The Fire were a good home team until Wednesday night.
And, the Houston Dynamo was a bad road team until Wednesday night.
That trending went out the window in the first match of the Major League Soccer playoffs. The Fire, 11-3-3 in its regular season home games at Toyota Park, tumbled 2-1 to a Houston club that was 3-9-5 on the road (and an even more revealing 1-9-5 in the last 15).
The Fire have been in MLS postseason play 12 times in its 15 seasons, and Wednesdays knockout round loss was the clubs first home regulation defeat in a playoff match. The Fire are 16-2-3 in home playoff matches over 15 seasons and 4-1-1 at Toyota Park, but that run of form didnt continue against Houston.
So, the Dynamo -- a 1-0 loser to the Los Angeles Galaxy in last years MLS Cup final -- moved on to a two-game, home-and-home Eastern Conference semifinal series against top-seeded Sporting Kansas City that begins in Houston on Sunday while the Fire try to figure out what happened in a final few training sessions that will be conducted without games to be played.
"Everyone has to keep their heads up," said veteran defender Arne Friedrich. "We have played throughout the season with very young players, and they did very good."
But clearly not good enough. At a point in the season where the Fire should have been playing at its best, it played its worst. The Fire, 17-11-6 in a largely uplifting regular season, was 1-3-1 to conclude the MLS campaign before coming up empty against the Dynamo a club that wass a 3-1 loser at Toyota Park on Sept. 2 and settled for two draws with the Fire before that.
The Fire fell behind in the 13th minute when Will Bruin headed down Brad Davis corner kick, then found himself with an open shot after Fire defender Jalil Anibaba stumbled. With ex-Fire forward Calen Carr providing a distraction in front of the net goalkeeper Sean Johnson was slow in reacting.
"After that first goal we had a feeling this was our game," said Bruin, who had 12 goals in the regular season and scored both for his team on Wednesday. "We felt we were playing well under pressure. We got that goal as a reward for our good play."
The Fire were unable to answer the rest of the first half so Fire coach Frank Klopas pulled his captain, defensive-minded Logan Pause, for Brazilian attacking midfielder Alex at the start of the second half. Houston foiled that move immediately, when Carr slipped a pass between Fire defenders Friedrich and Austin Berry to set up Bruin for his second goal just 18 seconds after play resumed.
"We started the second half in the worst way," said Klopas. "It just wasnt meant to be this year."
The Fire didnt do much offensively until Alex caromed a 10-yard shot into the net off the right post in the 83rd minute. That created some suspense for the time that remained and brought the crowd of 10,923 to life, but the Fire couldnt get the equalizer even with ex-Dynamo Dominic Oduro creating some opportunities off the bench.
"If you give them chances like we did its going to be hard to beat them," said forward Chris Rolfe, the Fires MVP and golden boot winner this season.
"I have a lot of respect for the Chicago Fire organization," said Carr, who was traded to Houston for Oduro one game into the 2011 season in a deal that helped both clubs. "Theyve had a good season and should be proud of what theyve accomplished. But, at the same time, the stakes are high and weve got our goals here with the Houston Dynamo."
Carr was riddled with injuries in five seasons with the Fire before the trade and arrived in Houston battling the effects of a concussion. He revived his career and was in the first 11 for the Dynamo on Wednesday while wearing a helmet.
"Ive had a tough string of luck, for sure," said Carr, "but Im feeling good and stayed healthy the end of last season and this season. Ive put together a good run of form and want to help this team any way I can. Coming to Houston was great for me. I enjoyed my time in Chicago. I look back on it fondly, but the best time of my career is now. I feel lucky to be a part of this group."