They don’t call them trap games for nothing.
The Red Bulls had 10 days off prior to their match against the last-place Chicago Fire Wednesday night in Bridgeview, Ill. That’s 10 days to rest, relax and hear from family and friends how great the team was doing this season and how they were looking forward to the showdown with first-place D.C. United on Sunday at Red Bull Arena.
When you hear that enough times, some of it has to sink in.
Apparently, some did.
The Red Bulls looked rusty and out of sync all match, and even after they took an early lead they never were able to take control. Overconfidence? Perhaps, but their high-pressure game never got going and they had a difficult time dealing with the Fire’s speed and counter attacking ability.
The result was a stunning 3-2 loss and a jolt back to reality that any team, no matter how bad their record, can be dangerous, especially at home. Perhaps the biggest disappointment was this was one of their games in hand on D.C. United, and now they won’t be able to climb into first place in the Eastern Conference with a victory Sunday, as they had hoped.
“Tonight was a tough one,” said goalkeeper Luis Robles, the only player on the field for the Red Bulls who played to his usual standard. “Obviously we came with the expectation of getting a different result. Whether it was one point or three points you can’t fault the effort. The timing was good but we weren’t sharp. Whether you want to attribute that to the long break, the sharpness that we needed to make plays just wasn’t there tonight.
(Chicago has) good pieces. Even though they’re at the bottom of the table and the results haven’t gone their way, they’ve been dealing with injuries so we knew that they were going to be a fast team and that’s how they exploited us today, was with speed on giveaways. We know going forward, the next time we play them we have to be more cautious of giveaways in the middle.”
The Red Bulls (11-7-6) had a five-game unbeaten streak (5-0-1) heading into the match while the Fire (7-13-5) had been 1-4-2 in their previous seven games. The Red Bulls also hadn’t won in Chicago since 2005, but that didn’t seem to matter when they got a break in the 10th minute when the Fire’s Jeff Larentowicz had a fistful of Matt Miazga’s jersey when the Red Bulls defender was moving into position to head a corner kick in the box.
The resulting penalty kick by Sacha Kljestan gave the Red Bulls an early 1-0 lead. At that point, was there a Red Bulls fan who didn’t expect the team to lock up a victory? But just the opposite happened. The Fire turned desperation into a thrilling victory.
“You have to give a lot of credit to Chicago because they played with urgency and desperation and they put a lot into it,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said. “They played quite well. Overall, the game was fast and I thought it was a high-level game, and in the end we weren't quite sharp enough and weren't quite good enough, and a lot of that has to go to the game that Chicago put us in.
“You know when you go on the road that it’s never easy and it proved to be the case in this game. We have to learn from it and know that next time that our last game of the year is here again. The next time we come here we have to be up for the task a little bit more than we were tonight, and make sure we still know how to manage getting results on the road.”
Defender Ronald Zubar, making his first appearance since June 28 after missing seven games due to injury, provided yet another combination on the back line. The four Red Bulls scratches – Chris Duvall and Kemar Lawrence (injury), Damien Perrinelle (yellow-card suspension) and Roy Miller (coach’s decision, didn’t make the trip) – were all defenders. It turned out to be a bad time for the back line to have perhaps its worst game of the season.
The Fire equalized in the 22nd minute. Mike Grella was pressured in the midfield circle by the Fire’s Matt Polster and lost possession. The ball rolled to Gilberto, who slipped a pass to Kennedy Igboananike at the top of the box. Igboananike had a step on Miazga as the Red Bulls defense scrambled to recover, and drove a low shot into the left corner of the net from 15 yards.
The Fire continued to apply pressure and took the lead in the 41st minute. A clearing header by Red Bulls defender Anthony Wallace went right to Gilberto, who played a give-and-go with midfielder Razvan Cocis on the right side. Gilberto then drove a cross into the box that midfielder Michael Stephens redirected with his chest into the path of Patrick Nyarko.
Nyarko quickly pivoted to his left and sent a shot into the lower left corner for a 2-1 lead.
The deficit would have been much worse if not for the play of Robles. He denied Nyarko with a nice save in the 17th minute after a slip by Wallace gave Nyarko space, dove to his right in the 20th minute to push away a change-of-direction shot, and kicked out a point-blank header by Gilberto in the 28th minute with the Red Bulls marking in disarray on a corner kick.
“They put a lot of effort into the game tonight,” Kljestan said. “You could totally tell they're a team with their backs' against the wall. They needed a result, they threw a lot of people forward. It's a team with a lot of individual qualities and not a lot of plays strung together, but a lot of one-on-one plays where they maybe got the better of us. When we play them next time we have to be better prepared.”
The Red Bulls got back into the game four minutes into the second half with some trickery off a corner kick, a goal that perhaps shouldn’t have counted.
Midfielder Lloyd Sam set the ball down in the arc near the flag on the right and proceeded to touch it three times with his foot, but the ball never took a full revolution and never left the arc. Kljestan pretended to adjust his socks, all the while talking to the referee’s assistant to make sure he knew what was going to happen.
Kljestan then sprinted with the ball toward the box, catching the Fire defense by surprise. As the Fire scrambled to adjust, Kljestan slipped a pass into the center of the box that Zubar steered home for his first career Major League Soccer goal and a 2-2 tie.
Later in the broadcast, PRO, the Professional Referees’ Organization, said the goal should not have counted.
But it didn’t matter. The Fire netted the winning goal in the 73rd minute, again taking advantage of a Red Bulls defense that had lost its shape.
A long ball was played over the top of the defense on the left for David Accam. Zubar was the only defender back, and as he moved toward Accam, Igboananike sped into the vacated space and redirected Nyarko’s cross into the lower left corner.
“Yeah, it's a disappointing result,” Kljestan said. “We started out pretty well and then we let the game get away from us a little bit. In the end, a couple turnovers and defensive mistakes cost us the game.”
So now comes Sunday. There won’t be a chance to move into first place in front of the home crowd, but it will be a great opportunity to close the gap on D.C. United to two points and still have three games in hand.
“That's what I told the group, that right now all our focus has to go to DC,” Marsch said. “As frustrating and hard as this loss is, if we can rebound and come back home and get three points against DC we'll forget about this game pretty quickly. Right now, all the focus is about going back home and getting ready for a really, really big game against DC.”