BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – Save the hyperbole. Sunday night’s game between the Chicago Fire and the New York Red Bulls was not, in fact, the biggest game in MLS history.
But on the evolutionary chart of Major League Soccer, the scoreless draw was certainly the upright man, no longer just standing but now in a dead sprint in the most expensive cleats money can buy.
The Designated Player initiative that started with David Beckham in 2007 was realized Sunday likely better than anyone could have imagined three years ago. Thierry Henry in a Red Bulls uniform. Rafael Márquez in MLS. Nery Castillo and Freddie Ljungberg – sensations from worlds apart in Sweden and Mexico - on the same team for a Chicago fan base ready to adore them.
The game itself? Played in front of the largest crowd in Toyota Park history and on national television, it was nearly impossible to live up to the hype that preceded the opening kickoff.
Henry – who played so brilliantly in his MLS debut last weekend and surprisingly gutted out 90 minutes in the oppressive Houston heat – left just before the half, hobbled with a groin strain. He was heckled and adored the way he should be by an anxious road crowd thrilled to see a world-class player, but one also more than willing to treat him with all the respect of just another workaday commuter on the subway.
Márquez was characteristically steady in his 60 minutes for the Red Bulls, and cheered as loudly during the opening introductions as any player. Ljungberg was pesky and dynamic at times and a step slow at others, but his ability to carve up New York’s midfield signaled that better things are yet to come for a Chicago team in need.
The best single moment belonged to Castillo, who made his Fire debut with all the subtlety of Lady Gaga headlining Lollapalooza at nearby Grant Park. Donning the same No. 10 that his beloved predecessor Cuauhtémoc Blanco wore in three seasons in Chicago, every warm up move Castillo made was fawned over before he finally stepped on the field, marking the rare occasion when the pyrotechnics budget gets emptied to celebrate a second-half substitution.
Did he deliver? Not quite. Not yet, anyway. He showed flashes of both gold and rust in his MLS debut, failing to latch on to the decisive pass from Ljungberg or All-Star Marco Pappa. What Blanco started here will likely be safe in Castillo’s hands, but only if he delivers the way the Mexican icon did, and Sunday’s part-time shift only left the fans waiting in suspense.
In fact, the match left all of MLS waiting. The league has waited years for a match like this one, worked overtime learning to crawl a decade ago, long before it could truly walk in 2007.
Sunday night’s match – the latest step on an evolutionary chart now more than a decade old – gave one lasting indication. Now, it’s truly time to run.