There must've been a moment, sometime around an hour into Friday night's game, when Fire manager Frank Yallop felt a certain kinship with Stansfield, the crooked DEA agent from The Professional:
Somehow, Yallop's side had taken the hosts best punch and were still standing. A true brace - a goal on each side of halftime - for Golden Boot leader Kei Kamara had staked Columbus to a 2-0 lead through 55 minutes. In a similar situation in this fixture last year, the Men in Red surrendered meekly, unable to summon enough threat against a makeshift Crew defense.
That didn't happen tonight, though. This Fire group have shown that they will create chances against any MLS defense; the quicksilver dashes of David Accam and Kennedy Igboananike threaten aggressive defenses. In the 58th, Chicago halved the lead with just such a pure-acceleration moment: Igboananike plucked a half-cleared out of the air with one clean touch nearly 35 yards from goal, and caught the Crew surging out behind the clearance. Picking up speed, he beat Michael Parkhurst to the endline, then whipped a flat cross onto the head of Accam, who'd curled his run toward the near post.
Accam's soft header was perfectly placed. 58 minutes in, the Fire trailed 2-1, but were suddenly full of deadly purpose. For the first time, the Section 8 road contingent could be heard from their perch behind the far goal.
On Friday, Yallop also had a luxury last year's roster didn't afford him - speed off of the bench. ("EVERYONNNNNNNNNE!" he shouts, veins standing out in livid neck, his face an inch from a fearful Clint Mathis. This did not happen, but could have.) Pulling a flat Harry Shipp was the first shoe to drop; in came Jason Johnson to run right at the yellow hosts. Then Quincy Amarikwa for Razvan Cocis, and suddenly the Fire were in something very similar to a 4-2-4, with Maloney and Matt Polster tasked with lobbing balls forward to ... the forwards.
In short, it worked. The game as spectacle certainly didn't suffer for it, with Columbus' incisive swirls forward answered by the Fire's rah-rah rushes:
- 70th minute: Maloney comes onto a leading ball from Joevin Jones near the corner of the hosts' area, then leaves it for Polster who absolutely crushes a shot which is blocked. Maloney runs down the rebound, finds Johnson, who gives himself the yard he needs to shoot but scuffs the shot, which trickles to Crew keeper Steve Clark.
- 77th: Polster jumps on Kevan George, wins the ball high up the field and shares it with Accam, cutting inside. Instead of dribbling into the clot of defenders before him, Accam pulls up and crosses toward Amarikwa's inside-out back post run. It's a tough chance, and Quincy just misses it, skidding the volley well wide.
- 79th: Igboananike sets up Quincy again, and his shot is saved by Clark and half-cleared. Chicago right back Eric Gehrig tries a difficult side volley which is well-struck but just wide.
And so on. A week removed from fumbling a two-goal lead away, the Fire kept grinding, kept running at the tiring Columbus defense, pressing high to win back the ball in dangerous positions, daring the Crew to beat them over the top - which, in fairness, the hosts nearly did multiple times.
So the game seemed to be trickling away - an encouraging way to lose, but a loss, none the less. The Crew had possession in the final minute of stoppage time, but the Men in Red were still at it, still pushing up, when Gehrig pounced on a wayward pass, took a touch while peeking at the runners (Johnson, sprinting across the center of goal, Accam on the back post), and curled a short cross which Johnson placed perfectly back-post. 10 seconds later, the game was over: A 2-2 draw, and the gold-and-black masses trudged out in angry shock.
The Fire (3-5-2) host Montreal next Saturday, May 30, with kickoff scheduled for 7:30 p.m. CDT. Columbus (4-4-3) travel to Orlando City the same evening.