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A Glimpse of the Verdant Lands Beyond: Chicago Fire 1, Columbus Crew 0, recap

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Fire out-think, out-pass one of MLS’ better think-and-pass sides en route to a potentially crucial early win

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Chicago Fire
Nemanja Nikolic celebrates his 22nd-minute strike during the Fire’s 1-0 win Saturday.
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

In December, when we’re stirring the embers of this season with a stick to see if anything still burns, it will be hard to remember the sixth game of the season - and what we do remember will be partly true memory and partly an amalgam of whatever else was floating around in the world at the time. It’s inevitable, this marriage of simple memory with a larger narrative; without the tentpoles, the fabric flies away, a victim of the persistent headwinds of the future.

Which means that our memories of the Fire’s astonishingly complete 1-0 defeat of Columbus will be adulterated, not only by mixture with the shockingly bitter waters of the Fire’s recent past but also by the undetermined colors and flavors of the games to come. Should the Men in Red falter - falling prey to ennui or injury or ill fortune - this result could seem an outlier, or (more sadly) a missed chance, the blueprint to a finer future, never followed.

Imagining these futures is entirely too easy for this seemingly snake-bitten franchise - but today offered a glimpse of other, better vistas, of a team that does the simple things well, a team built to both interrogate and then exploit their opponent’s weakness. From the opening whistle, the Fire were the better side, comprehensively answering the questions Columbus has persistently asked for years: Can you handle pressure? (Yes, please.) Can you defend crosses? (Si.) Can you make us uncomfortable in possession? (Oh my goodness, yes.)

By the time Nemanja Nikolic’s second MLS goal rolled home in the 23rd minute for a lead Chicago would never relinquish, the Fire were already well on the front foot. Velko Paunovic’s tactical flexibility played havoc with Columbus’ pressing schemes; the intelligence of Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger in central midfield, along with a 3-man backline, meant that the Fire nearly always had an out-ball available.

It was one of those situations that set up the goal - the Crew had half-cleared possession and were flowing back into pressing shape when Joao Meira snapped a clean pass to Dax’ feet. Dax, aware that the visitors were caught between thoughts, gave them no chance for respite, spinning an inch-perfect through ball onto Nikolic’s outside-in run to the left channel. The Crew backline, whipsawed by the speed of the turn, could only chase the poacher’s shot into the net.

One of the contributing factors of the Fire’s recent, bitter history is a seeming unwillingness to manage the game - which meant that, by some measures, a 1-0 lead with 67 minutes to play could be terrifying. And, in years past, it has been - a lead has traditionally been a signal to stop playing football and instead start a tent revival, praying that the Lord in His infinite wisdom will turn aside the barrage of half-chances and shots that are surely incoming almost immediately. But that just … didn’t … happen.

The Fire stayed canny and sharp, allowing a few half-chances until later in the game. When the Crew realigned themselves into an aerial bombardment wing, adding young winger Niko Hansen and thumping target man Adam Jahn, Paunovic whistled up two young players in response, reshaped the Men in Red into peppy, confident 4-2-3-1 and saw the game out without much further heartburn.

If this is the beginning of a different story for the Fire, I’ll be delighted to help write it. Results, motherfuckers. Results.

Chicago (2-1-2) finishes its three-game homestand next Saturday against New England, with kickoff slated for 4 p.m. Columbus (3-2-1) will host Toronto FC Saturday at 7 p.m.

Notes

  • The two young Fire players I mentioned above were Drew Conner and Daniel Johnson, and each showed incredible promise over the final 15 minutes. Conner, asked to absorb pressure alongside Dax in a double pivot, did some of that but a whole lotta other stuff, dribbling again and again through a stunned Crew defense, nearly drawing a penalty and putting a decent shot just wide. Johnson demonstrated that his 20-minute appearance against Montreal wasn’t a fluke, as his touch, poise, explosiveness and runs peeled open a stretched Columbus defense.
  • The Fire didn’t waste the kid’s energy, turning their forward sorties into the kind of time-eating attacks that break the spirit of a chasing foe. Game management has traditionally been a real bugaboo for the Men in Red, but if today’s game is a guide, those might be yesterday’s problems. Even with the Crew’s obvious cross-and-push squad in there, Chicago faced remarkably few ‘oh shit here it is, the moment we give it away’ situations down the stretch.
  • Dax McCarty should have more than six caps, ok? Kyle Beckerman should’ve retired from the USA three years ago. Terror-dreads, you owe Dax some caps, fella.
  • Michael de Leeuw worked his ass off for his entire appearance. MDL’s defensive contributions were most noticeable before the goal, during the period where the Fire were still trying to establish control over the game - that’s the most, and most successful, tracking back I’ve ever seen from him. It continued after he was moved from the middle (where he was nominally a midfielder, one supposes) to the right wing.