Dispatch: Chicago Fire (1) vs. Sporting Kansas City (0)
OTF’s Adam Morgan was at Toyota Park on Friday night. A strange day indeed…
And so the roller coaster continues. After one of the worst off-field weeks in Chicago Fire history, the Men in Red got the 3 points they needed on Friday night in front of a huge home crowd (17,085) on national television. Once again, a schizophrenic Chicago team capable of losing 2-0 to the likes of DC and New England was able to defeat an MLS powerhouse. But, as has often been the case this season, there was a lot more to this match than meets the eye.
The atmosphere at Toyota Park was tense, to put it mildly. Tailgaters were subdued. A giant “HAUPTMAN OUT” banner hung from the practice field fence. Black curtains were strung all over the Harlem End by Section 8 in protest. Fire staffers in and around the press box were quiet, their brows furrowed, including a few whose red eyes implied a lack of sleep after Director of Communications Dan Lobring’s ill-conceived editorial spawned 48 hours of negative attention for the club in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Deadspin, Red Eye, Gapers Block, Chicagoist, MLSSoccer.com, Soccer Morning, and elsewhere, in addition to massive condemnation from both local and league supporters on Twitter, Reddit, and the BigSoccer forums.
After such an embarrassing incident exposed the Front Office as unprofessional and aloof, everyone was wondering: could the players forget the status of the club for 90 minutes and get the results they so desperately needed to cling to the bottom of the playoff race?
For the first 10 minutes of the game, the Fire certainly looked unnerved. Passes went awry, and almost every one-on-one ball went to Kansas City. Sporting’s defenders looked like they were a full foot taller than anyone in the Fire’s midfield: every time the ball went up in the air, the Men in Red seemed content to watch Aurelien Collin and Chance Myers leap for the winning header.
But then something changed. Thanks to some creativity from Mike Magee and Jalil Anibaba, the Fire starting putting some good pressure on KC’s goalkeeper, Jimmy Nielsen. Suddenly, the Men in Red looked dangerous. No one could have predicted what happened next.
Thanks to Bakary Soumare’s inane behavior last weekend, when he went after a Revolution trainer after the match and was summarily suspended, fan-favorite Hunter Jumper got the start at center back. Critics of Klopas’ inflexible roster have been clamoring for Jumper to get more chances, and in the 13th minute he proved himself worthy.
After an amazing display of hustle by Mike Magee to get his foot on a cross that looked destined for the end line, the ball bounced back across the goal between Collin and Myers, heading right for Hunter Jumper.
“I’ve seen people miss those with their feet before,” Jumper said later. “I felt like, why not just throw my head in there? What’s the worst that could happen, you get kicked in the face?”
Jumper’s header blasted right past Nielsen and into the net. The young center back’s face when he looked up and realized what had occurred was a priceless mixture of shock and elation. Toyota Park erupted, followed by a collective sigh of relief.
Had Soumare not been foolish enough to earn the red card last week, he would have undoubtedly played all 90 minutes of this game. Frank Klopas does not rotate defenders, thank you very much. The question is, would Soumare have been 1) in position to, or, 2) capable of putting away that goal?
Additionally, both goals scored by New England last week were direct results of Soumare inexplicably playing way too far upfield during transitions. For all the ballyhoo surrounding his return to the Fire, it’s hard to ignore his inconsistency. Poor positioning, errant passes, lazy clearances, and character gaffes like the one in Foxborough should explain why Soumare wasn’t even a starter on the team who gladly turned him over to the Fire, the Philadelphia Union. A team, it should be noted, that was and still is facing a lack of depth on their back line.
With the Fire up 1-0, the rest of the first half was an escalating battle of wills. Both sides started playing a little more recklessly, as the Fire kept pushing for a second goal and Sporting began to really get frustrated. The chippiness culminated in a tense moment just before the half, when Jeff Larentowicz, annoyed at Aurielen Collin’s whiny antics, knocked the ball out of his hands to take a free kick for the Fire when the Frenchman wouldn’t give it up during his twelfth tirade of the night.
Albeit goalless, the second half was even fiercer than the first. Sporting was playing mean now, but the Fire were just as scrappy. In the 54th minute, Mike Magee took a beautiful long pass into the box, where Aurelien Collin shoved him down right in front of an irate Quaker Corner. In a rational world, the Fire would have earned a penalty kick, but somehow referee Mark Gieger thought it best to completely ignore the incident. Gieger made a handful of other questionable decisions, including a yellow card to Alex for non-existent “time-wasting,” despite Kansas City’s repeated game-pausing whine sessions every time the ball didn’t go their way. Collin, Myers, and Sinovic did not win any admirers in Toyota Park.
By the final whistle, the Men in Red had staved off mathematical elimination for at least one more week. Whether they can win enough tough games to make the cut in the next two months is up for debate, but either way, fans should come away from Friday’s match feeling very optimistic about the club’s two newest signings, Juan Luis Anangonó and Arévalo Rios.
Anangonó failed to score once again, but he looked lethal inside the box, and provided the Fire’s front line with some much-needed height. Were it not for Nielsen’s potential Save of the Week, Anangonó’s rocket in the 72nd minute would’ve put the Fire up 2-0 and possibly made Sportscenter’s Top 10. Meanwhile, Ríos kept the back line honest, won his fair share of scalpel-sharp tackles, and appears to be a deft, creative distributor.
Not everyone had a stellar evening, as Chris Rolfe continued a baffling late-career slump and completely shanked a point-blank layup goal. He was a bit slow all night, having apparently lost most of his breakaway speed, but the Ancient Glacier Award goes once again to Joel Lindpere, whose one good foot has managed to keep him in the rotation despite his best tortoise impressions.
Will the Fire stay consistent long enough to earn a playoff spot? Every single match from now until the end of the season is do-or-die. The talent is undoubtedly there, as the Fire are officially the hottest team in MLS since May 25. Unfortunately, Chicago has a tendency to play to the level of its competition in 2013.
For better or worse, it’s going to be an entertaining autumn.
OTF’s Adam Morgan is an award-winning screenwriter and the author of Best Hikes Near Chicago. In between hiking and watching the Beautiful Game, Adam has also written for the Tribune Company, Fox Television Studios, Publishers Weekly, and Booklist. Follow Adam @earthmorgan