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Fire Mon Sep 15 2014

Chicago Fire: Of Cold Weather and Tough Hearts

GB fire icon.pngThere may not exist such a thing as a universal experience, but in Chicago the winter is the great leveler of all peoples. Perhaps only those residents of high rise buildings with heated garage spots are exempt from the ignominy of this greediest of seasons, showing up early and hanging around long after its welcome has been worn out.

With the winter comes that recurring tradition wherein a thick, calloused sheath forms around the hearts of Chicago sports fans, inuring them against the perfecta of both supporting their teams outdoors, in the cold, and having the team in question do precious little to justify enduring such conditions. This protective tissue is akin to the peritoneum, the membrane surrounding the vital organs in the abdomen, or like the fat of a confit, insulating against that which would otherwise spoil the contents. How else to explain the routinely disappointing Bears seasons compared to the number of fans willing to weather elements that are positively Shackletonian?

So while the recent onset of post-autumnal temperatures -- in this still pre-equinoctial time frame -- may only be temporary, it hasn't stopped this cardiac-insulating reaction from occurring, the same way a rooster cannot differentiate between an eclipse and the setting and rising of the sun.

It is a good thing too, as it was needed for this Saturday's Chicago Fire game against the perpetual tailspin of a team that is Toronto FC. But first, a little catch-up on the Shakespearean levels of drama surrounding TFC. Earlier in the year, fans of MLS would have marked this fixture date on their calendars months in advance, as it gave the chance to see US Men's National Team standout Michael Bradley, as well as recent big ticket signing Jermain Defoe from Tottenham. But in the last month alone Toronto has, like a ball of twine, unraveled.

It began with the reports of interest from England's Queens Park Rangers, offering $11 million for Defoe, which Toronto turned down. There was the front office shakeup, when Tim Leiweke, superstar president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment, announced his resignation after just a year on the job. Leiweke, who had been instrumental in bringing Bradley, Defoe, and David Beckham to MLS, was thought to have been creating a long-term project in Toronto, and details surrounding his desire to move on have been scarce. Then, just two weeks ago, TFC head coach Ryan Nelsen was fired by team general manager Tim Bezbatchenko, seemingly cauterizing Defoe's desires to stay at TFC.

The Fire got things off to a good start, possessing and controlling play against a Toronto side that seemed slightly over-matched. This was a relatively new situation, as the Fire more often find themselves chasing the game, though the past few weeks have seen them coalesce into a more solid team. Last week's game against New England began in a similar fashion, with Sanna Nyassi putting the Men in Red ahead early, only to have their defensive lapses despoil the thrilling first half. So too, then, went the fortunes of the Fire on Saturday night.

Lovel Palmer, secretly one of the strongest players on the team, netted his first goal in a Fire jersey, heading in a floater from Sanna Nyassi, who in short order shown his class and potential as well. The play originated in the 11th minute off a short corner, with Nyassi playing the ball out to Alex, who drew off defenders before playing back to Nyassi in space, who then sent the ball into the scrum where Palmer was able to put it in net. The Fire have shown more creativity in dead ball situations this season, rather than in the run of play, which is a mixed bag; surely one wants to have an attack-minded team that is able to lace in and out of defenses to score goals, but in the end goals are goals no matter how they are scored.

Michael Bradley was a predictable treat to watch, despite his having been stripped of the rank of midfield general upon his return stateside. Bradley has wheels, making several end-to-end runs on the night without showing signs of fatigue, but his service was not as on point as it has been in teams past. It may be more a mark against the TFC wings and forwards that a world class player is not able to perform at his level amongst them, but given that his World Cup performance seemed dogged by a case of the yips it may be that he is going through an adjustment period personally.

The Fire were gifted a chance to double their lead in the 57th minute, when a charging Grant Ward was pulled down in the box by Toronto keeper Joe Bendik, but Bendik came up big for his side not once but twice, blocking Jeff Larentowicz's initial low shot attempt as well as Quincy Amarikwa's rebound try. To date the Fire have missed converting three penalty chances, and though the league numbers for comparison aren't readily available, one has to assume such a stat would put them on top.

The game was almost in the books when the scent of a blundered goal filled the nostrils. For those who follow the team regularly this is a familiar stink, a sort of prideful flop sweat that comes when a fortuitous end is just within sight. And true to form the Fire conceded a goal in the 89th minute, off of an overshot corner kick which was pinballed around the box before getting poked behind Sean Johnson by TFC prodigal son Dwayne DeRosario, who entered in the second half as a sub. When the odor cleared what remained was the faint, metallic tang of resignation; the draw, while a rotten turn of events, was surely preferable to defeat.

But we in Chicago have tough hearts, thanks to the evolutionary mechanism of mutation brought on by a desire to survive both the bleak tundras of winter and sports fandom. And who knows, it's not snowing yet, so perhaps there is a thin sliver of hope still to come.

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