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Wednesday, May 22

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Fire Tue May 13 2014

Fire Notch First Win in Double Hat Trick Thriller

Chicago Fire soccerAmong the evergreen criticisms one continually hears levied against soccer are those of scores being too low and that play on the field is slow. These concerns are usually largely superficial, dismissing the nuances of the game. It must be a similar subset of individuals who deride symphonic music as being a soporific affair, little more than an expensive lullaby in a well appointed sitting room. One is surely allowed their own tastes, though there are times when these sorts of decisions are rooted in one-off encounters or a general distaste for the unfamiliar. Put another way, I have loathed olives since the first moment I popped one in my mouth in 6th grade during an interactive segment on Homer's Odyssey, but of late I am want to order dishes in which they will be found in hopes that I will come to appreciate their characteristics.

And what characteristics there were on display this past Saturday when the Fire traveled to Harrison, New Jersey to take on the New York Red Bulls in an absolutely stunning game of soccer which saw both teams leave absolutely everything they had on the field. Sometimes the game rises to meet its detractors face to face, showing its speed and ability to devolve into a flurry of goals that is both exciting and stressful in equal measure.

When a team is looking to turn around a slow slide of a season towards bottom-of-the-league irrelevance, pundits will call for the team to grab a "statement win." In order to pull off such a feat one needs to be over-matched, coming into game day positioned as the violet ready to be crushed underfoot, and not only avoid such a fate but to do so elegantly and decisively. The statement inherent in the situation is that, "we are contenders after all, and refuse to be underestimated."

At the top, however, the game did not look to be off to the start one would expect, as the action on the field stumbled into a rather puzzling development, with Chicago's Harrison Shipp scoring a goal in the fourth minute that neither team knew how to feel about. Mike Magee made an early run into the box, clearly placing himself in an offside position, and though he didn't touch the ball the case can be made that he interfered with Red Bull keeper Luis Robles' ability to collect the shot.

When New York struck back less than 2 minutes later it seemed to be the soccer equivalent of baseball's defensive indifference, with the Fire players tacitly acknowledging the bizarre atmosphere created in the aftermath of their goal, looking to mask the bitter taste of an otherwise ill-earned tally.

The Red Bull midfield was playing laps around the Fire following the opening goals, stymieing all attempts at going forward. Especially potent a pest was Dax McCarty, racing to all points of the field to interrupt key passes or dispossess players in the attacking third. Benji Joya, getting his third start of the year for the Fire, found himself overmatched against Tim Cahill, who out-skilled the youth early on. In the 39th minute Joya got his pocket picked by Bradley Wright-Phillips, who passed to Thierry Henry, who then charged up the left flank and beat Fire defender Jhon Kennedy Hurtado to chip a sick little cross back to Wright-Philips, the Englishman currently having his career year, who hit it directly past Sean Johnson to put New York up 2-1 with halftime approaching.

One can only imagine what choice words head coach Frank Yallop had for the Men in Red at halftime. They came out of the gate passionately, streaming up the right-hand side of the field and quickly netting the equalizing goal off a perfectly placed curler into the box from Jeff Larentowicz, headed in neatly by Quincy Amarikwa.

Immediately after, Lloyd Sam had a dangerous pass in front of the mouth of goal, but the Fire were able to collect and counter quickly. Amarikwa found himself in good position but was stripped by Red Bull defender Armando before he could mount an attack. Patrick Nyarko was there to recover the ball from Armando almost immediately, and he spotted an open Shipp and passed it back to the charging rookie, who slotted it to the far post and in for his second goal of the game, as well as his young MLS career, putting the Fire up 3-2.

In the 57th minute Amarikwa gave up the ball as he was charging up the left channel. New York's Jamison Olave, desiring to get inside of the Fire's head, took his time needlessly taunting Amarikwa. Olave passed a slow roller back to Kosuke Kimura, who didn't seem to see Shipp darting directly in his direction. Skipping forth, stripping the ball from Kimura and dancing impressively into the box, Shipp shook off Kimura's defensive efforts, squared on goal and hit an impressive shot past Robles. It was Shipp's third goal of the night, a dream come true for the 22-year-old. The Fire were now well out in front, with 4 goals to 2.

