If you've watched the Fire regularly since, say, 2010, you knew just how this was going to end, didn't you?
We've seen it all before - the proof-of-concept phase, wherein the team shows it can play and builds a thin lead that feels like it should be more; the malaise phase, wherein the team shows it considers itself a merciful ruler, refusing (however tempted) to finish the game off; and the final, frantic phase, sponsored by "Whoops, I Crapped My Pants" adult undergarments, wherein the points are surrendered at least partially to some late breakdown or twist of fate. Friday's version of this cycle took place at Yankee Stadium, where fledgling, 10-man NYCFC snatched an improbable 2-2 draw on a Khiry Shelton goal deep in second half stoppage time.
Then, the press conference: The weary, frustrated shrugs. Sentences which just trail off - "We really thought we had them in a bad position, but then ..." as the voice just shrinks to nothing. We've seen it all before.
The question now is, is this kind of sour almost-but-not-quiteness one of the defining aspects of the club? Frank Yallop spoke proudly of how many of last year's record number of draws were nearly wins; the previous Frank - our Frankie Klopas - could be heard saying much the same thing two years earlier. But is almost-winning a necessary step on the path toward championships, or a fatal flaw that keeps those aspirations well out of reach? Don't winners find a way?
The path seemed so clear in the first few minutes. The Men in Red had tortured New York City's makeshift defense in their first meeting three weeks ago, and set back to work with red-hot pincers and finger-screws from the kickoff. Less than seven minutes in, Harry Shipp found Joevin Jones overlapping deep into the left channel, their contrary but mundane movement completely unspringing the host defense somehow. Jones slowed, then flicked a vicious shot toward the back post which Josh Saunders could only paw back in front of goal. Kennedy Igboananike tried to reach the rebound, but could barely get a toe to it - delightfully, his stab fell neatly to Shaun Maloney to bang home at the back post, where it would've counted had the Scot not stepped from an offside position.
No matter - onward! The Fire were persuasive in the early going, and got some goals to show for it. Maloney's free kick in the 14th found Razvan Cocis pulling away from goal, but his looping header was well-aimed and caught Saunders leaning out. There was the lead this play deserved - more to come, surely?
Surely. In a virtual replay of his demolition of the the Sky Blues in Toyota Park in April, David Accam's pace continually panicked New York's defense. In the earlier game, it was backup keeper Ryan Meara who was undone by the Ghanaian's explosiveness; today it was 25-year-old rookie right back RJ Allen. Allen took a timid touch with Accam gliding nearby, and Accam simply swept in and took flight with the ball, streaking toward goal with the hosts trailing glumly. The rookie's tackle from behind was not miraculous - it would've had to be - and so resulted in the awarding of both a Chicago penalty and an early, extended break for Mr. Allen. When captain Jeff Larentowicz banged home the ensuing spot kick, the Fire were up two goals and a man.
Then it all came unraveled. New York DP David Villa got loose for a split second in transition in first-half stoppage time, cracking a screamer that forced a difficult save from Sean Johnson, but he can't keep the rebound soft. Mehdi Ballouchy, following the play, had a simple finish to halve the lead: 2-1, Fire, as they went in for the half.
Something happened in that locker room at halftime, something eldritch and inexplicable. The Men in Red emerged from the locker room in a zombie haze, gradually losing their grip on the game's tempo despite their man advantage. Still, New York's attack didn't offer a huge number of threatening situations, and the half wound on, the Fire hanging on, the hosts increasingly desperate and unbalanced.
The game should never have been in doubt in the final minutes. Again and again down the stretch, Chicago just failed to notch the third goal in transition against the overstretched New York defense. Still, the lead remained just a single goal, and the hosts still had Villa. In the 93rd, his immaculate turn and equally pristine through-ball slashed through the Fire's massed, flailing defense to find Shelton somehow in a pocket of space, dead center in front of the goal, about 12 yards out. In one moment of clarity, the Spaniard had cancelled out 60 gasping minutes of nervous front-running by our Men in Red.
Shelton's finish nestled in the back-post side netting, but if you've watched the Fire long, you didn't need to watch. You knew it was going in. We've seen this before.
Chicago (3-5-1) continue their Eastern Conference adventures next Friday when they visit red-hot Columbus. New York City (1-6-4) plays Real Salt Lake the next day, Saturday, May 23.