Chicago Fire 2 (Nikolic 50’, Vincent 84’)
Portland Timbers 2 (Valeri 6’, Blanco 55’)
Maybe we’ve been on the wrong side of this MLS thing all along. Maybe the aspects we’ve furiously derided as bugs within the makeup of the league all these years - the McSoccerness of the whole thing, franchises fighting franchises for the right to nothing, forever - are really features: A new football universe blooming right before our eyes, the old hatreds put aside in favor of appreciation of everyone’s effort, of the beautiful moment, of friendship and affirmation and kindness.
It’s in the midst of moments like Saturday’s soccer festival at Toyota Park that such ideas can almost reach the level of plausibility, and who can blame MLS for dreaming? Surely that moment just after one proposes the project of owning all the football is exactly when football’s history of channelling the worst of humanity’s impulses would rush to the minds of the bean-counters running the project. Say what you will about the dangers of extended peace, but revolutions make reinsurance absolutely impossible, and how then to go on? I’m not risking *my* money.
So supporters of the Fire and Timbers, born from a more innocent time, have really never gotten down to the serious business of hating each other. We don’t play often enough, y’know, and we’ve never really gotten in each other’s way. Today, when the Men in Red really needed a friend, the visitors from the Rose City were there to do them a solid, leaving Bastian Schweinsteiger with several untroubled hours to measure a back-post cross that Brandon Vincent banged home to level the score: 2-2, where it would end, 9 minutes later. Of course, this solid means that Portland still hasn’t won in four outings, but that’s where Major League Friendship snookers the rest of world football … doing us this solid has zero consequences.*
The Timbers took the lead very early, when it still looked possible that the visiting support from the west coast would outnumber the home fans willing to ignore Loyola’s historic run to the NCAA basketball final four. Chicago’s Tony Tchani - in a pattern that would prevail throughout the match - gave the ball away under moderate pressure, then applied himself to the task of winning the ball back from the much smaller Portland attacker Sebastian Blanco. But Blanco had a surprise for Tchani - while not tall or obviously bulky, the Argentine attacker has amazing balance, and he stood off the larger man’s challenge for 30 yards while waiting until every defensive eye was on him to feed Timbers genius-in-residence Diego Valeri just outside the box. Given this hard-won chance, Valeri did not bobble it, feinting Fire keeper Richard Sanchez to ground before chipping the ball into the yawning goalmouth.
Chicago responded to falling behind by staggering about blindly as if struck by an invisible assailant. A switch to a 3-5-2 after 30 minutes moved Schweinsteiger further from goal, with the upside of neutralizing mammoth Timbers striker Fanendo Adi and the downside of neutralizing Schweinsteiger. After some halftime consultation, though, the alignment started to show a promising flexibility, as the centerbacks took it in turns to take play into midfield, creating overloads that had the visitors scrambling.
Predictably, the most successful of these forays came from Basti, whose confidence in the libero role (that great conundrum, the creative defender) grew visibly during the second half. A long interval of possession finally drew blood 5 minutes after halftime - Schweinsteiger surging forward to nip out a loose ball, barging into the attacking zone on a right-to-left diagonal that uses a wall pass with Nemanja Nikolic to create a little space, then (his run finally hounded down by Portland defenders) stabbing a scruffy little ball to Vincent. Something about the preceding play had left the Timbers defense mired between moments, with no one marked and no pressure on the ball. Neither Vincent, the crosser, nor Nikolic, the finisher, made too much of the simple tasks left for them, and after 50 minutes, the game was tied at 1.
Like the earlier deadlock (the one which began at kickoff), this didn’t last long. Blanco, recognizing that Fire sub Diego Campos had lost track of him, stormed forward unmarked on a run from deep midfield. Basti’s recognition of the danger came a moment too late, as Blanco was able to fly onto a Andres Flores cross unchallenged from 8 yards out. Blanco’s third goal of the year made the score 1-2, Timbers, and set the stage for the Basti-Vincent connection that would win the Fire their first point of the season.
In the dying moments of the game, Blanco ran down an errant long ball from the Fire on the left wing. While jogging to make a throw-in, one of the Fire ball-boys - in a bit of passive-aggressive efficiency - hit him in the face with the ball by throwing it earlier than Blanco expected. The home fans howled approbation; Blanco held his hands out like, “Why did you do that?” Taking in the moment - the howls of the sparse crowd, the supplication for reasonableness from an opposition star - the kid did the Chicago Thing, smirking and breaking eye contact without breaking stride.