Analysis. History. Perspective.

Sports Then and Now

Another MLS Near Miss for Chicago Fire, The Match is the Metaphor

Posted on November 15, 2009 by John Wingspread Howell
Eastern Conference Championship - Real Salt Lake v Chicago Fire

The Chicago Fire lost to Real Salt Lake in a shootout.

Bridgeview, IL November 14, 2009 – You can sum up the Chicago Fire’s season in this one game. You can sum up the team’s history, excluding year one, in this one game. The summary is this: outstanding defense, underachieving offense, overall game domination, tantalizing fans by getting within reach of greatness only to find a way, sooner or later, to betray them– and themselves.

After win streaks and losing streaks, the usual Fire roller-coaster ride throughout the season, this season looked as if it might

be different, as if whatever curse constrains Chicago might have been broken. After all, they beat the Revolution for a change, and found themselves playing in a Conference final.

Their opponent, Real Salt Lake (whose presence in the Eastern Conference made them geographically out of synch in addition to being, statistically at least, the underdog in the match) was a club the Fire should have been able to scorch. It seemed that an appearance in another MLS Cup match might be in the cards. Not necessarily a victory, but at least an appearance, and even an appearance would be progress relative to Chicago’s recent history.

Home field advantage wouldn’t hurt either. The Fire enjoyed yet another sellout crow of 21,730, a crowd that was easily creating a noise level worthy of twice their number. The mostly red-clad partisans seldom lowered the volume and seldom stopped moving.

One couldn’t help observe the spectacle and not feel good about the future of MLS. What was on vivid display in the Chicago suburb was an established tradition, a passionate obsession, an entrenched soccer community.

It was the kind of game that people who don’t get soccer love to loathe. There was no score whatsoever. Not in the ninety minutes of regulation time, and not in the thirty minutes of extra time.

Despite the double zeroes on the scoreboard, however, it was not an uneventful match. It was also not an evenly played match. Chicago came at their opponents relentelessly.

The Fire set up play after play, moving the ball downfield with speed, with precision passing, with expert footwork. Salt Lake put together an occasional good run, actually penetrated the defense with more efficiency than the Chicago side when they did get down to the offensive end, but each of the few open doors they enjoyed was slammed hard in their faces by Chicago keeper Jon Busch.

As good as Chicago’s defense played overall, there were a couple of lapses that could have, no doubt should have cost the Fire a goal, but Busch nailed the hatch closed, and with each shot, he threw another chair in front of the door, just in case the salt-white army from Salt Lake managaed to break through the rest of the barricades.

With the heroics Busch had demonstrated throughout the match and the assumed advantage in firepower that Chicago possessed, there was a sense in Toyota Park that the eventual exchange of penalty kicks would settle the matter in Chicago’s favor. After Salt Lake’s Javier Morales was the first from either club to miss, shooting high, a sense of imminent triumph gripped the house.

And just as quickly, this sense of destiny deflated when John Thorington was the first for Chicago to have his shot saved. Another Salt Lake miss and Chicago had the advantage again. But then it was all Salt Lake. After succeeding by going high on Salt Lake keeper Nick Rimando, Fire shooters kept going low and to the keeper’s right, while Salt Lake blew two successive shots past Busch, and the match was over.

Before the players or the crowd could adjust, MLS Commissioner Don Garber was out on the midfield line presenting the Conference trophy to the visiting team.

And so it goes. Once again in Chicago, the Fire over promised and under-delivered. Once again, they had a roster that appeared as talented as any in the league, but had difficulty with point production all season, with the exception of a couple of hot streaks.

Other than Chicago’s inaugural season, when they shocked the city and the league, as an expansion team, by winning not only the MLS Cup in an upset over the club that had been until then the class of the league– DC United– but also won the US Open Cup, for a double.

Since then, the Fire has finished strong every season but one, but with the exception of their debut year, they have failed to capture the MLS Cup. With a very few exceptions, they have failed even to contest for it.

And so, just as the Eastern Conference Championship match became a metaphor for a season, and a decade of seasons of Chicago soccer, the PK contest became a micro metaphor in itself. Beginning strong, taking the lead, then collapsing when it counts.

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