Chicago Fire 3 (Katai 70, Nikolic 74, 82)
Sporting Kansas City 4 (Gutierrez 9, 86, Russell 44, Medranda 84)
It’s the 82nd minute of the first game of the year. The Chicago Fire are incandescent, glowing a luxuriant red, elated, piling into a screaming mass of bodies in joy; floating nearby are their supporters, doing likewise. Nemanja Nikolic has just hammered home a lovely team goal to give the Men in Red a desperately hard-won 3-2 lead over Sporting Kansas City.
It’s the 86th minute of the first game of the year. The Chicago Fire have guttered, their faces ashen, dumbstruck, each alone in a private misery; piled nearby are the supporters, likewise ashen, dumbstruck and miserable. Felipe Gutierrez had just smashed home to end a lovely team move, the second goal in three minutes for the visitors, who would go on to win the contest by the score now displayed around the shocked stadum: Chicago 3, Kansas City 4.
How long does it take to fall from the top of the mountain into the deepest valley? In soccer, we can now say: Four minutes.
Perhaps hamstrung a bit by their first-week bye, the Fire were second best throughout the first half to a typically vigorous Kansas City side. The visitors’ pressing was aided by the Men in Red’s wayward passing, which kept the Fire from developing attacks with any threatening rhythm to them. The Fire responded with some aggressive pressing of their own, resulting in a lot midfield skirmishing without end product.
The first goal, then, came somewhat against the run of play - not that the Fire deserved to lead either; please don’t mistake me - but that it was a moment of clean and coherent play in a half of football that otherwise was a bit of a muddle. Matt Besler found long-time teammate Graham Zusi very high on the Kansas City right flank; Zusi, heading straight infield, released Johnny Russell between the Chicago centerbacks with a well-weighted through ball. Fire keeper Richard Sanchez was alert to the threat but could only parry Russell’s attempted chip back where it came, where Gutierrez was free to calmly head past the supine Sanchez into the empty Fire net.
So the half scrabbled on, with our Men in Red gradually racheting up the defensive pressure, gradually inching their backline forward, digging hard to draw even. KC’s Roger Espinoza noticed, and when a loose pass fell his way in the 44th minute, he didn’t hesitate, playing a long first-time ball to Daniel Salloi on the weak side of a hard-shifted defensive line. Salloi kept it simple, sprint-dribbling to the endline before cutting it back to Russell, arriving unmarked from midfield to finish through a thicket of defenders making confused faces: 0-2, just before halftime.
Trailing by two clear goals, in front of a crowd that had murmured boos spontaneously at the halftime whistle, the Fire reacted with clear intent. Pressing higher, with Bastian Schweinsteiger noticeably more involved in a very fluid shape, the Men in Red began to turn the screw on Kansas City, pinning them in and winning skeins of corners and throws in deep attacking positions. But the breakthrough seemed always two passes away against an obdurate, well-drilled Kansas City defense.
Just as frustration was starting to settle in, Schweinsteiger - hereafter Basti - stepped in to keep it at bay. A promising attack in the 70th minute down the left channel looked on the verge of breaking down when Brandon Vincent found Basti in a pocket of space with something of a panic pass. Basti’s first touch was a volleyed, looping through ball to a hard-breaking Nikolic, but that was spied out by Ike Opara and headed clear, back to Basti’s feet. Unruffled, Basti dribbled into a double-team, beat it by nutmegging Medranda, then burst free into the right channel - but only for a step, instantly converting all that space he’d earned with the ‘meg into an inch-perfect near-post cross for debutant Aleksandar Katai to finish.
Buoyed by a now-roaring home crowd, the Fire attacked for the remainder of the game with zealous abandon. Four minutes after Basti’s superhero act, Katai floated a corner that Dax McCarty headed onto goal viciously enough that KC keeper Tim Melia - defending GK of the Year in MLS - could only parry it into the path of the defending Golden Boot winner, Nikolic. Niko made no mistake, ending a four-minute climb from despair that Fire supporters would complete in reverse 12 minutes later.
So the pattern went on - Fire scrambling and pressing, looking now for the lead with the crowd back in it, Kansas City playing compact and springing lightning counter after lightning counter. The warning signs were certainly there - it took a really special tackle from Christian Dean to defuse a breakaway in the 71st, and an alert and strong-handed save from Sanchez on Gerson Fernandes in the 74th - but fate kept it even until the 82nd.
The Fire saved their best goal of the evening for last. Matt Polster delivered a deep, floating cross that led Vincent from the top of the box to the end line, just sort of floating in there, slicing closer and closer to goal … Vincent, meanwhile was the only person in a position to track the ball, while Nikolic checked back toward the top of the box and then drove hard for the near post … Vincent finally reached it just before the endline, ending the slow-mo denouement with a bang-bang - his sharp first-touch pass onto Nikolic’s foot into the back of the net. Polster’s long cross didn’t hit the ground until the score was 3-2, Fire.
Then, collapse. KC catches the Fire unsure of their defensive stance, with Espinoza - that guy again - trying a diagonal through ball through the heart of the Chicago defense. Sanchez was alert to the danger, coming out quickly to keep the ball from connecting with Gerson, but parried the ball to Medranda who crushed it first-time into the untended net. 3-3, 84th minute.
Then Ellis checked in, replacing Katai to move the Fire to a 5-3-2 - which, admittedly, was to preserve a lead when the idea was launched. That tactical gambit was obsoleted two minutes later, when Russell’s weak centering pass was just watched by a flat and exhausted Fire defense, watched as it bobbled through to Salloi, who back-heeled it on to Gerson, who dummied it to Gutierrez, who finished it past Sanchez.