Maybe the weather was part of it. The weird energies implicit in a frigid late-May downpour had their say, perhaps. Or the fact that the field began sloshy and ended rice paddy. The changes wrought some magic; there's a reason vision-quests take place in edge environments or along ley lines.
This was certainly an edge environment, more Venus than Terra. When the Chicago Fire and Montreal Impact walked out of the locker rooms, tiny, frigid palms in hand, the rain had been slanting from the southeast for hours. The stands populated with a few thousand hardy souls, up for anything, clearly. It was cold, and the wind was swirling, the corner-kick flags rippling squares. On the penultimate day of May. Welcome to Chicago.
The game was won, and lost, in that moment. One side, the visitors, looked at the clock and willed it to read 90:00, willed this two hours to be over, willed themselves to be anywhere else but in this miserable weather on this godforsaken night. The other squad - our Fire - took the boggy pitch and crazy weather and sparse crowd as an invitation to play for themselves, to play for the simple joy of playing well.
How else to explain this game, a 3-0 win a deal more comprehensive than even that generous scoreline? The Men in Red dominated this game from start to finish, utterly dismantling a bewildered Montreal side who'd won two on the trot in MLS since returning from their CONCACAF Champions League run. The Fire had shown signs of life previously, but this was the first complete game from the Men in Red in the Yallop era - incisive, clever, and relentless. If this team goes on to win trophies, there will be 50,000 people in Chicagoland claiming attendance at this, the turning-point. Tonight, the Fire won like winners.
The game began with Montreal adopting the now-familiar 'Oh, shit' faces usual in teams unaccustomed to David Accam. Accam's searing footspeed and incredible ability to leverage it with clever touches into space have developed into the primary tactical weapon of this team, something entire schemes will be concocted to thwart in the weeks ahead. Barely 3 minutes had elapsed before Accam roasted Nigel Reo-Coker to a lovely golden-brown, with the Englishman booked for his compensatory scissor-kick takedown. Then the slide begins - Accam's speed acquires a sort of gravity, sucking defenders toward his area, and the rest of the team feasts upon the gaps thus created.
Harrison Shipp is one of those who feasts, and tonight he was first to the banquet table. Kennedy Igboananike (about whom, more later) ran a ball down on the left wing, outfighting old Fire hand Bakary Soumare (about whom, more later) for the ball, because joy defeats glum professionalism, natch. Shaun Maloney (another of the space-feasters) streaked near-post, but Igboananike chose the other option: Shipp, sliding back into a deeper pocket of space. Maloney's run confused the issue, and Shipp's first touch played the two defenders in the area out of it, leaving everything down to execution. The kid from Lake Forest rifled a screamer to the far post upper-90, and the Fire led, 1-0, just 13 minutes in.
This is where it can get tricky with these Fire - are we sated? Is that enough joy? In the past, they'd grown satisfied with less than half the meal devoured. But the joy remained, falling from the sky like the rain: Joevin Jones pulling off a backheel sombrero of Jack McInerney to keep the ball on the sidelines in the 27th minute - why? Just because! Accam getting the ball off an Impact corner in the 31st, blurring forward through the bog. Accam, Maloney and Shipp combining in the left corner in the 40th, moving counterclockwise all the while, until Maloney peels out of the roundabout for a shot on goal.
In short, they weren't sated. Montreal seemed bewildered by the Fire's movement and touch under the conditions, a condition which Chicago's canny and sophisticated pressing exacerbated. The Men in Red had all the ball, and seemed to know the Impact's tendencies to a stultifying degree - the visitors struggled for most of the game to string together three passes without running into a dead end. The central midfield duo of Razvan Cocis and Matt Polster utterly eclipsed their Impact counterparts, even before Montreal's Marco Donadel received his second yellow in the 40th minute. It was lopsided, and weird, and glorious.
This wasn't a game where the nature of the goals portended much, at least until the last one. Jeff Larentowicz, all business, stuck away his third penal of the season to expand the lead to two - the spot kick drawn, inevitably, by Accam, who tortured Bakary Soumare, then wriggled free goal-side only to be upended by the Malian's desperate lunge.* But the third, one hopes, was something else.
Kennedy Igboananike's struggles to score goals for the Fire have been well-documented, and this game contained a microcosm of the case against Igbo, which goes like this: Dude's cursed. Again and again, the Nigerian made the right run, found the right angle, took clean touches, and produced little except astonished frustration. If the ball isn't skipping on the water, Evan Bush is laying out to spray a back-post curler out for a corner. It's gotta be some juju or something, right?
There was a greater curse out there, though, and it belonged to Soumare. Forever cursed to commit two boneheaded plays in every Fire game, he kept Igboananike onside in the 73rd, allowing Kennedy time to take a touch, banish his demons and slash a finish past Bush for the final goal.
The Fire saw the game out professionally and entertainingly, continuing the evening of joyful ascension. For the evening, they completed 89 percent of their passes. Is this heaven? Does it always rain here?
Chicago (4-5-2) will get a chance to test their seemingly growing mettle against Eastern Conference heavyweights DC United Wednesday night.
- How in the world did the Fire save this kind of performance for this kind of night? Everyone looked alive, energized, full of ideas and energy. The pressing blew me away - there was one sequence where Accam and Igbo recognized that Bush and Soumare were isolated, and just stood on them, forcing soumare to dump it out of bounds, clearly just recognition of the situation.
- Kennedy Igboananike was very good all night, very very good. But it's hard to separate out the individual good from all the group good that was happening Saturday night - for example, I was going to write 'he's got tools in his bag that Quincy doesn't,' then I remembered Quincy's gorgeous pullback cross to Gehrig's back-post run in the 71st and didn't.
- Speaking of Eric Gehrig (weren't we?) he's a smart football player. The run that Quincy found was a great thought, and clearly caught Montreal switched off. The fact that the finish glanced agonizingly off Eric's shinpad and out ... well, son, the world needs defenders, too.
- A subtle tweak that worked very well was swapping Cocis and Polster, playing the Romanian as the 6 and the kid as the 8. Cocis is a dead-eyed murderer of enemy counter-attacks, and his passing from deep is no joke. Polster's growth continues to blow my mind, although I'm not convinced he should spend a great deal of time in the attacking zone. But the combination of the two completely snuffed out what little possession game Montreal could muster.
- Perhaps this should be entitled 'Yallop 1, Klopas 0,' because this was a comprehensive coaching victory for the Fire staff. The clear attention to detail in the pressing patterns, the tactical shifts which opened lanes for Maloney and Shipp to overload, and the obvious motivation of the team under difficult circumstances all speak to a team well-prepared for a league match.
*Can I just say what a relief it is to write 'the Malian's desperate lunge' and know it's not our Malian?