Coming from the Fire’s longest-standing beat writer (going back to Day 1 of the franchise over 16 years ago), this should be considered a fair appraisal.
The Fire, which has had a strange season anyway, just underwent its strangest week ever, and nothing was as strange as the mid-week "editorial" posted by senior director of communications Dan Lobring on the team’s website. It caused a mild media frenzy a few hours before one of the biggest games of the season.
Lobring, six months into a new job, vented about fan behavior towards himself, Fire owner Andrew Hauptman and general reaction to the team’s horrendous performance in 2-0 home loss to D.C. United in the semifinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
Given that the D.C. debacle was way back on Aug. 7, the "editorial" was ill-timed. Overall, I felt it also unprofessional — but at least it was passionate. Passion is a must in soccer, and the passion was turned up several notches on Friday by the 17,085 on hand at Toyota Park — one of the biggest home crowds of the season.
Their involvement was evident long before the match began, when the Section 8 supporters put up a new banner: "Business as usual will not be accepted by the people of Chicago" — a declaration attributed to the late mayor Harold Washington — and an apparent message to the team.
Overriding all that, though, was the passion on display for 90 minutes by the players in a 1-0 victory over Sporting Kansas City.
"How about those guys? How about the Fire? They played good," bubbled Mike Matkovich, the veteran assistant coach who was forced into calling the shots on Friday.
In truth, the Fire had more issues than Lobring’s "editorial." The team didn’t have two coaches — head man Frank Klopas and assistant Leo Percovich — on the sidelines, the result of disciplinary action taken by Major League Soccer for their behavior in last Saturday’s 2-0 road loss to New England in another match with playoff ramifications. (Percovich was also fined $1,000 by MLS for "improper sideline behavior.")
The Fire was also without its most seasoned center back, Bakary Soumare, who was serving a one-game suspension for the red card he drew in the waning moments of the New England loss, and his designated replacement was second-year man Hunter Jumper, who had played in just one MLS match with the first team this season. The coaching staff opted to go with him in the middle even though Jumper has had more experience as a left back and captain Logan Pause was healthy again and available.
So what happens when the Fire takes on the first-place team in the Eastern Conference? Jumper scores the lone goal on a diving header in the 15th minute to give the Fire’s playoff hopes a huge boost. It was just the latest chapter in a season filled with extraordinary ups and downs.
They make it tough to judge the Fire with 10 games left in the MLS regular season.
It’s not a good team, based on its .500 record (10-10-4) and conference standing, which is out of playoff position.
Yet, it’s not a bad team, either, thanks to its 4-1-1 burst in the last five league outings. The Fire was no great shakes at New England, but rebounded with its best game of the season in beating SKC (11-9-6) for the first time in the last of their three regular season meetings this season.
Standings-wise, Friday’s win boosted the Fire — with 34 points in 24 matches — from seventh to sixth in the Eastern Conference with five teams making the playoffs. SKC and the New York Red Bulls, both with 39 points, shared the East point lead before Saturday’s matches.
While overtaking both leaders isn’t out of the question for the Fire, of more immediate concern are the clubs on the playoff bubble. The standings figure to take a shuffling after the fifth-place Houston Dynamo (36 points in 23 matches) visits the third-place Montreal Impact (38 points in 23 matches) on Saturday and seventh-place New England (33 points in 24 outings) host the fourth-place Philadelphia Union (38 points in 25) on Sunday.
The Fire’s next match is against Houston, in Bridgeview on Sept. 1. That’ll be even more important than Friday’s win, but the performance against SKC is still well worth savoring until that next challenge comes up.
The "editorial," the coaching shortage, the red card suspension, the newcomer in a critical position — none of it bothered the Fire on this Friday.
"No distractions. No distractions," insisted striker Mike Magee. "We’re trying to make the playoffs. We have a big chip on our shoulder right now. Last week we had a terrible result."
But not this time. Matkovich faced the inevitable distraction question, too, and brushed it off.
"Those things happen in this sport," said Matkovich. "Professionally the guys are focused, and that stuff happens off the field. More importantly we are a group, and we are focused on the field. We knew what was at stake. Every point is valuable, so we can’t let that stuff distract us in the middle of a playoff race."
What happened on the field was pretty good stuff this time.
Jumper’s moment in the sun came after Jalil Anibaba’s long throw-in was blocked. The ball came back to Anibaba who sent it back across the field at Magee camped out on the far post. He sent it back through the box and Jumper got his head on it with an extraordinary effort.
That was the play of the game, but there were other important things going on.
Though he didn’t start, Ecuadoran striker Juan Luis Anangano was dangerous in relief of Chris Rolfe. Anangano seems more comfortable with his new team with every game, and veteran midfielder Arevalo Rios was a more noticeable contributor in his second MLS appearance after being given in a more defensive role. Goalkeeper Sean Johnson came up big when SKC pressured him late in the game, the reward being the Fire’s first clean sheet since June 2.
There were also a couple of individual milestones that shouldn’t go unnoticed. Gonzalo Segares played in his 200th MLS match, which moved him into a tie for fifth on the Fire career list, and Patrick Nyarko played in his 150th — his first game since being sidelined by a concussion suffered on Aug. 7.