Houston Dynamo 3 (Leonardo 2’, Quioto 68’, Manotas 75’)
The hope is that, if the Chicago Fire have stockpiled a bit of Whatevering and Coming-Out-Flat and Playing-Like-You-Just-Ate-Thanksgiving-Dinner, today’s 3-0 face-plant in Houston will have used up most of that stock. Maybe the boxes were getting soft from sitting in the garage, and it’s the last day of the season, so we gotta get through this stuff at some point …
Which is to put a hopeful spin on what was a extremely disheartening performance. The playoffs have been a foregone conclusion for the Fire for a couple weeks now, and the team has limped toward the line, showing little ability to rediscover the kind of form that made them the toast of the league through June. A win today would’ve vaulted the Men in Red into second place, giving key starters like Bastian Schweinsteiger, Joao Meira and Juninho another week to get game-ready.
But Chicago were clearly second-best from the opening whistle, slow in thought and tempo, and less than two minutes in, the Dynamo had the lead. Houston winger Adolfo Machado heaved a long throw into the Fire box, Leonardo outmuscled Johan Kappelhof and Matt Polster to skim the ball off the top of his head toward the back post: 1-0.
If Houston needed further prompting to settle back into a stable 4-5-1 and play on the counter, they got it moments later, when Dynamo defender A.J. DeLaGarza went down with an apparent knee injury. Up a goal and down a defensive stalwart, Houston leaned back into spoil-and-spring mode, and the game settled into a sleepy somnolence, the two teams cancelling each other out. The Fire seemed incapable of the quality or movement necessary to up the tempo and carry play, settling instead for a tepid three-touch moderato.
So the game stuttered forward, the Fire treating attacking forays like awkward conversation with an ex, Houston imagining a three-pass break that their technique didn’t make likely. The game swiveled a bit late, as the Fire’s programmed substitutes - pulling Matt Polster and Dax McCarty in deference to the likelihood of a midweek playoff game - tipped the advantage even further toward the hosts. Joao Meira - inserted to shake the rust off before Wednesday - showed plenty when Romell Quioto first outran him, then overpowered him in a battle for a simple long ball.
Fortunately, the shot Quioto managed after summarily abusing Meira was well off-line, travelling directly along the goal line about four yards out. Unfortunately, Richard Sanchez was in the area, kinda half coming out for the ball. Sanchez got down low a little slowly, slowing the well-struck ball and turning it … into … his goal. It wasn’t ruled an own goal, despite the fact that the shot was well off-line, because who needs to kick a guy when he’s down? And what winger wants an assist on an own goal rather than a goal?
It was left to former Fire man Alex to give a thudding game a bit of sparkle, and damned if the Brazilian hasn’t remembered he’s from Macondo - running directly away from goal in the right midfield channel, getting closed hard from the flank, Alex solved the space magically, flicking the pass up and volleying it over his shoulder, into the suddenly wide-open Chicago flank for Andrew Wenger. Wenger’s low, curving cross cut out two defenders and left Sanchez stranded on his goal line as Mauro Manotas strode past the carnage to tap in the game’s final tally.
In all, a disappointing end to a season that’s seen expectations raised, then slowly lowered almost back down to the floor. With Schweinsteiger still in dry dock, the centerback partnerships confused and neither goalkeeper looking up to the task, it’s hard to imagine this team suddenly returning to its scintillating early-season form in time for a deep playoff run.
On the up side, Nemanja Nikolic got his coveted Golden Boot, leading the league with 24 goals. Niko did manage the Fire’s best look on the day, manufacturing something out of nothing after a day without service, smashing a shot from 28 yards off the upper 90 in the 86th minute.
Chicago finishes the regular season 16-11-7, good for 55 points, third in the Eastern Conference. They will host New York Red Bulls in a single-game playoff at Toyota Park either Wednesday or Thursday night. [EDIT: It’s Wednesday.]
- Rumors have it that Basti’s return for 2018 has been jeopardized by a lowball offer to open negotiations, a lowball offer that contradicts an earlier verbal agreement. If you’re needing an argument why this is a terrible idea, you need look no further than the Fire’s play down the stretch - the team is clearly much less flexible and imposing in Schweinsteiger’s absence.