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In Pursuit of Something Spiffing: New York City FC 2, Chicago Fire 1, MLS game recap

Somnambulant start to the second half costs Men in Red first loss in nearly three months

MLS: Chicago Fire at New York City FC
A loss is a loss, but it was lovely to see the kids get some run.
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

New York City FC 2 (David Villa 47, Frederic Brilliant 50)

Chicago Fire 1 (David Accam 54)

There is something about good fortune that unsettles the 2017 Chicago Fire. Opponents at full strength, teams that come out with solid gameplans, bright-eyed with intent - those teams find their underlying tactical premises folded, spindled and mutilated by the Men in Red as often as not. But suffer an early red card - or some other twist of football fate - and the previously ruthless eviscerators on the Fire become Victorian gentlemen, certain that winning without honor simply isn’t spiffing, don’t you know, and if it’s not spiffing, is it worth pursuing?

We saw it in an early-season draw to an Orlando side down two men. And today we saw it again, as the Fire squandered 78 minutes of a man advantage with five minutes of defensive muzzy-headedness to lose, 2-1, to New York City FC.

The game swung in the minutes just after halftime. Yangel Herrera’s two yellow cards in the first 12 minutes changed the tide of the game immediately, with the usually proactive Pigeons instead settling back to play off their back foot, with the omnipresent danger of David Villa lurking up top to keep things terrifying. The Fire’s difficulty breaking down static defenses meant the first half trickled away almost without incident.

After halftime, though, the Men in Red were clearly intending to bring the ruckus. MVP candidate David Accam came in for Luis Solignac, and the Fire looked to play directly through Accam. Unfortunately, their forward orientation meant the backline was terribly exposed any time the ball was turned over, especially as the heat and humidity of the day slowed forward pressure by a step or two. And that step can make all the difference when you’re dealing with a player like Villa.

The first goal came with the halftime talk still ringing in the players’ ears. A poorly-weighted pass sent NYC off on a break, but the Fire seemed to have recovered nicely, with six players back in the box against two attackers. One of those attackers was Villa, though, and when neither Juninho nor Michael Harrington stepped to challege the Spanish genius, he side-volleyed the ball through traffic into the back corner from 22 yards.

Villa does this to everyone. It happened faster than you read that sentence: The pass is a little awkward, waist-high, and ohmygod he just flicked it in there. Even the Fire were forced to conclude the goal was simply spiffing. 1-0, NYCFC.

Barely 90 seconds later, the margin was two. Frederic Brilliant beat two Fire defenders to Maxi Moralez’ long free kick, smashing a wicked header on goal that was saved by Matt Lampson, and then beat those same defenders to the rebound, getting kicked in the head for his trouble. Up a man but now down two goals, the Fire were in deep trouble.

They got one back in short order, as Accam established himself as goal-dangerous every possession. The Ghanaian winger stepped into a contested ball after a Fire corner in the 54th minute, settling the contest by using his only touch to arc a well-struck ball over Sean Johnson’s arms, off the underside of the bar and into goal: 2-1, NYC.

Now down a goal but with momentum on their side, the Fire created a boatload of half-chances and a few really promising movements over the game’s final half-hour, but couldn’t consistently unlock an increasingly conservative NYC shape. The inclusion of youngsters Djordge Mihalovic and Daniel Johnson gave the Men in Red an injection of energy, but the hosts’ packed defense stymied Chicago as time and energy ran out.

The Fire (11-4-5) continue this withering stretch of schedule next Saturday, when they travel to face Western Conference high-flyers Sporting Kansas City.