PORTLAND TIMBERS 2 Fanendo Adi 24 (pk), Sebastian Blanco 70
CHICAGO FIRE 2 Arturo Alvarez 34, Brandon Vincent 61
Look, no one promised transcendence. Sometimes the football is just the football.
The Chicago Fire steamrolled into Providence Park as the newly-anointed hotness in MLS, their general excellence over the last six weeks broken into the mainstream by a pair of 4-0 beatdowns in the last 10 days. It wasn’t just the scorelines that drove the narrative, though - it was the manner of the victories, the combination of technically excellent touches and swaggering tactical domination that turned heads. The Men in Red had put their cards on the table, and most of the league winced and gave their hands a nervous glance.
But that’s then, and this is now. Those dominating wins had happened at home in Chicago; sandwiched between them was last week’s two-hour grindathon in the U.S. Open Cup against FC Cincinnati. The wear of that bit of fixture congestion had already cost the Fire the services of their Mentat, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and its influence was evident throughout the game, as La Maquina Roja were obviously willing, but just as obviously a half-step off the pace in thought and motion. And, fittingly, the Rose City displayed little pity, breaking at pace on every turnover, forcing Chicago to spend huge stretches of the game basically running wind sprints toward their own goal.
Piece it all together, and you’ve got a perfectly commendable, professional gutting-it-out-lads kind of 2-2 draw. Sometimes just the will isn’t enough, and a human’s ability to take in oxygen hits a ceiling; it’s a game of men, not gods. Sometimes the field feels like putty. Sometimes there’s a weird numbness. Everything’s hooked up, but the juice won’t flow. Tonight the Fire gritted their teeth and battled through putty-field, all for a point that allowed them to go into the Gold Cup break atop the table.
The happiness of their transit into a two-week break was deep in doubt in the opening stages of the game, as Chicago’s shaky passing allowed Portland to establish control over the bulk of useful possession. The breakthrough came in the 24th, when Dairon Asprilla - who was magnificent in the early stages before fading - towered over Fire left back Brandon Vincent to nod a header down to Fanendo Adi. Adi couldn’t quite get to the bouncing ball, though, instead getting a hopeful poke at the ball that spun away from goal … where Juninho was simultaneously falling to the ground and flailing his arms. Falling and flailing, Juninho could hardly help catching the ball just below the armpit. Adi dispatched the penalty easily, and the Timbers led, 1-0.
The Fire haven’t been behind all that often recently, and the team’s gut-check reaction to the goal was gratifying. Moments after calling for a sub because of a calf issue, Matt Polster got involved in a triangle along the right sideline with Michael de Leeuw and Artie Alvarez, a triangle that gave Alvarez the space he needed to roll the ball over to his left foot and swerve in one of those in-swinging crosses that feature in ‘keeper nightmares. Nemanja Nikolic gave everything he could to glance the goal-bound cross in himself, but he couldn’t quite - what he did do quite effectively is freeze Jake Gleeson, allowing the ball to just sliiiide into the far netting. Portland’s lead had lasted 10 minutes, and was now gone for good.
The Fire took a short-lived lead on Vincent’s first MLS goal. Alvarez and Drew Conner - on for the injured Polster - pincered Sebastian Blanco on the right sideline to win the ball, with Alvarez emerging and sharing it to de Leeuw, playing tonight in a much deeper role than usual. The Dutchman moved straight infield, shifting the play to the left, then gave to David Accam deep in the left channel. Accam did what he generally does, surging past markers into the attacking zone - this time getting the ball poked away for his trouble, where it bounded to Alvarez, who whipped another lovely cross all the way over to Vincent, creeping in on the left. The second-year pro’s finish absolutely pounded Gleeson’s crossbar, only to bound down and in for a 2-1 Fire lead.
Portland, though, deserved more than a loss on the night, and the Argentine connection of Blanco and Diego Valeri made it happen. Again and again Valeri had tried to spring Blanco into space behind the Fire backline, and their persistence paid off in the 70th minute. The margins are so small - the Men in Red were slow to recover in midfield, so there was a little pocket of space for Valeri to perform his fold-space-and-time shtick. He did, and spun a perfect through ball for Blanco to run onto, which he did, finishing back post.
The Fire hung on somewhat grimly over the final minutes, as the Timbers attacked again and again. Like I said, putty field. Weird numbness. Portland actually had a winning goal in the net in stoppage time, but it was called off for a foul on Adi.
Whew. The Fire (11-3-5) are guaranteed to be top of the table when Game of Thrones kicks off its seventh season, y’all.