Los Angeles Galaxy 1 (Ibrahimovic 46’)
Soccer games are a sort of generic matter, endlessly malleable, prone to contamination. The 90 minutes can be a breathless gallop, or a canny communication-and-positioning contest, or repeated attempts at elusive moments of skill, or all of these and more in various mixtures. No plan survives contact with the enemy.
This match as billed as Zlatan v Basti - two legends, recent teammates, facing off in the New World. But the real enemy today - for both the Chicago Fire and the visiting LA Galaxy - was the weather. The wind that howled over the heads of Section 8 in Harlem End and toward the goal the Men in Red defended in the first half made the sleety drizzle sting, while also making it conspicuously easy to press a team playing into that wind; the effect was to tilt the field conspicuously toward the beer-garden end throughout the match.
The Galaxy made more of their time with the advantage, riding a single inspired passage of play from Swedish majus Zlatan Ibrahimovic to a 1-0 win over Chicago.
The Galaxy came out initially pressing hard on the homestanding Men in Red, with Jonathan dos Santos covering massive amounts of ground to keep Chicago pinned back while Ola Kamara and Seba Lletget wove mazes around Zlatan’s runs. But after having the ball in the net twice in the first nine minutes - called back each time for offside - and watching a couple of counter-punch almost-nearlies from tireless Fire striker Nemanja Nikolic, the Galaxy went for a more prudent approach, pressing just enough to invite the Men in Red to make mistakes.
In short, it worked. The starting XI named by Velko Paunovic was long on longness and short on footballness, working so hard and so fruitlessly, banging about the pitch like a small herd of baby giraffes. Once LA settled on midfield counterpress approach, its control over the half was nearly total. The best chance created by a Chicago player in the first half was a breakaway Elliott Collier set up for Zlatan in the 33rd minute, sizzling his back-pass neatly to the Swede’s feet.
Yet somehow the Fire remained level as the end of the half drew near, a tribute to the concentration of the central defensive trio of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Jonathan Campbell and Grant Lillard. What if they could hold on? What if they had a half like this ahead of them? A side full of huge guys, hammering away at goal for a half, needing just one to talk all three points … it’s not romantic, but it was was tantalizingly close, maybe 70 seconds away, when the deciding moment came and Chicago were found wanting.
It was the second minute of first-half stoppage time, and the Galaxy were visibly freaking out that the half was about to end without them getting a goal. Little was left of LA’s confident ‘hmm let’s try this’ demeanor; they started to just fizz balls into the attacking zone for their many runners, with the Fire looking increasingly buoyant about their prospects of riding the half out. A sharp but frankly desperate centering pass in Zlatan’s direction was easily cut out by Campbell, but the third-year centerback’s miskicked clearance fell on the left wing to the feet of Ashley Cole, some 5 yards goal-side of Johan Kappelhof.
Cole used the space and time to measure an inch-perfect cross to the head of Zlatan, who’d been running back-post. Richard Sanchez - generally fantastic in goal for the Fire throughout - had no chance. Given his moment, Zlatan seldom fails to deliver, and he delivered a textbook target-man header back against the grain for the only goal of the game. Just before halftime, the dagger: 0-1, LA Galaxy.
The second half started predictably, with the baby-giraffe crew the Fire began the game with using the wind to create a long succession of quarter-chances. This parade of mediocrity was called to a halt with the introduction of Aleksandr Katai for Alan Gordon. Where previously the Fire front four lacked the ability to combine and create chances for each other, Katai suddenly knit the hard-trying try-hards into something like an attack. Spurred by the Serbian’s quality with the ball, the Fire played an increasingly attacking and technical style, but couldn’t find the breakthrough that would’ve split the points.
Chicago (1-1-3) visit New York Red Bulls next Saturday. The Galaxy (3-1-2) host Atlanta later that evening.
-Good to see minutes for Jon Bakero today. Really think that starting one of the technical guys would’ve leveraged the baby-giraffe contingent’s baby-giraffeness more effectively.
-It was cold, y’all. When the coaching staffs of either team would send subs to get warm, those subs would stay fully entombed in parkas and winter sweats, grapevining away on the end line like subs in a match from Antarctica.