Chicago Fire 1 (Nikolic 66)
New York Red Bull 1 (Wright-Phillips 8)
Throughout their insanely triumphant months of May and June, the Chicago Fire made a habit of absolutely dominating the opening stretches of games. Whether the Men in Red got an early goal or not, they’d swarm the ball on defense and keep it inventively, establishing a swaggering control over the ball as they patiently spread the field. Once the goal came, the increasing desperation of the opposition would set the table exquisitely for more of the same, the Fire smirkingly stroking the ball around, their ability to control the game magnified by taking the lead.
Since then, we have seen this team shrink before our eyes, its confidence and form sagging as a spate of injuries decimated the defense, which suddenly meant giving up early goals, which allows teams to play deeper on defense, which exaggerates the Fire’s lack of a classic attacking playmaker on the squad, which means boring, kickball soccer that no one enjoys. The virtuous cycle has reversed, turning vicious, and La Maquina Roja under Velko Paunovic are still grappling with how to reverse it once again.
On Saturday afternoon, then, Chicago displayed gumption if not inspiration in coming from behind to draw New York Red Bulls, 1-1, at Toyota Park. The Fire once again fell behind after a defensive switch-off and suffered a seemingly sleepy start to the game - but this time, they gradually found their way into the game. The moment of inspiration from Michael de Leeuw that freed Nemanja Nikolic for a tap-in was no less than the Men in Red deserved from this game. On a day when their leader was thoroughly out-managed, the players still fought their way to a difficult point.
The New York goal came, predictably, from a Red Bulls set piece. Under Jesse Marsch, NYRB are one of the most unpredictable and efficient set-piece machines around, but the 8th-minute opener wasn’t anything flashy - just a poorly-cleared first ball that seemingly hypnotized the entire Fire backline, a passively-offside Alex Muyl who was a distraction on both the second cross and the Sascha Kljestan header (completely unmarked) down to the (completely unmarked) Bradley Wright-Phillips. Wright-Phillips has made a career in America tapping in just like this: 1-0, Red Bulls, and the Fire reeling.
For about 15 minutes after the goal, a second for the visitors looked a near certainty. New York’s 3-4-3 offered Chicago room on the flanks, but wingbacks Conner Lade and Kemar Lawrence came out flying, funneling play infield, where congestion made coherent play difficult. Aware that the Fire didn’t have anyone who liked to play below the strikers, the visitors broke into two five-man groups without the ball; the attacking group pressed very high up the field, paying special attention to Dax McCarty and Juninho, while the defensive quintet stayed back and waited to win the knockdown-second ball contest that the inevitable long ball would initiate.
About midway through the first half, the Men in Red seemed to snap out of their funk slightly, creating a few half-chances on the break. De Leeuw, in a preview of the skills he’d use to tie the game later, made the best of these, volleying past Red Bulls keeper Luis Robles just past the half-hour only for the goal to be called back for a questionable foul in the run-up on Lucho Solignac.
As the second half wore on, Chicago shifted gears entirely from ‘dictating play’ to ‘taking what they’re giving you,’ which frankly worked out better in the end. Johan Kappelhof, realizing he wasn’t on Red Bulls hit list, had started using his relative freedom more conspicuously, carrying the ball forward into midfield and trying line-splitting passes from there.
The equalizer started with the ball on Kappelhof’s foot in the back line; this time the Dutchman tried a diagonal attacking ball he’d been eyeing for a couple of minutes. On the other end, De Leeuw and Nikolic timed their runs to perfection, finally breaking in cleanly behind a New York backline that had been very sharp throughout the match. But the ball was curling from the right channel into the left, tailing hard away from De Leeuw - how could he turn it onto goal, at full speed, from that angle? Answer: He couldn’t, but he didn’t need to, because he came up with something altogether more beautiful, stabbing at the ball with the outside of his right boot to glance it back exquisitely to the unrushing Nikolic, unmarked in front of goal, to blast home. The Hungarian celebrated the end of his two-month scoring drought jubilantly, and moved back into second place in the MLS Golden Boot race with 17 goals.
Once knotted at 1 apiece, the game seemed most likely to end that way. The Fire, particularly, seemed to signal their satisfaction with the draw in the closing stages, pulling attackers in favor of midfielders and generally shoring up the defense. Which makes sense - you spend $14MM on payroll, you expect to creep into the playoffs on little cat’s feet. Hey, we’re in third!
Chicago (13-9-6) hosts Eastern Conference cellar-dwellers DC United next Saturday evening.