Wait. What just happened? The Fire were up 1-0 with just over one hour left in their season. The first 25 minutes were insanely fast, yes, but the Fire were creating chances and were up a goal. Dilly Duka in particular looked menacing, and Mike Magee had got his 21st to lead the league in goals! The Fire only needed a draw and there was one hour left!
Then Anangono lost the ball at the NYRB box. They made one, two passes and boom. This ridiculous goal from Thierry Henry sent the Fire reeling.
What can you do? Henry didn’t even see the ball coming until it was basically on his chest. His volley was so powerful it was in the net before Sean Johnson could move his feet.
Suddenly the Red Bulls had not only recovered, they were growing, and the first half turned into one of the best the MLS had this year. Top quality superstars playing like it. MLS playoffs, Supporters’ Shield, and Golden Boot on the line. Red Bull Arena was the loudest it’s ever been. Things got hectic. The players were all over the field like a game of Benzedrine capture the flag. Johnson saved from Peguy Luyindola. Duka hit the side netting. Tackles were coming in from everywhere, and the only time to breathe came at the whistle for halftime.
So it was 1-1 and the Fire were still in the playoffs. A draw was all they needed. But we know what happened next. NYRB came out of halftime like a pack of wild dogs. They overran the Fire, starting with their hyena pack second goal, then their third, and so on and so on until five-two. Five-two - a result we’ll all remember.
But what happened?! How can NYRB have just three more wins than the Fire and be the best team of the regular season while the Fire are done? Whither the knife’s edge?!
After some time to digest, you could say the Fire just ran up against a team that simply wasn’t going to be beaten - or tied - on Sunday. NYRB was a hot team that hadn’t lost since August 25, playing in front of the best crowd most of them had ever seen at home, with a long tortured fan base poised to lift the organization’s first ever trophy. Their superstars (Henry, Tim Cahill) were inspired, the team was clicking all fall, and nobody was beating them that night.
So then we can ask how the Fire ended up having to play the best team in MLS with the season on the line, but we know that story. We know about the crazy ride that was the 2013 Chicago Fire. 1.0, 1.5, 2.0, etc. The pre-Magee era, the hot June, the U.S. Open Cup semifinal loss, the Anangono-Rios era, the late burst into playoff contention. Despite it all, they needed just one more point. It’s easy to look for it in games like the draw in Toronto, the blown lead against Montreal, gut punch games against Houston and Philly. The points don’t lie.
No, what we saw on Sunday night was what we’ve seen in parts all year. We saw a first half with some of the most entertaining footy you’ll see, and then the second half was so brutal that, to paraphrase Richard Jeni, you’d rather give birth to a porcupine that is on fire than watch it again.
But it wasn’t totally unexpected. That two-faced nature has been as much a part of the Fire as anything else this year. It’s just too bad it resurfaced when it did. Maybe Magee was hobbled from rolling his ankle early in the game. Maybe the Fire missed Jeff Larentowicz after accumulating too many yellows. Either way, this was the evil inconsistent side of the 2013 Fire. It’s the team that can make a 4-4-2 look like the most advanced formation around only to deteriorate into a side with little shape, leaving mismatches and wide open space all over the field.
After the two quick go ahead goals, NYRB was able to sit back and pick their spots. The Fire reverted to some ugly and desperate long balls that never quite came off and the second half raced to its depressing conclusion.
We have all fall and winter to think about what happened. How the Fire went, in 60 minutes, from one of the hottest teams heading into the playoffs to going home, season over. But personally I won’t only think about 5-2. I’ll think about Magee Face, Larentowicz Face, Duka’s megs, Chris Rolfe’s megs, all the megs!, Jalil Anibaba’s swing and miss in the wind against Philadelphia and his rocket against Dallas, Magee’s spike, the blue kit, the third kit, Joel Lindpere’s crosses, assistant coach Leo Percovich’s hair, the way Dan Kelly uses “class” as an adjective, the #cf97 moodswings, the drama, and the totally unpredictable energy that was the 2013 Chicago Fire.