If…if… if… The word that often precedes seemingly far-fetched scenarios, usually relating to sports, but also politics, news, conspiracy… Let’s just agree if’s are used a lot.
What has me starting my sentences with “if” today? Why it was that mostly impressive 3-0 victory the Fire took over the San Jose Earthquakes at Buck Shaw Stadium in Santa Clara, CA last night.
The club’s first win in over a month came with three goals – the first coming just six minutes after the side set a new personal best for offensive futility. Rookie defender Steven Kinney continued to prove his offensive prowess by heading home a corner kick from Freddie Ljungberg in the 39th minute, ending the club’s 401 minute goal drought which dated back to Collins John’s 88th minute free kick against LA Galaxy on September 4.
The goal gave the side their first lead going into the break in almost two months, the last time coming with a 3-1 halftime lead on August 1 against the very same Galaxy side.
At the interval I continued to ask myself, “Why couldn’t Bratislav Ristic have signed sooner?” Having spent most of the summer on trial with the team, the Serbian midfielder spent most of the previous two matches slotting in at right back. Last night, the former Club Brugge player combined well in the middle of the park with Logan Pause, while allowing the Fire to hold more possession than normal this season.
It begs the question: Where would this team be if Ristic had been signed earlier in the year?
Another impressive performance came from the Fire’s Designated Swede, er.. Player, Freddie Ljungberg. The former Arsenal winger seemed to fall out of form the past few matches, failing to provide the extra offensive spark he was brought to Chicago for. Wednesday night Fire fans took in a performance more in line with what they first experienced upon his arrival, adding the second goal of the match before assisting on Patrick Nyarko’s stoppage time strike.
Yes, if you missed it, Nyarko scored a goal. The Ghanaian winger has arguably been the club’s top offensive performer throughout the year, burning wing backs with his speed down the flanks and making them look silly after they’ve caught up to him. Though he’d come close to scoring a few times this season, he’s found more success dishing the ball across the box after beating a defender to the end line, a play that has greatly contributed to his team leading eight assists. Either way, Nyarko ended a personal goal scoring drought Wednesday night which extended over 33 matches back to August 1, 2009.
Defensively, Carlos de los Cobos’ went experimental across the back, teaming Dasan Robinson with rookie Kwame Watson-Siriboe in the middle, while welcoming Krzysztof Krol back into the starting lineup for the first time since August 28 and inserting the aforementioned Kinney at right back. Though not a perfect outing, it was one of the most solid defensive performances we’ve seen all season, reminiscent of the team’s effort in their 2-0 win over Houston on April 24.
What else to say? Prior to Wednesday’s match, few Fire fans would have given their club any shot of extending their season past October 23. While it’s only one game and three points, it’s an important result for the team’s psyche – it shows they’re still playing for their playoff lives as well as pride in finishing strong.
Glancing at the league’s playoff table, it’s pretty evident the Fire need to win all five remaining matches and hope for help from other clubs that play Colorado, Seattle and San Jose. If they can do the unthinkable and upend FC Dallas this Saturday, breaking the Hoops 18-match unbeaten streak which began when the two sides drew 1-1 on May 27 at Toyota Park, the team’s remaining four-game schedule is very favorable.
In that hypothetical, the Fire would sit on 32 points with three of their four remaining matches at home against Columbus (October 8), Kansas City (October 12) and DC United (October 16), before rounding out the season away to Western Conference bottom feeders Chivas USA (October 23).
One result doesn’t change that much and it’s still a far-fetched idea, but if the Fire can take three points at Pizza Hut Park Saturday, the case of the MLS Cup playoff race could certainly become very interesting.
Jeff Crandall is the Team Writer for the Chicago Fire. Follow him on Twitter @JefeCrandall.