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Failing Upwards: Chicago Fire 1, Orlando City 1, MLS Game Recap

Down to 10 men in bad weather, CJ Sapong rescues a point at the death in the Fire’s home opener

MLS: Orlando City SC at Chicago Fire Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Chicago Fire 1 Sapong 90’+5

Orlando City 1 Dwyer 47’

Let’s just call a spade a spade here: the 2018 Chicago Fire would’ve lost this game. Probably by more goals.

Stealing a draw in a game where we had no business getting any points is a good and encouraging sign for a team that’s trying to regain its footing. It gives some breathing room. It offers a chance to regroup and recalibrate. It means we don’t finish the home opener with a loss, and dealing with the damage to team and fan mentality that entails.

The result is fine. The result is good.

And yet.

The lineup was a bit of a mixed bag. Getting Nemanja Nikolic and CJ Sapong on the pitch at the same time was the right call, though I wonder if that would’ve happened had Przemysław Frankowski been fit to start. But letting Jorge Corrales start again, after costing us points last week, was eminently frustrating.

Maybe not as frustrating as the league deciding to make Chicago host three home games in March. But still.

That’s not an idle complaint. There’s a kind of sluggish stiffness that holds down games played on days like today. The Fire showed some decent early build-up play, and both Niko and Katai had promising looks at goal within the first 20 minutes, but this was still very much a team that was trying to limit mistakes. And limit injuries— today had the kind of cold that shreds unsuspecting muscles. Orlando followed suit, leading to some uninspiring soccer.

At times it seemed like the only ones who showed up hyped and ready were Section 8.

While the lack of a cutting edge is indeed a problem, the Fire seemed to be getting a lot of little things right. Corrales’ whatevering aside, the team seemed to be keeping their shit together. That sounds minor, but given how often they couldn’t do that in 2018 (and throughout the 2010s), it’s definitely a sign of encouragement. The midfield and back line— again, Corrales aside— held it together. David Ousted didn’t have to make a save until the 39th minute. Sure, Orlando are bad, but they’re not so bad that they couldn’t pose any threat. The Fire were meeting a baseline. That’s a good start.

But a baseline isn’t enough. The Fire went into the tunnel at halftime with no goals and a lot of work to do.

The second half had barely kicked off when the Fire were punished for not producing in the first. Dom Dwyer, subbed on midway through the first half to replace an injured Tensho Akindele, got the ball and ran onto goal but could not shake Johan Kappelhof... at first. But Kap failed to clear the ball, or indeed do anything useful, and Dwyer did just enough to muscle his way ahead and slot past Ousted. 0-1.

Following the goal, the Fire went from Keeping Their Shit Together to Losing Their Shit Together with breathless pace. Their shape turned into a blob. Their coordination unraveled. Dwyer almost doubled the lead for Orlando within three minutes. Things got really bad really quickly.

Chicago’s collapse was punctuated around the 64th minute when Corrales was shown a red card for bringing down Ruan outside the box, from behind, in what was a clear DOGSO.

For the Fire, the game should’ve ended here. Soccer would continue to happen, but the Fire wouldn’t find a way back into the game.

That’s how it should’ve happened. That’s how it happened so often last year. And the year before that. And the year before that.

And then, in the 5th minute of four minutes of stoppage time, Sapong did THIS.

Don’t get me wrong— I’ll take this all damn day. Stealing a point in garbage time, down a man, after the day they’ve had, is a perfectly fine result.

Still, it’s hard not to see this as a missed opportunity. The team should’ve done better today, and they didn’t. Maybe they weren’t up for it. Maybe the cold affected them more than they let on. Maybe Veljko Paunovic didn’t set them up for success, having once again refused to acknowledge a problem in the squad, much less address it.

Like Ruben said yesterday, this team gets some leeway early in the season. There’s a lot of soccer left to play in 2019. Still— this game, more than last weekend in LA, feels like a missed opportunity. A win in the home opener would’ve signaled that 2019 really would be different. That this team had turned a corner. If the Fire really want to tell fans that, and have them believe it, they have to do better. Today was Good Enough. But Good Enough doesn’t stay Good Enough for long.

The Chicago Fire (0-1-1, 1pt) are at home again next Saturday when they take on Seattle.