New York Red Bulls 4 (Wright-Phillips 7’, Kljestan 11’, Royer 70’, Veron 87’)
There is a long cold coming, a season of dibs and surly insularity, endless frozen evenings when the wind sounds like a chorus of damned souls. The Chicago Fire will have all those nights to plan how to make tonight’s humiliating 4-0 home capitulation to New York Red Bull part of a larger story, and not the end of this shorter one.
The story that we may have been hoping was happening - that these Fire were, as currently constituted, potentially a championship side - has now been conclusively sent back for editing. The Men in Red were astonishingly dominant from May to July 1, ending that stretch in resounding 4-0 trashing of then-Western Conference leaders Vancouver. But that coincided with the only time the Fire’s best XI were healthy, a bit of good fortune that, for whatever reason, did not last. As the evening wore on, the Fire’s programmed subs (Joao Meira can’t go 90, nor Juninho; Basti was available, sorta, I guess; and so on) meant that Velko Paunovic didn’t have a huge amount of latitude to reshape the team after a flat start put Chicago in a two-goal hole. This is a roster still some way off of commanding silverware.
Merciless as a medical exam, Red Bulls came ready to exert pressure on Chicago’s weaker points, waiting for the flinch. They didn’t have to wait long - it was only the 7th minute when a simple long ball over the top sprung Bradley Wright-Phillips down the center, both centerbacks and the keeper asking for offside that wasn’t given. The Englishman ran onto the bouncing ball just as Fire keeper Matt Lampson arrived, swiping hard at the ball with both hands and somehow coming up empty. Wright-Phillips, looking amused at his good fortune, tapped in to send off panic-alarms all through the Men in Red: 0-1.
Four minutes later the lead was two. Tyler Adams, Red Bulls’ homegrown dynamo, feinted Fire left back Brandon Vincent flat-footed, then spun in a clever low cross that found Juninho just mesmerized. New York midfielder Sacha Kljestan stormed past the temporarily dazed Brazilian to bang home his team’s second: 0-2.
Stunned, the smallish crowd got quiet, waiting to see what the Fire could do … and, unfortunately, the answer - down two clear goals to a solid, vigorous team willing to run its socks off to deny space - was “not nearly enough.” The opening minutes of the second half were promising, with Fire captain Dax McCarty heading a corner that forced a pure reflex save out of Luis Robles, but nothing definitive. Down two goals at home, throwing everything forward - nothin’.
Then the subs came, and the medical exam turned rather exploitative, as Jesse Marsch’s side preyed on the Fire’s mental weaknesses. The third goal came after a weird double sub left the Fire in something like a 3-3-4, and Chicago were still talking about the changes on the field when ref signalled play to begin. Dax, suddenly isolated, coughed the ball up under heavy pressure. Shark-eyed New York saw the Fire’s disorganization and flooded players into the attacking zone, sharing short passes as they seemed to arrive an unspoken group decision, with Daniel Royer finishing sharply from a narrow angle: 0-3, 70 minutes in. A few boos can be heard around the stadium.
The fourth came to Marsch’s scalp-collector, Gonzalo Veron, who ran onto a ball behind the hilariously stretched and exhausted Chicago back line in the 87th minute to get a goal.
It’s not like the Fire stopped playing. They flailed mightily. But on this pass-fail exam, there’s only one conclusion - our Men in Red are not there yet. On a night when a strong performance could have validated the optimism of early summer - the first playoff appearance since 2012! - Chicago had almost nothing to offer, flat from the start, weak in key positions, and in indifferent team form, disconnected and incoherent.
Groove is in the heart
Tomorrow it will be time to start again. Tonight is for bitter laughter and bitter drinks - on to better things. Because, in the end, if it all blows up - if Basti won’t sign, and everybody’s hurt, and the payroll goes back to ‘how little can I get away with?’ again, we’ll still have that absolutely magnificent stretch of football this team played in May and June. That was truly gorgeous, dominating possession football with a distinctive flair, and it was intoxicating.
You don’t hate ‘Groove Is In the Heart’ just because Dee-Lite didn’t go onto global domination, right? One-hit wonders are just a different kind of history. But tonight made one thing clear: August and everything after wasn’t a fluke. Ball don’t lie. This team was not ready to contend for MLS Cup in 2017.