Chicago Fire 1 Nikolic 62’
Toronto FC 2 Giovinco 47’, Osorio 65’
I’m sure I’ve said this before, but one of the shitty things about being a bad team is that you’re not really in control of your own narrative. When you’re bad enough, all the pre- and post-game hype around your games shifts entirely to your opponents. Your presence is necessary but otherwise unremarkable. You become an obstacle for someone else to overcome.
In this case, the story was on Toronto and their path to redemption. The team that won the MLS Cup last year has had a dismal title defense, despite having most of their 2017 pieces still on the board. This team, the serious soccer writers will tell you, should be comfortably in a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. At least on paper. But it’s not too late for them, the commentators will tell you. The turnaround could begin tonight, so long as they can get the job done against...
Well, you know.
Not being allowed your own stories starts off as unpleasant. By and by, it festers and transforms into despair.
So we finally got to see one of our new signings on the teamsheet. Just the one— Raheem Edwards was evidently deemed ready for jump in, while Nicolas Del Grecco and Nico Hasler didn’t make the 18. Considering how much the Fire have given up for these three signings, I really hope this isn’t the start of a pattern.
The Fire started the game off playing mainly solid (with some exceptions) but boring soccer. The opening 15 minutes or so were very Halfback-Passes-To-Center. It got the job done, just about— Toronto’s early opportunities were limited, with their best chance coming from a free kick by Seba Giovinco that was just off-target.
Toronto were getting some good penetration in their attacking third, but the Fire’s backline were holding it together. Barely, in some moments, and they didn’t always look good doing it, but they were doing the thing. You did get the sense that if Toronto were a little better this season they might’ve gotten an early breakthrough. Certainly the 2017 version of Toronto would been up at least 1-0 by the 30th minute.
As it is, the Fire were hanging in there. Nemanja Nikolic even came close to putting the Fire ahead around the 21st minute off a cross by Edwards. Brandt Bronico nearly scored 10 minutes later, shooting from outside the box and hitting just a bit too high.
One thing the Fire have struggled with this season that was apparent in the first half— pressuring the opposition when they don’t have the ball. Chicago too often seems content to allow their opponents to keep the ball and wait for them to give it up. By contrast, Toronto were constantly applying pressure when the Fire were on the ball. I don’t know if it’s a matter of the players just not knowing what to do or if Pauno’s system just doesn’t allow for off-the-ball pressing.
In any event, the Fire managed to keep things even through the end of the half. All things considered, a goalless draw at the break wasn’t so bad. But Chicago definitely needed to come out a little sharper for Act II.
That, uh, is not how the Fire started the second half. Some sloppy defending out of the gate allowed Seba Giovinco to waltz right into Richard Sanchez’ goal and put Toronto ahead.
There’s no reason why the Fire should be chasing the game against this level of opposition at home. It’s frustrating, and it’s been frustrating all season.
The Fire struggled through the next 15-20 minutes, trying to find some opening for counterplay and a way back into the game. They finally did get their opportunity just after the hour mark, when Nikolic headed home off of a free kick.
Edwards got the assist on that. Not a bad first start, all things considered.
The good times didn’t last, however. Sanchez came off his line to close down on Jonathan Osorio and, uh, didn’t quite pull it off. After taking a moment to compose himself after leaving Sanchez prone on the ground, he finished cleanly into an empty net.
One day we’ll be a team that can have nice things.
Much of the rest of the half was just the Fire trying to pull it together and failing. Niko had a chance at goal with a header that flew right at Alex Bono. Bastian Schweinsteiger played Luis Solignac through on goal but the returning winger couldn’t do anything with the opportunity. The team otherwise looked like they were trying to pick a fight with a sheet of drywall— and losing.
As the clock ticked closer to 90’ Toronto seemed more or less in control. They had more possession, were earning more chances, and looked more likely to get a third goal than Chicago looked to get an equalizer. There was no getting back in for the Men In Red tonight. Toronto competently closed the game down and left Toyota Park with all three points and hope for their season.
The Fire, meanwhile, are running out of things to play for. There’s a USOC semifinal next month and, gods willing, a final to follow. There’s getting some fringe players minutes to see who to bring back next year. But the playoff race is swiftly flying beyond the horizon. This team can’t even really say they’re playing for pride. At this point the Fire need to find some reason to keep going beyond being other teams’ practice squad.
More to the point: we need to tell our own stories again. And if that can’t happen on the pitch, the stories will be found off of it.
The Chicago Fire (6W 5D 11L, 23pts, 8th in the Eastern Conference) play the second of this two-game set next Saturday in Toronto.