If there is to be a celebration at the end of the Fire's 2015 season, it began sometime around the 37th minute of Sunday's home game against the Philadelphia Union. If there's streamers, or parades, or trophies, it began with a foul, a hooking cross, and the gentlest of deflections. It began with the first lead of a season that was beginning to look leaden, the first shaft of light through the grey overcast. Just as winter looked eternal, the first signs of spring.
So, the foul. Chicago had dominated much of the first half stepping hard into the Philadelphia midfield, winning the release pass, and keeping the pressure on. So it was that Kennedy Igboananike found himself on the Chicago left wing, running at Union centerback Ethan White, who'd slid out from the center to cover. Igbo's bag of tricks brought out White's bread-and-butter move, a kick to the ankle, and the Fire wandered forward to take a free kick.
Shipp's place at the front of the line for set pieces has been challenged by the arrival of Scotland international Shaun Maloney, but with Maloney bossing his nation to a 6-1 crushing of Gibratar, there wasn't a discussion: This one was his. The Lake Forest product hooked in a viciously curling offering toward the near post, drawing Union keeper Raïs M'Bohli to punch it out, but too late - comes now Adaílton, his timing just so, soaring in front of the Algerian to allow the ball to graze his skull and nestle in the side netting for - can you believe it? - a Fire lead, 1-0.
Taking their first lead of the season seemed to embolden the Men in Red, who threatened twice more before halftime, but only until the break. Somehow Chicago left its control over proceedings in the locker room, despite no incredible increase in quality from the visitors - it seemed that, granted a lead, the Fire could see no other course than to grimly try to ride out the last 45 minutes.
Thankfully for the Fire and those who love them, once la Maquina Roja handed the reins of the game to Philadelphia, they had little idea what to do with them. The Union won most of the second balls in as the game dwindled, but the best chances still came from the home side, hitting on the counter.
In the 55th, Shipp's perfectly-weighted through ball to Igboananike unzipped the entire Union defense in one deft motion, and it was only an astonishing kick save from M'Bohli which kept the margin at one goal. One minute later, left winger Joevin Jones took Eric Gehrig's raking switch off a restart, beat a defender to the endline, and lashed a shot just wide that danced across the goal-mouth and out.
As the match wore on, the Fire adjusted to the nature of the bout. Matt Watson's tireless running and tackling replaced Igboananike's more mercurial gifts, and the Men in Red settled into a countering 4-5-1 to kill off the game. That task was made much easier by the red card given to Philadelphia midfielder Fred with 18 minutes to play, some five minutes after his introduction. Replays were inconclusive whether Fred's slap of Shipp was intentional, but for the purposes of this game as a competitive concern, it didn't matter - down to 10, punchless and frustrated, the Union were done.
What highlights came after Fred's card were non-competitive stuff, like Harrison Shipp being completely awesome - in one meaningless but fascinating sequence in the 85th, Shipp absolutely destroyed two double-teams with a series of stop-and-start dribbling moves. In short, the moments of threat came from the guys in red today, even when the balance of play switched to favor the Union.
Chicago (1-0-3) hopes to extend its winning-streak against Eastern Conference foes to two when it hosts high-powered Toronto next Saturday at Toyota Park. Kickoff is slated for shortly after 2 p.m. CDT. Philadelphia (0-2-2) travels to Kansas City Sunday evening.
- The Toyota Park pitch, roundly criticized as the league's worst last season, looked magnificent today.
- As noted by MLS flack Matt Doyle, Matt Polster's distribution was a crucial part of Chicago's first-half domination. Again and again, the rookie's incisive passing over distance unsettled Philadelphia's attempt to maintain a coherent shape.
Polster's passing thus far is spreading Philly out. Confusion in Union MF - they need to get early pressure to him: pic.twitter.com/LKFpsMh295— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) March 29, 2015
- This win looked every inch that of a team growing into itself. I'd like to point out the generally excellent play of Michael Stephens as a very fluid connecting midfielder - his quality when finding the next link of the chain is the kind of play that evades notice until it's gone.