Show me, show me, show me how you do that trick
The one that makes me scream, she said
The one that makes me laugh, she said
Threw her arms around my neck
Show me how you do it and I'll promise you
I'll promise that I'll run away with you, I'll run away with you
From “Just Like Heaven,” by The Cure
San Jose Earthquakes 1 (Wondolowski 87’)
Chicago Fire 4 (Mihalovic 14’, Solignac 40’, Nikolic 48’, 65’)
If this edition of the Chicago Fire are to become something other than three paragraphs in some Wikipedia history file, we’ll point to tonight as a signpost: We Are Onto Something Here. But what are we onto, exactly?
Sure, the Fire won 4-1 tonight against a San Jose side hungry for points in a tight Western Conference. Yes, they won the road, breaking back against their long-time bugaboo - and not just on the road, but on the west coast, where they’d been winless for five and a half years. None of those statistical or historical notes truly bear witness to the utterly persuasive nature of this victory in a game which the Fire dominated from start to finish, in so doing clinching their first playoff spot since the 2012 season.
Coming into Wednesday night’s MLS clash, Chicago Fire supporters could be forgiven for being pessimistic. The Men in Red, in June the hottest team in the league, entered the game in uninspiring form, winners of just one of their last eight road matches. What’s worse, the Fire seemed to have lost their winning template, shrinking farther and farther from the confident, fluid possession game that defined their domination in the season’s first half.
The first 10 minutes felt like a rebuke, like the idea of the Fire’s diminution - even grading for the loss of such luminaries as Bastian Schweinsteiger and Juninho - was a disappointing loss of faith. Installed behind Michael de Leeuw and alongside Dax McCarty, Chicago homegrown player Djordje Mihalovic metamorphosed into Luka Modric, bossing the game in the space offered by his more-regarded teammates with a menagerie of 1-2s and clever passes into tight spaces.
The Men in Red were sharp from the kickoff, playing a brand of all-action possession football that clearly took the host ‘Quakes by surprise. Interchanging freely along the flanks, the Fire would surge into attack with a rapid switch of play, or appear to, only to suddenly slice through the middle with a quick sequence that left the defense stranded. Mihalovic constantly found open spaces and showed for the ball, then moved it along intelligently.
The 18-year-old was rewarded in the most direct way possible when he ghosted into space between the centerbacks in the 14th minute and found them utterly entranced with what was going on just outside the area. There, Matt Polster and Arturo Alvarez were finishing a sequence where they’d kept the ball through two variations on the right flank, then suddenly surged infield, where the San Jose centerbacks were all “that was a fuckin’ sweet interchange, yo” and Djordje was alllll alone between them. The kid took the pass coolly, and just as coolly slotted home his first MLS goal, and oh by the way the claimant flag on this little bit of soccer real estate: We claim this 14 minutes in the name of the people of Chicago, 1-0.
A quarter of an hour into an hour and a half tussle, the pattern was set. The Fire would play like the home team, pressing intelligently and forcing the Quakes into difficult defensive shapes. Little that happened thereafter disturbed the pattern. Despite the absence of so much of their firepower - German legend Bastian Schweinsteiger, Brazilian security blanket Juninho, and Ghanaian lightning-bolt David Accam didn’t make the trip to California - Chicago utterly dominated the match, keeping the ball for long stretches until their lead made such effort counter-productive.
The Fire’s second goal was the product of one such keep-away session. After a long sequence of passes which moved the San Jose defense side to side a bit, Dax McCarty got the ball deep in the left channel. After combining with Mihalovic and making a few gestures, Dax passed the ball out wide to Michael de Leeuw slanting from the outside into the right penalty area. De Leeuw’s teasing cross was well past Nemanja Nikolic’s out-thrust boot, but Lucho Solignac was also crashing from the opposite flank, and his stooping header made it 2-0 in the 40th with the Fire absolutely flying.
If the thought was that the Quakes would regroup at halftime, that thought was extinguished less than 3 minutes into the final stanza. Solignac, running hard as usual, pounced on a horrific pass from San Jose keeper Andrew Tarbell and combined with Nikolic to free the striker behind the defense. Nikolic dispatched the chance well, in the process breaking the Fire record for most MLS goals in a season. He’d add to it 25 minutes later, cleaning up a near-miss golazo from de Leeuw with a header from 6 inches out for his 20th goal on the season.
Reserve goalkeeper Richard Sanchez, in his first MLS start, was generally excellent if not often challenged. The goal he did give up - to Quakes sniper Chris Wondolowski - could be viewed as a ‘welcome to the league, rook’ kinda thing, since it was unsaveable; but Sanchez spent five years as an FC Dallas homegrown player, so the extent to which he’s a rookie is hard to grok. Point is: Kid isn’t really a kid any more, and was generally excellent in a position which hasn’t seen many excellent performances this season.
In short, the Fire (15-10-6) seem to have rediscovered that trick, the one that makes us scream, in Silicon Valley. We will see how truly well-recovered that swagger is on Saturday, when Toyota Park is host to New York City FC, in the next-to-last home game of a suddenly high-tempo run-in to the playoffs.