"If Saturday's game was a statement about the aspirations of this team, today's is a check of their bona fides." - me, in today's Fire-DC United game preview
Oh, past me. Oh, poor, sad, simple past me, with his tragically humble hopes. Maybe, the he-that-was-me thought, maybe we're just a good solid performance from being a contender.
The now-me knows better. The now-me finds my hopefulness a bit amusing and perhaps just the tiniest bit sad - who was I to think the pattern would be broken? Who was I to dream that the one-step-forward, one-step-back waltz of the past - what? seven years? - would finally stop? What naiveté spurred me to believe we'd make it work?
Now-me is scarred but smarter, because now-me lived through a second-half defensive meltdown that turned a 1-0 lead - on the road, against the Eastern Conference leaders - into a 3-1 loss. DC United (8-3-4) took all the points, and the Fire (4-6-2) slumped below the red line with the loss.
The introduction of Fabian Espindola turned the game on its head. The Fire had the better chances in the first half, with David Accam's 27th-minute goal the pick of the lot. Meanwhile, DC seemed starved of ideas how to break the visitors down - absent some kind of complete meltdown (dramatic foreshadowing, y'all), Chicago was looking good to get something out of the game.
United, meanwhile, had an excuse pre-arranged: Our good players aren't here! Specifically, a certain kind of good player - the thinker, the setup man, the lever - all those kinds of players were in various stages of banged-up or ruled-out for the hosts from the Capitol. Espindola - out for a while. Luis Silva - out. Chris Rolfe - suspended. And the defense was insane, with Chris Korb's absence necessitating a shift at left back by Steve Birnbaum, by trade a centerback. By halftime, trailing a goal and watching the Fire grinningly keep the ball and milk the clock, it seemed likely they'd need those explanations.
Then DC introduced Espindola, and everything changed immediately. The Argentinian's presence seemed to demand greater urgency on United's runs, greater zip on their passes; the shift was startlingly apparent within seconds of second-half kickoff. It was Espindola's first-touch through ball in the 49th which put Nick Deleon through on Fire keeper John Busch, and his perfectly weighted pass five minutes later led Jairo Arrieta goalward, provoking a desperation toe-poke from Chicago defender Eric Gehrig.
It was Espindola's corner that Arrieta headed down to the back post to tie the game at 1 after an hour, after a quarter-hour of growing dominance for the hosts. Meanwhile, the Fire seemed to be fading - Accam's darting menace was not often in evidence in the final 45 minutes, Harrison Shipp struggled to find the ball, and Matt Polster spent the greater portion of the match in a pocket universe one-eighth of a second behind ours.
DC took the lead on the first evidence of pure flat-footedness in some time from the Chicago defense. Deleon swung Espindola's sharp entry pass to Arrieta, but Gehrig was there just a fraction earlier to poke the ball away, and the defense all relaxed as the ball rolled out ... to Deleon, who simply repeated his previous motion exactly, this time to an Arrieta marked by Mr. Bill And A Couple Other Crude Clay Figurines. "Oh no!" they cried in unison, unmade by Deleon's recognition that the play was not over. "Not the 1-2!" Arrieta finished his second goal of the game simply, and the Fire trailed, 2-1.
Their hard-won lead completely erased, the Men in Red responded with one last burst that nearly tied the game. Shipp, dribbling slowly infield through the right channel, surveyed a host of runners and lofted a backspinning cross just over Markus Halsti's head and onto the left foot of Quincy Amarikwa, who was running toward the back-post.
So nearly: Quincy sees United keeper Andrew Dykstra closing to the post, and elected to go across Dykstra's body, but not enough, as the shot deflected off the keeper ...
So nearly: The deflected shot, wobbling a little, seems to just hang in front of the United goal. Everyone throws themselves at the thing, with Razvan Cocis the first there for the Fire ... just a moment after Halsti, recovering from whiffing from the header, saves a sure tying goal by kneeing the ball to absolutely anywhere else.
It's possible that we were a bobble away from a tie game there - but it's also possible that the Fire would've given up all the points even had that ball gone in. The mass hypnosis that greeted Espindola's well-aimed but not astonishing cross in the 76th could've cropped up at any time; it looked like either centerback could've attacked the cross and banged it out for a set piece, but they seemed caught between the thought and the motion, taking a step toward their marks, a step toward the now-past ball, and looking hopefully behind. There was no help to be found - Conor Doyle beat Joevin Jones to the ball, and chipped the clincher off Busch's hands and in.