Chicago Fire 1 Nikolic 67’
Columbus Crew 1 Hansen 87’
If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.
The entire theme of this 2018 season seems to be fans, caring a lot about the Chicago Fire Soccer Club, coming to the realization that the feeling isn’t exactly mutual.
Perhaps no other game exemplified this than tonight’s clash with the Columbus Crew. It might be the last meeting between these teams. Ever. MLS did fuck all to promote it. The teams, under fire for a variety of malpractice claims, were clearly phoning it in. The game— again, quite possibly the last ever game between the Fire and the Crew— playing in front of a sparse crowd, owing both to the rescheduled kickoff at 6pm on a Thursday and the club’s ongoing feud with their most dedicated supporters.
You can’t even really feel sad about the end of all this. You just feel like a sucker for caring so much in the first place.
So we got another “please just fire me already” lineup from Veljko Paunovic. A three-man backline with one natural centerback, one fullback, and one midfielder. Wingbacks. Katai on the bench. Djordie Mihailovic getting his second start in less than a week, immediately after coming back from a long-term injury. And Stefan Cleveland in goal. Cool. I love covering a team that’s obviously, painfully chosen to give up.
I don’t know what the club or the league were thinking when they decided to reschedule this game for a 6pm kickoff on a Thursday night. I don’t know what they expected to happen. What they got was a depressingly empty and quiet Toyota Park. No one in the Harlem End except a couple families and Don Walsh. This, despite the club papering the event. What an utterly dismal way for this rivalry to die.
At least the game itself got off to a spicy start. Columbus nearly got on the board in the 2nd minute, missing only because Gyassi Zardes couldn’t sort his feet out to finish a low cross at point blank range. A minute later, Mihailovic hit a low shot at the far post that just barely trickled wide. It’s something, at least.
The looks at goal soon dried up, replaced by physical battles in the center of the park. Michael de Leeuw tried to find his footing after a 10-month injury layoff by, uh, finding his footing in the calves of Columbus players.
Still. The Fire were putting in some effort. MdL seemed eager to get his first goal since coming back, coming close at 27’ and 29’. That Chicago didn’t get a goal within the first half hour seemed to be down more to bad luck.
To their credit, the same could be said for Columbus. This makeshift backline hadn’t quite sorted out how to deal with Zardes and Meram. Too many close calls throughout the first half. A desperate goal line clearance from an attempt off a corner kick at 36’ just barely kept the Fire on level terms. It was all too wobbly to ever really feel good about the chances Chicago did create.
But this is still the 2018 Chicago Fire, which means they did just enough to keep the score level going into halftime. It’s a state I’ve come to dread, knowing what tends to come next.
What usually comes next, at least. The second half started, and ticked all the way over to the hour mark, with the score staying level. Usually the Fire concede by now. (They did come close, off of the second ball from a Columbus corner kick.) The Fire crossed that damnable threshold and were still in the game. It’s what passes for progress around here, but I’ll take it.
And then in the 67th minute, the script was well and truly flipped. After weeks, months even, if ignoring my calls to Score First, the Fire actually managed to score first. Nikolic, on a counterattack. Beaut.
But we all know better than to get our hopes up at this point. This is the 2018 Chicago Fire. A lot can go wrong in 20 minutes.
Some back and forth. A promising free kick for the Fire. A clutch save by Cleveland in the 85th minute that, all due respect to our erstaz #1, Sanchez wouldn’t have gotten to. The minutes slipped away and the Fire held on to their lead. You almost started to think that maybe, just maybe, tonight would be different.
And then Niko Hansen bagged the equalizer.
The Fire made some flailing in extra time to try and get the lead back but it was all for nothing. (They were also, it must be said, lucky not to concede a second to Columbus after Cleveland handled the ball outside the box and got away with it.) The game, and this likely rivalry, ended in a 1-1 draw.
I wish this last game could’ve been better. The players deserved better. The fans deserved better. Instead we have this— one ownership group trying to move their team to a new city, another ownership group possibly preparing to fold their team, playing in a nearly-empty stadium, competing in a league that explicitly doesn’t care.
We deserve better.
This is what happens when the President of a team doesn't care about improving his team, ignores supporters, grows hostile towards its SGs, and just stands by as MLS schedule a rivalry week match at 6pm on a weekday at a stadium up to 40 minutes from downtown Chicago. #CHIvCLB pic.twitter.com/cXzrLvG3Vq— Jay W. Riddle (@jay_riddle) August 24, 2018
The Chicago Fire (6W 6D 15L, 24pts, 10th in the Eastern Conference) travel to Germany early next week for the Bastian Schweinsteiger testimonial against Bayern Munich. They don’t play again in the league until September 16th, when they host Orlando City.