No Patrick Nyarko. No Gonzalo Segares. No Dilly Duka and, still no Arne Friedrich.
It didn’t matter.
The Fire had Daniel Paladini playing his best game ever at Toyota Park on Sunday, and the result was a much-appreciated 3-1 victory over the New York Red Bulls in a matchup of struggling Eastern Conference rivals who had been Major League Soccer playoff participants in 2012.
After four games the Fire’s play suggested a long season could be in the offing. The injury-riddled team scored just once in those four outings, and Sunday’s didn’t start all that well, either. The Red Bulls (1-2-2) scored first, and the Fire (1-3-1) missed a chance to tie it up when Chris Rolfe shanked a penalty kick.
“It seemed like that’s our season right now,” admitted Paladini. “Leading up to that we were dominating. We got that penalty, and we thought that it was our opportunity to get back in the game.”
Instead, it was Paladini who got the Fire “back into the game.”
Hunter Jumper, making his first career start, lofted a cross into the box a minute before the halftime break and Paladini shed his defender in racing to the ball. New York goalkeeper Luis Robles wanted it, too, but Paladini headed it into the net.
When this season is all said and done that goal might be the most important one of the campaign because it gave the Fire some hope. The momentum shifted instantly, and the crowd of 12,557 came to life.
“Hunter played a perfect ball, but the only reason I made the run was because the wind caught it,” said Paladini. “I knew that I was going to get there before the goalie.”
Paladini had been almost exclusively a reserve since signing with the Fire before the 2011 season. His two goals last season were the only ones he scored for the club in 39-game appearances prior to Sunday. He also assisted on two second-half goals by Maicon Santos.
In his first two seasons with the Fire, Paladini had only three helpers. He probably wouldn’t have started against the Red Bulls had Nyarko not been nursing a hamstring injury.
“It was probably the most fun I’ve had in a long time,” said Paladini, who has played in just 49 MLS matches since coming into the league with the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2006. “It was a great team effort, and everyone played well.”
But especially Paladini, though coach Frank Klopas wouldn’t guarantee that he’d be starting in the next match -- at Houston next Sunday.
“Danny has been a guy with quality,” said Klopas. “When we have called on him to step in, he has done it. He’s a guy that is pushing because he needs to be on the field and play. You want guys like that, whether they are on or off the field. When they get a chance to contribute, they do. That’s the depth we are trying to create in the team. He had a very good game today.”
Santos was no slouch, either. He replaced Sherjill MacDonald in the 63rd minute and was in the right place at the right time twice. He scored from 18 yards out off a pass from Paladini in the 83rd minute to put the Fire ahead to stay, and he got the insurance goal in the 89th on a play started by Paladini’s 35-yard free kick. It went to Jeff Larentowicz, whose header across the box set up Santos for an easy one.
New York’s only threat prior to that came when reserve Thierry Henry’s 25-yard blast banged off the left post in the 69th minute. New York has yet to win a match at Toyota Park, the Fire owning a 7-0-3 edge in games played there.
The Fire’s early-season rash of injuries has, at least, given Klopas a chance to develop his bench players. Latest to get a chance was Jumper, who got the call ahead of veterans Steven Kinney and Mike Videira at left back when Segares was a last-minute scratch with a tightened quadricep.
Kinney and Videira, both coming off injuries, were on the game roster and Videira came on in second half stoppage time as a replacement for midfielder Joel Lindpere. Lindpere, who had been on national team duty for Estonia, had missed the Fire’s two previous matches. It also helped to have Pause back in the midfield, a strained quadricep having kept him out of the first four matches.
“It felt really good to be back, but more than anything getting our first win of the year and getting that monkey off our back feels even better,” said Pause. “This was a fantastic team effort.”
“We had a team meeting (last week), a positive meeting,” said Paladini. “Things have changed for the better. We have a good team here. We might not have the New York superstars, but we have a good, solid team.”