New England Revolution 1 Delamea 70’
Chicago Fire 2 Nikolic 18’, Solignac 61’
Time to wake the f--k up, Chicago - you’re home to the best soccer team in the United States of America. If you don’t have your tickets yet, you’re already screwing up. Wake up. Get there. This is happening.
We’ll spend the rest of the summer and most of the fall litigating this claim on the field, but on the evidence of the last six weeks, it’s not even all that close. Tonight in Foxboro, the Men in Red faced an experienced, talented New England side and produced the kind of tactical spine-cracking that we’ve seldom seen in this league, pulling the game and hard-working hosts limb-from-limb with intelligent spacing, persuasive movement and ruthless recognition of moments of opportunity.
The final score read 2-1, Fire, but the game was defined by Chicago’s domination until Revs manager Jay Heaps threw his hands in the air and instructed his players to give up on all this pretty passing football. A scrambling 30 minutes portended all the seemingly-traditional bugaboos of the Men in Red - leading on the road? On an artificial surface? - but despite a series of heart-stopping possibilities, Chicago gritted out the win to extend their unbeaten run to nine games, and break New England’s 11-game home unbeaten skein.
When Kevin Stott blew his whistle after 95 minutes football, the current MLS table looked like this:
Maybe you missed the Fire - look again. They’re at the top. The. Top. What is this?
New England’s difficulties began before the ball was kicked, as Chicago manager Velko Paunovic had a tactical wrinkle: Bastian Schweinsteiger as Franz Beckenbauer. Our Teutonic great was deployed in the position made famous by Der Kaiser, playing as libero, tasked with the vast mental workload of simultaneously minding the Fire’s shape without the ball and imagining how to move forward with it - and if this evening is any indication, the closing stages of the great man’s career will see a great deal of this assignment.
That tactic, combined with the Fire’s general flexibility and industry in possession, led to Chicago dominating the early exchanges. The first goal came directly from the visitors’ clever motion, Luis Solignac’s checking run drawing attention from Nemanja Nikolic’s more-direct route to goal. Supplied the ball in the right channel, the Serbo-Hungarian tried to finish near-post but was thwarted by an awkward Cody Cropper save; the rebound fell directly to Niko, still unmarked, to stroke into the now-open goal with ease. 0-1, Fire, after 18 minutes of dazzlingly effective football.
Chicago extended their lead at the hour mark with a canny quick-hitting attack. Nikolic ran onto a lovely threaded ball in midfield from Dax McCarty and immediately played a chipped through ball for Michael de Leeuw, who stretched for the slightly-too-long pass and poked it to Solignac. The Argentine wing forward made no mistake against the stranded Cropper, placing his shot conservatively for a two-goal Fire lead: 0-2, Fire, with 29 minutes left.
Which is not to imply that New England simply sat by and allowed themselves to be dominated. The Revs looked aggressive and hungry throughout, were able to create a few chances in spurts in the first half. It was in the second stanza, though, that the hosts hit upon their most effective response to the Men in Red’s mind-control magic. At some point, it seems, Heaps uttered the magickal phrases that excite Englishmen like Paul Mariner: “Lump it in the box, boys!” and/or “Don’t let ‘em sucker ye into playin’ football!” It’s not certain that anyone was told to “fuckin’ run around a bit,” but if they were, no one is surprised.
The result was a thrilling, terrifying visit to the edge of sanity, as New England gave up any pretense of trying to defeat the puzzle-box that Chicago gifted them, instead smashing the damned thing against the wall until something fell out. That ‘something’ may have been Matt Lampson, who came for a towering Lee Nguyen cross through a very crowded box in the 71st minute and didn’t make it, leaving the goal open with the ball bouncing 3 yards out, where Revs defender Antonio Delamea bodied it home for his first goal in MLS.
All of which set the scene for a final 20 minutes that only lacked a slanting rainfall and a puddle of mud in front of goal, as the desperate hosts snatched again and again at the half-chances that bouncing balls can produce. Again and again the hosts lifted crosses into the center of the area; again and again those crosses were thwacked, spun and prodded toward goal, only to either be blocked by the massed Fire defense or to trickle wide of goal.
It was heart-stopping stuff, and it felt almost inevitable that Chicago would give up an equalizer during the assault. Somehow, though, the Fire did not, even after Schweinsteiger’s involvement was scaled back in the last 10 minutes after getting kneed in the hip.