BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – One scene said it all.
Fire defender C.J. Brown – normally one of the last players to leave the locker room following a match – high-tailed it down the underbelly of Toyota Park following Chicago’s crushing 1-0 loss to Seattle on Saturday night.
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It was less than 15 minutes after referee Jasen Anno blew the final whistle. Less than 20 after Sounders forward Blaise Nkufo effectively ended Chicago’s season by firing a 88th-minute shot off Brown’s leg and into the back of the net.
The result left the usually eloquent Brown – water still dripping off his shaved head from his postgame shower – completely despondent.
“This is typical for our season,” Brown told MLSsoccer.com. “We try stupid stuff and we don’t know how to get out of it. This is par for the course, basically – par for the course.”
Sadly for Chicago fans, Brown is exactly right. Saturday’s loss – which drops the Fire to 12th place, 12 points behind Colorado for the eighth and final playoff spot with just six to play – was completely “par for the course.”
Like they’ve done so many times this year, the Fire played reasonably well. They kept the ball, they created chances, they failed to finish and then – excruciatingly – they gave up a late goal to drop points.
“That’s how our season went, or how it’s going,” Fire forward Brian McBride told MLSsoccer.com. “Parts we were good, parts we were just naïve and parts we just didn’t do enough.”
This time, the Fire were done in by their own desperation. They knew a point wouldn’t do them much good in their chase for the playoffs. And so, with the game dying down and a scoreless draw looking more and more likely, Chicago began to push.
Forward Collins John came on for defensive midfielder Logan Pause in the 83rd minute. The move was high-risk, high-reward. The substitution provided a theoretical boost for the Fire attack, all while leaving them more exposed to the counterattack in defense. Turns out, the move left them a little too exposed.
Seattle winger Steve Zakuani collected a ball near midfield in the 88th minute. The speedy midfielder – who had all but two Fire players behind him – raced down the middle of the field, eventually picking out Nkufo on the left wing.
The Swiss international dribbled down the left side of the area, got Brown up in the air with a nifty fake and cut in, readying himself for a shot. Brown slid, attempting to block the Designated Player’s effort.
He got a piece, but not enough of Nkufo’s right-footed smash. It hit Brown's raised right leg and deflected to the far bar, leaving ‘keeper Sean Johnson – who was correctly positioned at the near post – with absolutely no chance.
“We changed formations a little bit and it exposed our backs,” Fire winger Patrick Nyarko told MLSsoccer.com. “It was really risky. We could’ve scored two or three goals and we could’ve gotten scored on and, unluckily, that’s what happened. It’s disappointing.”
“I thought it was unlucky,” Johnson said. “C.J. made a good effort to block it but it just didn’t turn out in our favor. The ball just rolled the wrong way for us.”
Unlucky or not, the goal was the 10th the Fire have given up in the 76th minute or later this year. That total – along with myriad of other issues – doomed the Fire this season. It’s now likely the club won’t make the playoffs for just the second time in team history – something the players are now admitting.
“I just can’t see it,” McBride said. “All the mathematics says we still have a chance, but I don’t even know if that’s true. This one hurt.”
Sam Stejskal covers the Chicago Fire for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @samstejskal.