The Chicago Fire probably won’t make the playoffs this season, but they’re doing everything they can to make sure the Red Bulls go far in them.
For the second time in two weeks the Fire gave the Red Bulls all they could handle for 90 minutes. It paid off the first time with a Chicago victory, which gave the Red Bulls a much-needed wake-up call. Friday night, before a crowd of 17,184 at Red Bull Arena, the Fire took an early two-goal lead, and that brought out the resiliency in the Red Bulls, who scored three unanswered goals for a 3-2 win.
“We actually had a meeting this week where we talked about the belief within the group and that we knew we were going to be tested down the stretch,” coach Jesse Marsch said. “This is good preparation for the playoffs. You can find yourself with two-goal deficits, you can find yourself up two goals and things can change quickly. It's important for our team to deal with adversity the right way and to never stop.”
The victory, the team’s sixth in a row at home, tied last season’s win total and vaulted the Red Bulls into first place in the Eastern Conference for the first time since April 17. With eight games still to play, no one made much of a fuss about being in first place, they were more excited about rallying from a two-goal deficit to earn at least a point, something they hadn’t done since a 2-2 tie at D.C. United April 11.
“I think we know what type of team we are,” midfielder Dax McCarty said. “We talked about it earlier this week that no matter what situation we’re in we have belief and we know we will be able to overcome whatever situation it is, whether it’s going down a goal, going down two goals, having a red card, whatever it is, we can recover from it. So tonight, not our best performance, giving up two goals, but somehow we find a way to believe in ourselves.”
Much like their first meeting, a 3-2 Chicago victory, the Fire stormed out early and used their speed and counter attacking ability to give the Red Bulls fits. Their first goal, however, came on a penalty kick, the first of two questionable calls by referee Armando Villarreal.
In the 13th minute, the Fire’s Kennedy Igboananike had the ball at the edge of the box on the right. Red Bulls defender Damien Perrinelle stuck a foot in and made minimal contact and Igboananike went down softly in the box, but it was enough for Villarreal to point to the spot. Defender Jeff Larentowicz converted the PK a minute later for a 1-0 lead.
Chicago (7-15-6) won the first game against the Red Bulls using speed and the ability to capitalize on balls over the top of the defense, and a similar play resulted in the second goal.
A long defensive clear off a Red Bulls corner kick resulted in the speedy David Accam battling Red Bulls defender Connor Lade just over the midfield stripe on the right. Accam headed the ball over Lade’s head and the two were in a foot race toward goal. Accam cut left to get goal-side on Lade and give himself a better shooting angle.
Dribbling into the box, Accam again cut left, and when Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles charged out, Accam pulled the ball back to his right. Robles went down to block the shot and Lade overran the play, and Accam easily slotted the ball into the open net in the 26th minute for a 2-0 lead.
“I wasn’t that bothered, to be honest,” midfielder Sacha Kljestan said. “I felt a lot of belief within the team. I looked at Jesse and he just kind of said, ‘Well, do you guys believe in it or not?’ He was just like, don't worry about it, keep going. The reaction from everybody was really good. We started to press the game back right away. I think within a couple of minutes we had that goal, and then I think after the first goal the belief grew. (It was a) good reaction from the guys.”
In the 28th minute, Felipe found Kljestan down the middle 30 yards from goal. Kljestan took one dribble to his right and slipped a pass to Bradley Wright-Phillips running toward the top of the box. Wright-Phillips found space between Larentowicz and Daneil Cyrus and toe-poked the ball into the lower left corner for his 14th goal of the season.
“That’s an important moment when you go down two, especially to get one right back because the game is still up for grabs,” Marsch said. “We've talked about how no matter what situation we’re in as a team we continue to have belief on the field and we continue to push. Certainly going down two wasn’t how we planned it, and we don’t want to do that too often, but the response was fantastic.”
The Red Bulls (13-7-6) tied the match in the 38th minute. McCarty’s long pass to Lloyd Sam on the right forced the Fire defense to shift and that left space in the back. Sam cut the ball back to Mike Grella, whose shot deflected off Larentowicz and went into the right side of the net.
“Going two-nil down, we had to keep going and believe that we could get the result,” Sam said. “It's great to see it happen.”
The game settled down in the second half, and the only goal came on Villarreal’s second questionable penalty kick call.
McCarty back-heeled a pass for Sam at the top of the box on the right, and as Sam cut toward goal, Fire midfielder Michael Stephens got a hand on Sam’s shoulder and he went down. Kljestan converted the penalty kick in the 71st minute for a 3-2 lead.
“I can’t lie, that was a pressure situation,” Kljestan said. “I was a little bit nervous, because you never want to let your team down whenever you take a penalty, but you especially don’t want to let your team down when you're tied 2-2 and this is a big point that put us in (first) place.
“I try to keep all those things out of my mind and just focus on the task at hand. I watched (goalkeeper) Sean Johnson and he moved a bit early and so I put it the other way.”
Asked about the PK calls, Marsch was as diplomatic as he could be.
“I will say this. (It was) not an easy game to ref,” he said. “It was so explosive, a lot of explosive players, and a lot of explosive moments of transition. A lot of plays in the box. I'm not going to sit here and critique the (refereeing). It's a hard game to deal with and he did his best.”
When you look at the statistics, it’s hard to imagine the Fire was even in the game. The Red Bulls had two-thirds of the possession (67.5-32.5 percent), more than twice the number of passes (487-240) and double the shots (16-8). The Fire had three shots on goal, two went in, and Robles didn’t make a save until the 88th minute.
“It’s that time of the year where everybody is trying to get over that (playoff qualification) line,” said Robles about why the Fire has been so tough to play. “It’s not just the Eastern Conference. When a team above the line is playing a team below the line, there’s a certain desperation that goes with that, and if the team that’s in the better standing isn’t ready for it, then it’s going to be a dogfight.
“You look at the two times we played Chicago and that’s exactly what happened. It was more about who wanted it more than who was playing better soccer. Once we were able to settle the game down – in the second half we played well, we played our brand of soccer – but more than anything we limited their chances.”