Dispatch: Chicago Fire (3) at DC United (0)
OTF contributor Daniel Casey and the Moment of Optimism…
It was a pretty evening: the return of Baky Soumare from suspension couldn’t have gone better and the Chicago Fire did what was expected of them, that is, win. Sean Johnson was in beast mode; his eight saves denied DC United at every opportunity and earned him a much-coveted clean sheet.
Of course, playing DC United this season is virtually an automatic win for any team that faces them in league play. Factor into this the tired legs coming out of DC’s improbable Tuesday night US Open Cup Final victory, and the line-up the Fire faced was patchwork. There was no Dwayne De Rosario or Chris Pontius starting against Chicago, rather the youth cards were played and we saw 18 year-old Collin Martin and Jared Jeffrey.
Yet this DC starting XI was able to control possession for long lengths of time and generally dominate the midfield. DC only had three intervals during the whole match where its possession fell under 55%; the match ended with possession going 67% to DC and 33% to Chicago. It wasn’t sloppy possession either: 89% accuracy over a whopping 531 passes is something nearly every MLS side would covet. DC had twelve corners to Chicago’s three, and took 19 shots with nearly half of them on target. Yet the Fire came out the victor.
It happened, because for once it was Chicago that was on the benefiting end of momentary mental lapses. Chicago had one run of play between the 20th and 30th minutes where they were in control and took advantage. Anangonó found a long ball from Sean Johnson, proceeded to dribble through the box past three DC defenders, and dished a brilliant ball to the thundering Jeff Larentowicz. Big Red, the Ginja Ninja, Larentowicz didn’t hesitate once when his feet found Anangonó’s pass and the commanding center midfielder finished brilliantly from one of the tighter angles you’ll see. The sequence took all of 30 seconds.
Anangonó’s run and Larentowicz’s finish was more about the sudden flare up of their own quality than the weakness of DC United’s defending. Prior to the goal, the match had been entirely DC’s. In a move that was completely uncharacteristic, Chicago kept up a bit of pressure to fluster DC, and DC blinked. A free kick not more than two minutes later would set up the biggest goal of the night.
Mike Magee sent a ball in from about 40 yards out near the right touchline, well struck into the box where Chicago, once again uncharacteristically, had bodies waiting. The service managed to dodge all of DC’s defenders. Failing to get a proper touch to clear the danger, DC defenders let the ball sit invitingly before Baky Soumare, who instantly struck it soundly into the back of the net. It was Soumare’s first ever MLS goal, and as Jeff Crandall pointed out, Soumare had the distinction of being the franchise’s field player with the most field appearances without a goal (81 games).
That goal was a redemption goal. Over the last few weeks, Soumare had created a hostile relationship with the fan base. He lashed out at staff writer Crandall and had been petulant and ineffectual on the field (epitomized by the red card he received against Columbus from which he was returning this night). Scoring the goal that allowed Chicago to pull away and play with steady caution to ensure a win was the perfect first step in righting the ship.
As of Saturday morning, Chicago has clawed its way above the thin red line and occupied the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. With three matches left to play, the Fire must take full points to keep the spot. It shouldn’t be difficult, as next week the Fire face the collapsing FC Dallas and the following week a perennially poor Toronto FC side. Six points from these matches could secure Chicago a ticket to the playoffs. But there are other factors to consider.
The teams around the Fire vying for that last spot (Philadelphia, Columbus, and New England) will be facing opposition that is more strident. Philadelphia has been enmeshed in a season that, arguably, has been as disappointing and frustrating as Chicago’s has. Like the Fire, the Union is looking for that last second push to get them into the playoffs. After Saturday night’s contest against TFC, the Union have three matches remaining, facing DC next and finishing against Montreal and Kansas City.
New England is going to have the toughest time of it. New England’s final two matches will be against a surging Columbus Crew, a side that is one of the hottest teams in the league with 12 points over their last five matches (only New York has performed better and only by one point at that). These last two games will have the aura of a playoff series, a kind of home-away two leg play in. These results will impact Chicago’s playoff hopes just as much as Chicago picking up the full points it needs.
It’s uncouth to crow about trouncing the worst team in the league, but there is nothing unseemly about taking hold of that sliver of hope a win provides. I doubt Chicago will make the playoffs (more due to the performance of the teams around), yet I can see it happening. I can definitely see the pathways, the scenarios where the Fire makes the playoffs and even goes deeper into them than last year when the team was stronger. I’m holding onto this hope, I’m being positive.
OTF Contributor Daniel Casey writes about soccer hoping someday someone will pay him to do so. He writes regularly for Soccer Newsday, Soccer Without Limits, Football.com, and On The Fire. Follow him on Twitter @misanthropester