Perhaps Section 8 was on to something Saturday when it started singing Let It Snow as the wintry storm swirled at up to 30 mph in Toyota Park.
It's not that the Chicago Fire had an easy time with the bursts of snow, but the blizzardy conditions became more friend than enemy in the second half as the Union ran into the wind and went down a man. The Fire had their share of luck along the way, watching three Union shots hit the woodwork and avoiding a red card of their own when the referee mistakenly gave Rodrigo Ramos a yellow in the first half instead of Matt Polster, who would've picked up his second in the second half.
Still, it was a solid enough performance, especially without the services of David Accam and Razvan Cocis taking the No. 10 role behind Gilberto. The offense created chances in both halves and Kennedy Igboananike's goal was the sort of effort fans have seen wasted too often. But instead of rushing and sending his attempt wide, Igboananike made a great turn, froze Andre Blake and found the low corner near the left post for the cool finish.
The defense also secured its second consecutive clean sheet as John Kappelhof and Jonathan Campbell continue to grow into the kind of center back pairing the team has not enjoyed in years. Rodrigo Ramos and Michael Harrington both had strong games as well, proving the team does not need to defend with five in the back to keep a zero.
Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said after the game the team still needs to improve finishing and that remained clear Saturday. Gilberto continues to do the work to get into dangerous areas but continues to miss the frame at an alarming rate, rarely calling on the goalkeeper to even make a save.
It was never going to be a pretty or spectacular performance Saturday in those conditions, but it was a smart performance and it led to a much needed home victory. At 1-1-2, the Fire have done enough to stay with the entire pack in the Eastern Conference and avoid falling into an early hole.
If the team can find its offense again with the return of Accam, Chicago could start to make some noise.
Player rankings will count down from XI to I with XI being the best. Subs often will not make the list, unless they are super duper awesome, in which case they might.
XI: Michael Harrington - That's right. The man banished to the bench because of a red card and expected to lose his starting role to Rodrigo Ramos was the reason the Fire won Saturday. His blocked shot in front of an open net to start the second half saved the game and momentum from fully going to Philadelphia. Minutes later, he made a great pass to Igboananike for the assist on the only goal. Harrington has spent more time at left back during his career and he looked very good back there again Saturday. It will be tough to take him out after that performance.
X: Jonathan Campbell - The rookie is quickly becoming the foundation of the defense. After a sterling performance against Columbus, Campbell played well again, this time in a two center back formation with Kappelhof. He made a huge sliding block in the first half to go along with his other blocked shots and interceptions. He made one foul in a dangerous area, but that was about it for mistakes.
IX: Rodrigo Ramos - The young right back continued to impress Saturday, showing off more of his defensive game by largely negating the influence of Chris Pontius, who was on a hot streak entering the contest. Ramos also contributed to a large portion of the offensive chances in the first half as his crosses caused chaos in the box, leading to chances from Igboananike and Cocis.
VIII: Kennedy Igboananike - He scored the lone goal so it is hard to put him any lower. Had Igboananike missed that chance, the team would likely be looking at a 0-0 draw or even a loss. He had a quiet first half but found himself in scoring areas much more often in the second. He was BARELY offside on a feed from John Goossens that would have been a second goal. He did have a team-low passing percentage, however.
VII: Razvan Cocis - The captain was involved in the other most important play of the game when he took one for the team by being on the business end of a stiff Warren Creavalle challenge, resulting in a red card. Cocis also played in unusual territory as the No. 10, but had some good moments including a great nutmeg on the sideline in the first half to get space and a couple interceptions in Union territory. It was a usual Cocisian hustle effort.
VI: Johan Kappelhof - He was part of a clean sheet and had a lot of solid play. Philadelphia's chances generally came on his side, but that should not all be placed on Kappelhof who really did play well. A slip in the first half caused a bit of a scare, but he also had good moments like in the second when he dribbled the ball through the center of the field and passed into scoring range as if he was a box-to-box midfielder.
V: Matt Lampson - He kept a clean sheet for the second straight start. He only made three saves and was helped out three other times by the crossbar and post, but you can't complain with a goose egg. He did have another nervous distribution moment when he waited until the absolute last second before a booting a ball as a Union player nearly took the ball off his foot for what would've been a tap in goal. But solid performance in low visibility.
IV: Matt Polster - He started out the game as the guy pulling the strings on the offense from midfield, showing off his passing while also picking passes off. He had a team-high passing percentage, though no real key pass. He also was lucky to avoid a red card as he should have been shown a yellow in the first half that incorrectly went to Ramos as was shown a yellow in the second.
III: Michael Stephens - I liked what I saw out of Stephens defensively as he was all over errant passes. The problem was he also had too many errant passes, including a few in his own zone. His hustle makes him a pest to other teams, but a 70.6 passing percentage is not great for the offense and in some cases put the defense in scramble mode.
II: Arturo Alvarez - Alvarez struggled again on Saturday, this time on the right wing. He looks like he is headed to the right space most of the time, but he struggled to get his key passes through and to make space for himself. It was far too quiet a performance and Goossens outplayed him within minutes of taking the field after subbing on for Alvarez.
I: Gilberto - Just not good. He finds ways to get into dangerous areas but either cannot create space from the defender or badly misses his mark on shot attempts. I semi joked he got closer to hitting Sector Latino than the net on one attempt, but it was pretty much entirely true. More is expected of him and he needs to start to reaching that level. Quickly.
Substitute Shoutout: John Goossens - Goossens came on in the 62nd minute and was fantastic. He immediately forced a diving save from Blake, found Igboananike on a would-be goal if not for an offside call and then hit Gilberto in wide open space at the top of the box, which Gilberto failed to convert. Paunovic said Goossens coming off the bench was a fitness issue, but the Dutch midfielder deserves to be back in the starting XI after this showing.
What They Said
Paunovic on his first win.
"It means a lot for me and for this locker room who works very hard. So far, I think winning this game gave us more confidence now and believe we are on a good path, which we always knew we were but it's always very, very important to have proven our results, winning games."
Hot Take: Congrats Pauno on your first win! I really like you so far and I want you to be the coach for more than two years so it would be nice to see more wins. Keep doing that!
Igboananike on playing crap weather.
This weather is very difficult because you never know what you get; it's snow, it's cold, it's windy, it's a very difficult situation for us. But you have to be mentally strong and believe that the weather can't stop you from winning.
Hot Take: I like this attitude. I liked your goal. I liked the win.
Michael Harrington on bossing the game at left back.
I felt good. I've played more games at the left than the right so I felt comfortable. It was a tough game to kind of get your feet under you ... but in the second half the conditions weren't quite as bad. It wasn't the prettiest game ... but we did the things we needed to do to win the game.
Hot Take: Too modest. You were more awesome than that. I mean, Ilsinho did that thing to you, but we won't talk about that. You had a great game.