There’s this one layer of truth, and it’s that the Red Bulls won tonight in New Jersey, 2-1.
The fact layer: Wright-Phillips 37’, Nikolic 59’, Lawrence 71’. Fire lose the first two of a difficult three-game road trip.
We are here tonight to concern ourselves with the other layers of this contest. We are here to consider the fact that, an hour after the final whistle, Fire captain Dax McCarty was still out in Red Bull Arena, saluting Fire fans and taking photos with fans from the club he previously led. The Men in Red failed on the field, falling to 3-3-2 on the season, but the fans gathered tonight were more interested in how close the current edition of the New Jersey club was to the promised land.
Funny thing we have discovered on the way to the promised land: Turns out this redemption gig is full of reverses. There’s a whole world of frustrated potential out there. For every guy writing a comeback-narrative snoozer, there’s six pimping an underdog story based upon not-quite-succeeding alongside that same guy. The Fire have turned this kind of almost-not-failure into an art form in the last half-decade. Tonight, they fashioned the better of the chances then fell behind; caught up, fashioned the better of the chances, then fell behind again.
The game started cautiously, with each team probing and testing the others’ shape, with multiple offside calls and overcooked through-balls making for a stop-start beginning. The Fire responded to the prompting of the crowd for a full-blooded contest, with Bastian Schweinsteiger leading the charge physically. The German midfielder seemed to relish countering the consistently chippy play of Red Bull mid Felipe, drawing attention from the official no less than 7 times in the first half for skirmishes with the Jersey filth magnet.
The Fire were undone by the first little bit of actual football to make an appearance. Red Bull slowed down a tick in the 37th minute, combining through midfield in a web of short, seemingly feckless passes that trickled the ball out to Chicago’s defensive right flank, the launching-pad for opposing hopes. In a ‘that’s so Fire’ twist, the key pass was provided by the Men in Red’s Juninho, whose retreating stab could’ve broken up the sequence if it hadn’t fallen perfectly to the feet of Daniel Royer. The Austrian winger understood the gift for the rare thing it was, and exploded into the area to deliver an inch-perfect short cross to the best finisher of inch-perfect crosses in MLS, Bradley Wright-Phillips. BWP’s unwitting Mike Bossy impersonation gave the hosts a 1-0 lead.
Chicago burst from the locker room in the second half, angry and full of intent. A few furtive attempts to take the left flank were undone by Accam’s apparent hip injury - the inability of the Ghanaian to run past defenders meant that the Fire would need to combine to create an equalizer.
The chance came just before the hour mark, and it fell, inevitably, to Dax. The ginger found himself in an advanced position after a restart; showing in the area, he had a couple of players in attendance, including Tyler Adams, the 18-year-old whose emergence had made him expendable to the Jersey side. Taking an interior touch, Dax was able to pivot to face goal and touch the ball wide to the unmarked Nikolic, who golfed it back-post to tie the match at 1.
The Fire were denied a share of the points by Kemar Lawrence’s excellent back-post finish in the 71st. Chicago should’ve been in front, of course, after a sequence 5 minutes earlier where Luis Solignac and Nemanja Nikolic each had clear chances to put the Men in Red ahead.
Whatever the result, 40 minutes after the final whistle, Dax was still around the field, honoring the people who’d come here to honor him. Sometimes the smallest acts are the most radical.
The Chicago Fire (3-3-2) continue their killer road-trip next week in LA against the Galaxy.