Team Celly 070319

Chicago Fire earn cathartic victory against reigning MLS champions Atlanta United

I’m writing this looking down at a darkened field teeming with Fire fans waiting for the July 4th fireworks. There’s always a hint of transgressive glee when fans are allowed onto the field, but after the events of the evening, there was plenty of glee in the building anyway.

This was catharsis.

In the opening minutes, as the Fire jumped out to a 2-0 lead, it felt prudent to glance up at the clock, to factor in how many phases of the game were still to come, and to calm yourself. There was a lot of soccer still to be played after all, and this was the reigning MLS Cup holders, who’d been playing into ominous form.

And as heady as the start to the game had been, the bruising memory of the road game against the Red Bulls, a few days earlier, was still top of mind. I’d sat in New Jersey, in similarly muggy conditions to tonight, watching the team work tirelessly, create chance after chance, without getting just rewards, as the ball spun off post, bar and boot at just the wrong angles.

When the Fire received the gut punch of a killer goal as they chased the game, late on, I remembered feeling as puzzled as I was disappointed. The soccer gods had seemed particularly mean that night, as they measured out cruel inches and angles to thwart the players.

So tonight, even as we relished the early 2-0 lead, and grinned at the sight of Nico Gaitán darting around like a man possessed in the opening minutes, it wasn’t yet a release.

But there are defining moments in every game and in this one, it came early, to cap a wild opening 13 minutes. As he has done so often this season, Aleksandar Katai made one of those shuffling, menacing slaloms into the box, and cut back to shoot.

Watching from the other end of the stadium, I thought at first he’d hit the outside of the post. For a split second it felt like one of those moments you look back on with regret, saying “If only that one had gone in.” But the moment had an aftermath, and that’s where the game blew open. By the time I’d realized “the post” was actually Brad Guzan pawing his attempt away on the replay, we were already into VAR limbo. The focus switched to Leandro Gonzalez Perez’s outstretched arm and a possible penalty.

On other occasions those VAR pauses feel like momentum killers, but tonight it felt like the night before Christmas as the referee studied the screen. Instead of tension in waiting for his decision, the crowd’s giddiness from the opening moments seemed to spill into the delay. The subsequent penalty award, the red card to Gonzalez Pirez, Gaitan capping his two assists with a penalty goal, and the sense of the game now opening up for a big score, seemed to just flow in one quick cathartic episode.

Now it felt like there was no question of how the night would turn out — indeed the team would go on to rack up the most productive half of scoring in team history. Gaitan, buzzing around with purpose, flicking sublime passes and earning a third assist to go with his goal, would be at the heart of it (watched in the stands, incidentally, by Patrick Doody — the last Chicago player to have three assists in a game).

But it wasn’t just Gaitan. Every player looked to be enjoying their demonstration of intelligent attacking football, and to finally get a goal tally to reflect their attacking dominance. The unbeaten home streak continued in some style.

This was catharsis, then. Now for momentum.