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Fire Mon May 05 2014

Fire Unravel Late, Spoiling Otherwise Solid Performance

GB fire icon.pngIn season two of the hit HBO series Game of Thrones, scorned schemer Tyrion Lannister warns his sister Cersei that he will one day exact his revenge on her when she least expects it. The exact phrase that Tyrion utters is chilling, as he tells her that she will have to live the rest of her days in cautious dread. "A day will come," he tells her, "when you think yourself safe and happy, and suddenly your joy will turn to ashes in your mouth, and you'll know the debt is paid."

This weekend's Chicago Fire game saw the Men in Red lining up against Real Salt Lake, who came into Saturday as the only unbeaten side in MLS after 8 weeks. It was precisely the kind of match that cultivated the selfsame air of cautious dread for Fire fans. Two teams with only one loss between them, but acres of space separating their individual results. The Fire missed out on the playoffs last year, while Real Salt Lake only missed hoisting the MLS Cup after losing on penalty kicks in the final. Chicago's record entering the game was 0-1-6, while Salt Lake had a record of 3-0-5.


The Lannister Siblings, Seen Here In Happier Times

Despite those figures, it was mostly Chicago's night. The facts of the match are quite simple. That for 89 minutes of the game the Fire held a commanding lead over Real Salt Lake. That both forwards, Juan-Luis Anangono and Mike Magee, each scored in a spectacular opening half, assisted by solid full-team build-up play should be the talking point for the evening. But just as Tyrion had foretold, with the joy of the Fire's first win of the season in sight, here we sit with a collective mouthful of ashes.

Things got off to a thrilling start, as Chicago was not content to simply sit back and defend against the formidable opponent they faced in RSL. The game saw the returns of Benji Joya and Anangono to the starting lineup, both for the first time since March. Anangono got the nod after Quincy Amarikwa received a red card in the Fire's last match against New England, while Joya slotted in for the injured Alex.

For the first half as well, Salt Lake kept to a very predictable pattern of attack, hinging on Chris Wingert from the flank for distribution. This was an easy read for the Fire, who stymied RSL by breaking up most of their chances before they could even get close to goal.

In the 22nd minute the game came alive with the following beautiful, solid sequence: Lovell Palmer put a long ball at the feet of Patrick Nyarko, who was closely guarded by two RSL defenders. Nyarko slotted the ball through the ever-narrowing gap to Benji Joya who passed to Harry Shipp. Shipp struck a blistering shot at goal, but Salt Lake keeper Nick Rimando blocked it, but Mike Magee was there to put home the rebound.

With that the Fire players were clearly feeling bullish. They had picked apart the RSL attack, and had also scored first. This was a Salt Lake team who had only spent 5 minutes the entire season not in the lead, and here Chicago had seemed to have figured them out.

The second Fire goal came off a well-placed cross in from the left by Greg Cochrane, where a diving Juan Luis Anangono headed the ball on target out of the reach of Rimando.

Coming into the game the conversation had been circling around the two goalkeepers, with Nick Rimando and Sean Johnson being seen as contending for the third roster spot to make the trip to the World Cup next month in Brazil. Rimando, who is 34, has the age and experience that make him the natural choice, where Johnson, 24, is seen as being the future number one goalkeeper for the national team going forward. For the majority of the game Johnson showed his strengths, making several important saves in those few instances when RSL was able to press the attack.

The second half started with the Fire pushing forward, looking to get a third goal to nail shut what would be their first win of the season. Magee had a good opportunity to net a brace on the night as he went one on one against Rimando, but his shot caromed off the crossbar, and as he dove to head it in the ball struck his hand and Magee was given a yellow card -- leading to the unmaking of the team for the match.

Coach Frank Yallop, having lost Quincy Amarikwa to yellow card accumulation in the game against New England, pulled Magee in the 85th minute and sent on midfielder Victor Pineda in his place. The Fire had, 10 minutes earlier, given up a goal to RSL speedster Joao Plata and the move on Yallop's part signaled that the team felt they had the win in hand. This was despite the fact that the play had gotten fairly stretched in the midfield at this point and was mostly concentrated at the ends.

Now is where things get a little sad. In the 89th minute of play, after several attempts Salt Lake finally struck the back of the net off a cross from Kenny Mansally that found an unmarked Alvaro Saborio who tapped it in past Johnson.

The dejected looks on the faces of the players could practically be read from space. Here they were, mere minutes from their first victory of the season, only to have to slip away from them in the waning moments. They would have to settle for another draw. The old adage goes that going up 2-0 is the most dangerous lead in soccer, and sure enough the Fire were proving that to be true.

Five minutes of extra time were added to the end of the match, but RSL only needed three to put the game away. The cunning little forward Joao Plata once again found himself unmarked on the right, in perfect space to race forward and knock in a well-placed cross in front of goal from Saborio.

And so it went. The night had turned from ebullient celebration to a gut-punch atmosphere in head-spinning fashion. Tyrion Lannister was right, it was a moment that we didn't see coming, and in the midst of joy, ruin.

Next week the Fire head to New York to take on the Red Bulls who are currently on a hot run of form, having won three of their last four games on the trot. In the last meeting of the two teams the Fire managed a draw, which would be preferable at this point. The Fire have shown that they are a team with a great deal of talent who just need to get out of their heads and protect their leads better. They have yet to keep a clean sheet this season, which would greatly help their cause. They are a team currently in the basement of the Eastern conference, but great things are ahead for them.

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