Chicago Fire 1 (Nikolic 27’)
Columbus Crew 0
There were times it was hard to watch, but say this: The Fire never quit tonight.
There were times this evening that the Chicago Fire - the no-longer-winless Chicago Fire, the no-longer-pitiable Chicago Fire - were absorbing punishment like the hero of a hackneyed action movie, taking punches that sounded like small explosions, blood, sweat, and gore streaking down their lumpen, stubborn faces. The Columbus Crew played better football tonight, sometimes overwhelmingly so, but winning football matches is only ever mostly about playing the better football. In the end, the Men in Red were opportunistic, bullheaded, and hardworking enough to make a Nemanja Nikolic goal stand up for their first win of the MLS season, 1-0 over that yellow team.
The deciding moment came rather early in the game, and was a fair representation of the chess-match nature of parts of contest. The Fire had come out in a slightly back-foot interpretation of a 3-5-2, with Bastian Schweinsteiger in the center of defense, seemingly intent on cutting off Columbus’ potent attack down the wings - but in the 27th minute, for only the second time in the game, they leapt forward into a pressing posture the moment the visitors tried to recycle the ball back through keeper Zach Steffen. Alan Gordon, making his first start for Chicago, harrassed Steffen into a hurried pass that Nikolic tracked down. Running across goal with gaped-mouth defenders standing yards away, Niko had only to keep his nerve to score his fourth goal of the season and give the Fire a lead they would never relinquish.
Immediately after the goal, the Men in Red adjusted their shape to a 4-3-3 that was a functional mirror of the Crew’s tactic, and the game settled into a rough stalemate. Each team took canny opportunities to press the other; each had long possessions undone by wayward passes at a crucial moment. Predictably, the impasse suited the leading-and-unfavored Fire a great deal more than Columbus, and equally predictably, the Crew’s greater depth and cohesion began to tilt the field toward the Chicago goal. Any number of Columbus attacks could have levelled the match - like, say, the Gyasi Zardes shot that caromed off the crossbar in the 72nd minute, or the Niko Hansen goal that was flagged offside in the 75th, or the Abu howitzer off the top 90 in the 77th, to take one particularly fecund 5-minute stretch.
But none did. The punches rained in, a flurry, a deluge of punches, and the Fire just kept on shaking it off, like, “What next?” When the game got into stoppage time, the Men in Red had enough awareness left after that beating to launch into a few of football’s crowd-favorite short-cons, wasting time with classic routines like Stand Over The Ball In the Corner (through which Drew Conner and Tony Tchani milked a solid 75 seconds), Foul the F--k Outta Somebody Just Because (that was Brandon Vincent and Johan Kappelhof leaping over each other to commit a foul at midfield), and Stall A Free Kick Until The Ref Is Forced To Card You (which Niko used to kill the final 90 seconds after the professional foul).
The Fire came to kick somebody, show some dignity, and maybe win a football match. For the first time in 2018, they managed all three.
- Grant Lillard made his MLS debut tonight and looked a whole lot like Grant Lillard - tough, a little raw, determined. Congratulations, Grant!
- Drew Conner has some limitations (hey bad giveaways how you doin’) but I just like watching a guy play who leaves every little bit of himself out there.
- Also, great to see a good game from Tony Tchani. If he can keep the ball, like, 5 percent better, he’d be really good.
- Wouldn’t it be fun to see this team go out and start winning games in the ugliest, least gentlemanly way possible? Park the bus, use all this height to win set pieces, flop and whine and time-waste ... no? Just me?