To cap off a week of last-minute changes, it was Djordje Mihailovic flipping the script at Soldier Field on Saturday afternoon as he rescued a point for Chicago Fire FC with the final kick of the match against Sporting Kansas City.
A desperate long ball sent forward into the Sporting KC penalty area by Fire defender Mauricio Pineda was completely mishandled by KC goalkeeper Tim Melia and corralled by Mihailovic, who slotted home past a couple of sprawling KC defenders
“Obviously the wind played a big role in that it held the ball up in the air and gave me enough time,” Mihailovic said, crediting the elements as well as Pineda for creating the opportunity.
“With the field, it was a bit bumpy from the football game so I didn’t want to risk some sort of issue with that so I just had to…make sure I had it under control.”
Only minutes earlier, the outlook was bleak for the Fire. On an 83rd minute corner, Sporting KC midfielder Ilie Sanchez found himself completely unmarked at the front post, flicking on a header to an equally wide open Gadi Kinda at the opposite upright to head home from point-blank range. At the time, it certainly felt as if he had sealed a second SKC victory over the Fire in less than two weeks.
While Mihailovic’s late intervention gave the Fire something positive to take from the match, for long stretches of the match they were again thrown off their game by Sporting KC’s aggressive approach.
“If you equalize in [stoppage time] you have to take the point and be happy,” said Fire head coach Raphael Wicky. “But overall I think we were sloppy with the ball…that’s not how we want to play.”
The most significant example of that sloppiness led to Sporting KC’s opening goal in the 35th minute, as a Mauricio Pineda turnover force by Kinda in midfield was quickly punished with an excellent finish by Erik Hurtado past Fire goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth.
The Fire’s best opportunities of the first half came following set pieces, and they finally made one count just before the break as a loose ball off an Alvaro Medran corner fell perfectly to Robert Beric to strike home his 8th of the season. The goal wasn’t immediately given after the ball was cleared near the goal line by SKC defender Amadou Dia, but a very brief VAR review confirmed the Slovenian’s tally.
With the dust from a wearing Soldier Field having settled, the Fire sit on the very edge of the Eastern Conference playoff picture occupying the 10th and final playoff spot at the time of writing. While the circumstances, delays and adjustments forced by the COVID-19 pandemic have made this the most unusual of seasons, the Fire are back in the familiar territory of a playoff push.
“Even though it’s been a tough year, a difficult year, kind of a crazy structure that’s been going on, we do have that goal of making the playoffs and that’s what we’re shooting for,” said Fire defender Jonathan Bornstein, who was awarded the Heineken Man of the Match Award.
If the Fire are going to reach the postseason rather than falling just short like last season, it may be points like the one earned Saturday that make the difference. Good teams get results when the play well, but the best teams do so even when they don’t.
“We came back twice. That shows character,” Wicky said. “We didn’t play our best football but we somehow stayed in the game and didn’t give up and I think that’s very, very important.”