Optional soundtrack to this post
There will be other, better days; other, better weeks; other, better years than this one for the Chicago Fire, should they survive their current stewardship. There will be days when the calls don't all go the wrong way, and weeks when the world's best declare their desire to play in Chicago, and years when the team gels in ways unexpected and delightful. There will be enough joy to simply give it away, and Fire supporters will hand it out for free at work, at home, and on the internet.
This is not that day.
Here's today: The Fire lost their second consecutive game to their rivals from Columbus, 3-1. They lost after trailing for 82 of the game's 90 minutes. In 19 MLS matches in 2015, the Men in Red have scored 20 goals, second-worst in the league. Their goal difference (-8) is tied for worst in MLS. They are 20th out of 20 in the combined table.
It only took 180 minutes of football against the Crew to curdle all the optimism generated by last Saturday's 1-0 win over Seattle into bitterness and rage. The awful truth is Columbus appeared to be the better team for nearly every minute of the week's two games - better players better prepared, a team with a discernible template for play that allows the players to imagine what their own contributions could be.
Fortune finds the prepared, and it surely did today. The game opened with a bit of MLS-classic farce: Taking the opening kickoff, the Crew played straight through the Fire - Kei Kamara to Wil Trapp to Federico Higuain to Ethan Finley, who burst into the area barely 10 seconds after the opening whistle. Chicago keeper Sean Johnson sprinted out to challenge Finley, whose touch beyond Johnson let him down a bit, prompting him to flail and hit the ground.
Let's just say that referee Chris Penso may have difficulty separating fiction from non-fiction; he certainly did 12 seconds into this game, when he mistook Finley's gonzo essay on diving for a heart-tugging movie-of-the-week. So moved, Penso wiped his eyes and pointed to the spot. Less than a minute later, Higuain sent Johnson the wrong way, and the Crew led 1-0 before Chicago had its first touch of the ball.
The Fire, in contrast, look like a team still finding their way halfway through the season, and have not displayed a commitment to any particular style of play. In that environment, it's up to the individual players to find a way; surely no one on the roster has caused opponents more problems than David Accam. Accam was at the center of a short-lived Chicago renaissance which should've seen la Maquina Roja take the lead.
In the ninth minute, Accam lashed a free kick from 20 yards that deflected off Justin Meram's head in the Columbus wall, wrong-footing Steve Clark and nestling in the home net: 1-1. Suddenly the quicksilver Ghanaian wing forward was everywhere, winning the ball and streaking forward, causing panic as is his custom. Granted a bit of space by Accam's forays, the Fire's other attackers, Harry Shipp, Patrick Nyarko and Jason Johnson, were able to tease out small spaces in which to work. Another free kick from Accam - won by him on the left wing - found Adailton at the back post, where he centered for Razvan Cocis to head home, only to find that Nyarko was inexcusably offside when the initial ball was served. For this little time - from minutes 9 to 17 - Chicago was competitive, giving better than they got.
That tiny movement upward was thwarted by Kamara, the leading scorer in MLS. The Crew found Matt Polster out of position, which granted Waylon Francis a lifetime to measure a back-post cross - only he'd apparently measured poorly, as the ball floated seemingly into Johnson's orbit around goal. Kamara demonstrated incredible athleticism to leap and head the ball from above Johnson's outstretched hands and into the net for a lead Columbus would never relinquish.
Still, Chicago created the odd chance - Accam beating a double team before Matt Watson blasts the shot into the stands, Jason Johnson crushing a shot from 20 yards that Clark could only parry - but the better of the looks went to the hosts.
Penso's performance-art piece (title: "Behold! Chaos!") had not run its course yet, unfortunately. In the first act - started in such bravura fashion by the opening penalty call - he'd gone to his favorite move, the Soft Yellow, when confronted with Jason Johnson blasting a ball at goal after the whistle. We didn't realize it at the time, but Penso was setting up his big finish, the Even Softer Red. Again, it was Jason Johnson as partner in the move, this time receiving the ball in the area, getting hacked and visibly deciding, "Yes, I should fall down."
Penso didn't hesitate to show JJ a second non-contact yellow, this one for diving, effectively ending the game as a sporting contest with 40 minutes remaining.Perhaps the point of the piece is that the universe is uncaring, and no one should expect even simple fairness, ever. If so, it was an effective and compelling lesson, and one the underdog Fire took to heart.
Down a goal and a man, the Fire never again seriously threatened the Crew goal, although they certainly struggled manfully against encroaching despair. To no avail, but the struggle is the point, no? Despite Columbus' casual control over the 10-man Men in Red, Chicago kept clawing and hoping, looking for a break that would reshape everything that came before as precursor to something ... else.
Their hopes were dashed in the 83rd, when Chad Barson's cross was dummied through to Finley by Kristinn Steindorsson. Finley's sharp-angled shot back across goal met a desperately diving Sean Johnson hand, but had too much fizz to be stopped: 3-1, game over. Enjoy your ride home.
The Fire (5-11-3) have only until Wednesday to reconcile themselves to the implacably uncaring void, when Orlando City visits Toyota Park for a Lamar Hunt US Open Cup match that only means absolutely everything to Chicago's 2015.