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Sleeper Gambit Thwarted: Columbus Crew 3, Chicago Fire 1, MLS game recap

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Fire take early lead, dominate game’s middle stages, but again struggle against foe willing to defend

MLS: Chicago Fire at Columbus Crew SC
David didn’t get much room tonight, and the Fire didn’t get much joy from dominating possession - both things they’ll need to adjust to quickly.
Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus 3 (Manneh 18, Meram 73, Kamara 88 PK)

Chicago 1 (De Leeuw 13)

Ever have the responsibility for getting someone else to sleep? It’s not easy. There’s a problem with the whole concept, and it revolves around the fact that the conditions which provoke sleep are basically universal, and apply equally to the (hoped-for) sleeper and the (self-appointed) sleepee. It’s dark for both of you; the fan is sweeping back and forth across the entire room; the white noise makes concentrating on staying awake so very hard ... when the sleepee is the first to fall out, is anyone really surprised?

The Chicago Fire demonstrated this flaw tonight in Columbus, taking control of a see-sawing 1-1 game with the clear intention of wearing down the host’s ability to keep a solid shape, only to lull themselves to sleepy complacency in the game’s middle stretches. By the time the Crew’s repeated counterattacks woke the Men in Red, they could do little but stumble around, flailing about as if fighting off post-nap clumsiness to fall, 3-1, to their oldest rivals.

The decisive sequence came just before the game’s final quarter-hour. The Fire had utterly dominated possession for most of the previous hour, increasingly tilting their shape forward in a vain attempt to find space against a Columbus side both well-drilled and patient. Someone was nodding off, but it wasn’t the hosts: Scarcely 10 seconds after Matt Polster was beaten to an errant pass by Crew midfielder Cristian Martinez, the ball was in the back of the Chicago goal. Martinez’s instinctive first-touch pass, released just before Polster could arrive to snuff it out, spun into the space on the Fire right flank vacated by Polster’s forward dash. Columbus left midfielder Waylon Francis sprinted down the pass and flung a low ball across the Fire box that found Justin Meram on a diagonal trailing run. The Crew winger made no mistake, stroking the ball across Matt Lampson’s body and into the corner for a lead the hosts would never see countered: 2-1, Columbus, in the 73rd minute.

Bereft of their very good friend Positive Game State, the Fire went a little mad, spreading the field in interesting ways but leaving the work of defending to Lampson and his Ghost Army. The Crew would go on to extend the lead on an Ola Kamara penalty in the 85th after a series of absolute jailbreaks against an overextended Fire defense.

In its early stages, the game looked like it would be a decidedly different thing. Columbus came out in fine form, loose and energetic, and went right at the Fire, aided by surprisingly wayward passing from Chicago. That Era of Good Feelings came to an end when the Men in Red snatched the lead in the 13th minute, both Michael de Leeuw and Nemanja Nikolic beating a Columbus offside trap to get to a majestic Bastian Schweinsteiger delivery. De Leeuw’s run won the race, and the Dutchman nodded home his second goal in as many games to give the Fire a 1-0 lead.

Chicago’s attempt to control the game and hit the hosts on the counter lasted about five minutes, when a fluky goal tied the game. Columbus midfielder Artur danced into a little pocket of space, but - still facing a wall of Fire players between him and goal - decided on a low-percentage thwack at goal. The sharply-struck shot hit Chicago defender Johan Kappelhof in the leg, then caromed pinball-style off Crew attacker Kekutah Manneh. The ball fell beautifully for Manneh, a random bounce becoming his best first touch of the day, laid out perfectly for him to run onto an finish past a stranded Lampson: 1-1 in the 19th minute, whence Chicago would begin its ill-fated Sleeper/Sleepee Gambit.

The Fire (12-6-5) will have to gather themselves quickly, as a true Crucible Week beckons: Montreal away on Wednesday night, mighty Toronto FC at home next Saturday. The Fire are currently six points back of Toronto, with the Montreal game in hand. If the Fire are really Supporters Shield contenders, we’re about to find out. And if they’re not, maybe we’ll find that out, too.

Columbus (11-12-2) travels to Orlando next Saturday.