The fortunate truth for the Chicago Fire is that, when Adailton got caught upfield and Matt Polster froze, staring at each other (hey I know you!) in the fifth minute, allowing Charlotte's Tomasz Zoharski to stroll in on goal against Sean Johnson ... almost no one was watching.
The USA women were in the final moments of a thoroughly satisfying 2-0 disemboweling of the all-powerful Germans in the semifinals of the Womens World Cup, you see. Even for the people in the stands - who stood and hooted just a minute after the goal (at full time for the women) - the Men in Red were the smaller screen in the corner in one's mental picture-on-picture. So Polster's surprised turn, Cochrane's too-late pinch in, Adailton's shame-walk run trailing the play - in some sense, they never happened, buried by the general feeling of Yes, thank Zoroaster, Jill Ellis was sandbagging the entire group stage. Also lost somewhere on the field celebrant was the memory of Zoharski's utterly dispassionate calm in the finish. The first 10 minutes or so? Ehhh ...
Somehow, then - we have forgotten how: U!S!A! U!S!A! - the Fire trailed 1-0 early in the match. To say the spectre of doom lowered itself over Toyota Park is, perhaps, to understate the case. Less than four thousand hardy souls made their way to Bridgeview Wednesday. On the Harlem End, competing banners urged onlookers to Never Forget (the traditional Fire kit) and Please Ignore These People Who Are Asking You To Never Forget (this is a paraphrase, but the text was in blue and white, a thumb in the eye of the Fire's red-and-white traditions). Another banner read "Hauptman Out." Someone waved a white flag in Section 8. The third-division side was leading. From just off-camera, the screams of the damned threatened to drown out the startled cries of the living.
It's good to have Mike Magee on one's side. Magee's slow progress back from surgery to repair a torn labrum has been more a social media phenomenon than a soccer one, but tonight's display was vintage 'Magic Mike.' Wearing the captain's armband in Jeff Larentowicz' absence, Magee was at the center of the Fire's increasing control over the match after the first 10 minutes. Making clever dummy runs, talking and gesticulating, Magee's presence made the Fire a more cohesive unit in attack - when in doubt, try to figure out a way to let Mike shoot is as reasonable an offensive system as the Men in Red have embraced this year, and it worked magnificently tonight.
Magee's first came from the kind of combination Chicago have made their bread-and-butter this year, without tremendous effect in terms of putting balls in the back of nets. Lovel Palmer won a ball on the wing, and clipped a skidding pass foward to Kennedy Igboananike, who was checking back into the right channel. Igboananike played a perfect wall pass that opened the right wing for Palmer; the fullback took a touch to let runs cycle and played a low centering ball toward Magee's looping near-post run ...
This is where things are different when Magee is around. The Fire have been here many, many times in 2015: Clever, incisive build-up play; movement off the ball creating a look on goal and ... pffft. Magee took a simple diagonal ball intersecting with his looping near-post run and turned it into the kind of thing one sees in slow motion in a Stanley Kubrick movie - Mike's intervention so minimal, just lifting the ball a bit, turning it a bit less, guiding it from flat and dead-center to floating and just inside the post, and 1-1, 37th minute. Glory, glory, Mike Magee.
Charlotte, to their credit, didn't simply swoon and lie back, waiting for their destiny. Less than a minute after the ensuing kickoff, Zahorski was played in behind the Fire defense on a simple direct attack. His hard-struck near-post finish was well saved by Sean Johnson, preserving the draw. Johnson would rise to the occasion again in the 62nd minute, when he would palm a sharp shot by substitute Ryan Finley away.
But this was to be the Fire's night. The most convincing evidence came in the 50th minute, when notoriously poor shooterLovel Palmer settled a half-clearance with his right foot, then strode forward and lashed a 35-yard screamer into the bottom corner of the Charlotte net, handing the Fire a (by then) well-earned lead.
But by far the most sentimental grace note on this evening of time-skipping forgetfulness was the return of Fire stalwart Patrick Nyarko to the field. Nyarko checked in in the 75th minute for a tiring (and depressingly anonymous) Harry Shipp, and struggled to get a touch for a few minutes. When he did get on the ball, though, it was so, so familiar: Twisting into the right side of the area, Nyarko took one touch on the ball and was immediately closed down by two Charlotte players. A shimmy and three faint touches later, he had split the double-team* and found Magee pulling back into space to end the game as a betting contest: 3-1, Fire, olé, olé.
*"Patrick Nyarko split the double-team" has been a macro on my keyboard since 2009.