Who says the USA doesn't have relegation battles - at least those of the heart? The Fire's dwindling fortunes took another fell turn Saturday night, as a vibrant and intelligent Chicago performance couldn't overcome defensive mistakes and a rampant second half from Didier Drogba, who scored his first three MLS goals to lead Montreal to a rollicking 4-3 win. The result could leave the Men in Red ruing their lack of a Francophone employees - Drogba famously favored Montreal due to its French heritage, and it was his presence at the top that made the difference for the Impact.
The visiting Chicagoans had not won (have not won) on the road this season, but had succeeded in controlling large stretches of play in the first half, which ended level at 2. The second half was a different matter, though, with the Impact - driven by a sold-out crowd in every sense of the word - slicing through the visitors' defense again and again for good looks at goal. Only Sean Johnson's incredible shot-stopping kept the Fire in it - his stop of Romero's back-post blast in the 52nd was only prelude to a pair of fantastic stops against Ignacio Piatti. When Johnson parried Piatti's thunderous drive off the bar in the 69th, the quicksilver Argentine left - subbed for Dilly Duka - with a bemused expression.
Johnson's saves meant that when the Fire capitalized on a defensive mistake by the hosts - Kennedy Igboananike, unmarked, thundering home a Harry Shipp corner - they led, 3-2, in a must-win game on the road. But a half-hour remained, and the final half-hours of games have not been kind to the Men in Red this season, especially not last half-hours that take place on the road, and especially especially not last half-hours taking place in front of packed, roaring, hostile crowds.
Their lead lasted mere heartbeats, and was dissolved, again, by a lapse in concentration - Piatti drew a foul on Eric Gehrig just outside the area, then restarted quickly while Gehrig, Larentowicz and crew were still complaining about the call. His slip pass found Drogba's curling near-post run, and the Ivorian's thundering finish while wearing royal blue seemed a flashback from 2007. 3-3, 61 minutes in.
The crowd were still roiling and elated four minutes later, when Drogba won it and the sound overwhelmed the field microphones. This was vintage stuff from a now 37-year-old man - picking Callum Mallace's cross out for a first-time volley, yes, but also showing the tenacity and hunger (after 200-plus goals for club and country) to follow his shot in, juuust in case. When Johnson again made a startling save, there was Drogba, suddenly his old, overwhelming physical presence again, just bowling people over to barge it across the line.
And thereby win the game. 4-3, Montreal. The Fire huffed and puffed in the dying minutes, clearly desperate to turn their fate. The players' body language at final whistle was funereal.
The first half played out like a slowly building call-and-response anthem. The Fire, as surmised in our game preview, came out to dominate possession, and largely did so. Playing a narrow, fluid game, the Men in Red kept the majority of the ball and created several near-chances in the opening segments, with Mikey Stephens again central to the functioning of the team. Stephens intelligent movement as the central pivot in the Fire's 'Y' midfield meant Chicago usually had an out-ball against Montreal's sporadic pressure, with the resultant calm spreading throughout the ranks of the Men in Red.
Still, they were behind twice before entering the locker room deadlocked at 2. The Fire's control of the game didn't translate into goals in the early going, and it was a moment of superiority from Drogba that broke the deadlock. Nigel Reo-Coker's sweeping cross finished a rapidly-developing Impact move, evading Jeff Larentowicz' leap to fall to Drogba's back foot. Eric Gehrig, also in attendance, slipped and fell to his knees, and Drogba seemed to consider trying an overhead kick before dragging the ball forward into space near Gehrig. The touch may have been a bit fortunate, but the finish had not a whiff of luck about it, smashed home brutally to make the score 1-0 Montreal in the 27th minute.
The Fire answered less than 10 minutes later when another intricate move sprung Harry Shipp into a vault of space on a diagonal run in the area. Shipp's too-long touch didn't keep him from beating
Wandrille Lefevre Maxime Tissot* to the ball before being scythed down, earning a penalty which Larentowicz dispatched without ceremony: 1-1 in the 36th.
The most galling of the Montreal goals snatched the lead back just more than five minutes later. Marco Donadel's drifting back-post cross found both Sean Johnson guessing wrong ("I can get to this! ... no I can't.") and Lovel Palmer getting beat on a hard back-post run, turning a pedestrian set piece into a second lead for the home side.
The Fire reacted as if stung by the mistakes, getting the ball quickly to Patrick Nyarko after the ensuing kickoff. Nyarko took an early ball on the right flank and drove infield at an aggressive angle, creating disorder in a Montreal defense less than 60 seconds removed from celebrating. Igboananike intelligently slid out into the right-channel space vacated by Nyarko, where the Ghanaian found him just inside the right corner of the area. Igbo danced on the ball a bit to let Gilberto's run develop, then zipped a centering pass which the Brazilian turned home for his first goal for Chicago: 2-2, where it would stay until halftime.
With the loss, the Fire (7-14-6) move further from contention for the sixth and final playoff spot in the East, now four points back of Montreal, who have three games in hand. They return to action next Friday evening on the road against New York Red Bulls.
* I had Lefevre in my notes, but watching the highlights my notes were clearly wrong. Sorry, Wandrill!