The goal, when it came, was one of those moments where triage meets inspiration.
None of the Chicago players who figured in the build up to the goal appeared to be operating in the positions they’d started the game in — the run of substitutions that Veljko Paunovic was forced into, in the wake of Jorges Corrales’ red card, saw to that.
But in a game of difficult conditions, where miscommunication rather than skill looked like it would be the most likely determining factor for most of the match, the morale-boosting goal to seize a point looked like more than just a smash-and-grab. It was a glimpse — if not yet a working model — for some of the flexibility the Fire might employ in attack this year.
- Video: Sapong Postmatch Reaction
Prior to the red card, the Fire had been missing the pace and infectious urgency that Przemyslaw Frankowski had injected into the attack on his debut in LA last week. He’d picked up a knock in training, so the man who’d scored while leading the line in week one, CJ Sapong, was moved out wide into his spot. Nemanja Nikolic returned to spearhead the attack, with Katai operating on the other flank from Sapong and Djordje Mihailovic operating underneath.
It had all looked promising enough in the opening minutes, as the Fire looked to be causing all sorts of problems with balls behind Orlando’s defense, and creating chances — but as the Lions’ defense adjusted and the wind became more of a variable, the game had settled into deadlock.
It made Dom Dwyer’s opportunistic early second half goal seem all the more of a gut punch — these are the types of games where there are often so few clear chances that any hint of luck in the ones that are taken can feel like clear evidence that it’s just not your day. And when Corrales saw red in the 64th minute it was looking like a home opener to write off.
But Paunovic immediately reshuffled, with Hasler and Frankowski replacing Mihailovic and Nikolic. Sapong moved back to the center, Katai edged inside and Frankowski picked up his buzzsaw forward play from week one. The effect wasn’t instantaneous improvement — after all the team were compensating for the loss of a man — but it created enough of a changed look to trouble Orlando out of being able to comfortably control the remainder of the game.
And the equalizer bore the mark of Paunovic’s changes, as it saw Katai chest down a ball up the middle of the field, to Hasler, who fed Frankowski, who crossed to Sapong, to make the last touch of the game a perfect powered header into the corner of the net.
The dramatic ending rewarded those who’d stayed and stood for the team in the rain, with a cathartic goal. And it made the changes, some born of necessity, some born of a refusal to concede a difficult game meekly, look like inspiration.