In a game that had started with the Fire walking the predictable path of leaping out in front early only to concede goals, the lead and their confidence, here was a team that was energized and hungry to plant their flag in Red Bull Arena. And it was being borne on the back of a rookie homegrown talent -- who had just become the first rookie to score a hat trick in Chicago Fire history. And he wasn't done yet.

Shipp would collect a pass in the midfield from Mike Magee and play the ball through up the right to Patrick Nyarko, with options available in Greg Cochrane on the left-hand side of the field with great space around him and Magee putting himself in good position inside the box. Nyarko turned and crossed toward Cochrane's position, but the ball was hit too hard and it curled oddly, landing far post in the upper 90, tangling up Robles as he futilely attempted block the shot from entering. It would have been an absolute bit of mastery had it been intentional, but a goal is a goal, and it put the Fire in a commanding lead at 5-2.

There was more, including a penalty kick for New York after Henry was lightly taken down in the box, Bradley Wright-Philips netting an additional two goals, giving him his second hat trick in three weeks. It's quite a feat when a game contains two hat tricks and one barely figures into the outcome of the game. The Fire defense came up short when it really needed to shut down the New York attack, but goalkeeper Sean Johnson was in top form, making key saves like the one seen here to rob Thierry Henry of what would surely have been the equalizer in the 82nd minute of play.

The final 20 minutes of the match, with the Fire protecting their fortuitous lead as Red Bulls sought constantly to topple their defenses, were particularly punishing. When one has seen countless Fire leads erode late in games this season, this felt like too-familiar territory. It would not be surprising to learn that there was an uptick in people making cardiologists' appointments this week, since it surely have even my horse-heart a workout.

When the smoke cleared, though, our banner yet waved, and the Fire finally got out of their own way and protected a win. In a statement kind of way. In re-watching the match, I listened to a lot of symphonies, and I found one that scanned perfectly with the action on the field: Beethoven's Third, which begins in a bounding allegro fashion, before moving into a downtrodden, dissonant funeral march. When it seems that all is forfeit, in comes the third movement, a triumphal scherzo, before giving way to a more chaotic fourth movement, which picks up at the close, ending on a positive and definitive high. It was like watching The Wizard of Oz synced up with Dark Side of the Moon, with less black light and, well, one of the masterworks of a singular musical genius instead. Fittingly, Beethoven's Third is subtitled Eroica, or heroic, making it all the more perfect an analog.

The Fire have a busy week coming up. On Wednesday night from 6:30 to 8:30pm they will be hosting their annual Art of Futbol gallery show in the West Loop at Prairie Production Studio, 1314 W. Randolph St. Tickets are available here, with the proceeds benefiting the Chicago Fire Foundation. It will be a chance to celebrate the beautiful game and the inspiration that it has for local artists of all types. Attendees will have a chance to rub elbows with players and team staff.

On Sunday the 18th, the Fire host reigning MLS Cup champions Sporting Kansas City at Toyota Park in what will surely be a wonderful game. SKC are currently sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings, and feature an impressive defense that has only allowed six goals across nine games so far this season. In comparison, Chicago have given up 18 in nine games. Kansas City will be without midfielder Graham Zusi and central defender Matt Besler, however, who have been called up the US Men's National Team camp ahead of the World Cup, which kicks off in just one month's time. It is worth noting that Fire keeper Sean Johnson did not make the roster for Brazil, but not to fret, he is still developing into that role. Sporting have an impressively deep team, so one shouldn't be looking for them to be caught out in Sunday's game without the pair. Tickets for Sunday are still available, as well transportation on the wonderful Pub to Pitch bus program.

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