opened up the offense. In one clever play, he headed on a Jeff Larentowicz pass up field to an overlapping Eric Gehrig. Gehrig then found Amarikwa at the top of the box who quickly found an on-rushing Shipp crashing in from the left. Shipp ultimately sent a shot off mark, but it was a promising start and one of the best build-ups of the season.
Accam would impress throughout and the Fire would challenge sporadically. Amarikwa had a breakout chance in the 50th, but couldn't find his finish. Yallop opted to sub out Jones to bring on Accam - removing a bright spot for a bright spot - and eventually brought on Kennedy Igboananike for Michael Stephens and Guly do Prado for Amarikwa. Igboananike and do Prado struggled to find their influence again and if not for Accam, the Fire would have failed to make the Quakes sweat in the final 10 minutes.
This was certainly not a dominant performance from San Jose, but Chicago failed in too many areas once again. Eric Gehrig played a bit better on the right side, but he missed a glorious header chance off Shaun Maloney's finest corner kick of the season and was denied again by Goodson during stoppage time in the second half. The fact Gehrig had such quality chances is promising and he also had a huge denial to stop a Chris Wondolowski attempt at goal. But eventually quality chances need to turn into goals.
Maloney, aside from the wonderful corner kick and a couple decent set piece deliveries, once again failed to create much in the middle of the field. Looking at what Perez-Garcia accomplished throughout the game, it is clear the Scot is struggling to keep up with the production and danger other No. 10s in the league are providing.
It was another forgettable performance from the Men in Red and it is becoming clear even games such as the upcoming home contest against the Philadelphia Union will be an uphill battle. Tonight was certainly a night of firsts, but the first win can't come soon enough for the Fire who are on track to be the first team mathematically eliminated from the playoffs this year.
Hopefully the traveling supporters took advantage of the largest outdoor bar in North America.
Chicago (0-3-0) hosts Philadelphia (0-1-2) next Sunday evening, March 29.