RECAP: Injury-Plagued Fire Jump to Early Lead, Hold On For Win
Marco Schällibaum, coach of the Impact de Montréal, knew that Saturday’s match against the Chicago Fire would be no walk in the park despite the Fire being upset by D.C. United in the U.S. Open Cup on Wednesday. “The fact that they’ve lost, that they had the opportunity to reach the final and that they missed it, it will have angered them,” he said.
Schällibaum could not have been any more right, as the Fire jumped out to an early two goal lead in the first twenty-three minutes. Among the hottest teams in the league since the trade that sent Robbie Rogers to the LA Galaxy in exchange for Mike Magee, who is now the league-leading goalscorer, the Fire came into the match just five points out of the playoffs and with a chance to move into sixth place. Holding on for a 2-1 win at home, the Fire continued their surge towards the postseason.
Having lost Mike Magee and Patrick Nyarko to injuries from the midweek Open Cup match, and Chris Rolfe relegated to the bench due to an injury of his own, the Fire came into the match short-handed and would not leave any healthier.
The Fire quickly jumped out to one goal lead when Joel Lindpere got the ball in front of the net and set a deflection off of Montréal striker Daniele Paponi. Impact keeper Troy Perkins had little time to react, diving to his left but coming up short as the ball found the back of the net. The Impact had earned just six points in their last seven league matches, and despite a midweek Champions League win over San Jose, the Canadian side was in desperate need of a win.
The Fire would add on another early goal in the twenty-third minute as Dilly Duka fought through four defenders and slotted the ball past a diving Perkins for what would prove to be the game winning goal. The Fire found themselves up two goals heading into halftime, at which point it was not a matter of needing everything to go right to earn a victory, but rather a case of “as long as not everything goes wrong”. Newly signed designated player Juan Luis Anangono would nearly add another goal, as Perkins barely beat him to the ball after Alex’s pass through towards the net.
Montréal led possession in the first half by a 69.5% to 30.5% margin, and led the duels by a 2:1 ratio. Aggressive with substitutions, the Impact made a double-substitution in the fifty-fifth minute as Felipe Martins and Marco Di Vaio entered the match in place of Hernan Bernadello and Davy Arnaud. Felipe found the back of the net just minutes later, drawing the Impact within a goal and slicing the Fire’s lead in half.
Montréal was relentless, holding 63.5% of the possession in the second half. Daniel Paladini entered the match for Alex in the sixty-third minute, as neither of the Fire’s starting forwards were in best form (Alex is routinely taken out of matches in the second half, often replaced by Paladini, and Anangono only recently joined the club).
What would prove to be the most important substitution of the match occurred when Chris Rolfe entered the match after Dilly Duka suffered what Klopas said to be a rolled ankle. Sanna Nyassi was removed from the match in favor of Andrés Romero in the seventy-fourth minute, and Quincy Amarikwa came on for Anangono just two minutes later.
Daniel Paponi and Matteo Ferrari were issued yellow card cautions in the eightieth and eighty-ninth minutes, respectively. Sean Johnson would be taken out by a hard Paponi slide to earn the first of the two yellow cards. Johnson would take considerable time to get back to his feet, and with no substitutions left, the Fire appeared to be in dire trouble. Fortunately, Johnson was able to play the remainder of the game in goal and told reporters that he was “fine” after the match. Four minutes of stoppage time would be added to second half, and the Fire faced near disaster after Montréal won a late corner. In the third minute of stoppage time, Matteo Ferrari headed a ball that Johnson was unable to save. In serious danger of losing two of the three points earned from a win, Chris Rolfe came to the aide of his keeper, jumping and heading the ball out on the goal line. Asked if he thought his game-saving effort should be nominated for Save of the Week, the striker replied “100%”. The Impact would have one final chance, but the Fire would thwart their comeback effort and secure the 2-1 victory at home in front of an announced crowd of 17,297.
The Fire did their part to continue their ascent into the mix of the playoff race, and the remainder of the cards would fall into place on their own, as Real Salt Lake defeated the fifth-place Houston Dynamo 1-0 in Utah and the New England Revolution fell 3-0 to Sporting Kansas City. New England’s loss allowed the Fire to move up into sixth place, and Houston’s shortcoming on the road kept left the Dynamo just two points ahead of the Fire for the final playoff spot. After the loss, Montréal, who led the Eastern Conference for much of the first half of the season, was left just four points ahead of the Fire, well within reach.
At the time of the trade for Mike Magee, who is day-to-day with what was described as a calf injury, the Fire were in more of a race for draft position than they were for the playoffs, are now knocking of the postseason’s door, preparing to jump into the conference’s top five. The Fire return to action on Saturday, August 17, for a 6:30 PM match at New England’s Gillette Stadium. With a loss, the Fire could fall back into seventh place and would defend their possession of sixth place with at least a tie. With a victory on the road, the Fire could potentially break through the playoff bubble, passing the Dynamo and moving themselves in a playoff position. The Fire follow up their tilt in New England with home matches against Sporting Kansas City and the Houston Dynamo as the team continues a stretch of matches against playoff contenders within the Eastern Conference.