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Wednesday, July 24

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Fire Mon Oct 27 2014

Chicago Fire: Going Out on a High

Chicago FireIn a season bereft of high points, Friday night's game against the Houston Dynamo easily stands as the highest one for the Fire. It was already a game suffused with emotional weight, given that it marked the end of Logan Pause's storied 12-year-long career with the Fire, as well as the end of another year of underperforming despite having a solid lineup. Few could imagine the pieces falling into place as well as they did on the evening, creating a memorable moment to honor a team legend as he left the field, as well as imbuing the team and fans with a sense of positive momentum heading into the offseason.

For late October the practically summery weather seemed to telegraph the charmed nature of the evening from well before first kick. The nearly full stadium, many who had turned out specifically to send off Pause, were in spirits obviously buoyed by the occasion and the near-mint fall night. Chants and songs rang out as they are wont to do, though most had been tailored to honor Pause as he took the field sporting once again the Captain's armband, as he had done for many of the dozen years he had spent with the team.

For all that seemed to signal that the evening would be perfect, the play on the field got off to a slower start, deflating the infectious joy ever so slightly. Houston, who had been eliminated from the MLS Cup Playoffs two weeks earlier, were playing their final game under their talismanic head coach Dom Kinnear, with whom the Dynamo had reached the MLS Cup final four times in the last 8 years, capturing the cup twice. One could see that, in the way Houston was pressing the attack, winning balls with feral intensity in the midfield and racing towards the Chicago goal. The pairing of Brad Davis and Omar Cummings in particular made a distinct impression on the left flank, showing serious hustle as they linked up to beat the Fire defense time and again. It came as little surprise then, when in the 18th minute Davis swung the ball in off a corner kick and it found Cummings' head, skipping neatly into the net and beating Sean Johnson to put Houston up 1-0.

The Dynamo did not throttle back their efforts either. Giles Barnes made his hunger for a tally known early and often, racing to beat defenders every time the ball fell to his feet. Johnson was called on to make several saves before the half, including one crucial sliding crotch save when no one else could seem to clear the ball out of the box. In all Johnson would have 8 saves on the night, to Houston 'keeper Tyler Deric's 2. If not for the Milkman's efforts the game would have easily been broken wide open before the first half was whistled over. As it stood the Fire were still within reaching distance of at least a draw, perhaps more.

Head coach Frank Yallop must have had some strong words for the Men in Red, or perhaps it was simply a case of rising to the occasion to send off their captain in style, because there was a clear sense of renewed intensity coming out of the tunnel. Quincy Amarikwa and Harry Shipp showed well, getting some good looks at goal and powering past the Dynamo defense. Grant Ward, the young loanee from Tottenham, came on in the 66nd minute and it wasn't long before he was racing down the right-hand side going one-on-one against the 'keeper Deric, only to have Deric slide out and stop the ball. Deric mishandled the ball, however, and in going back for it a second time took down Ward. The referee immediately blew his whistle and pointed to the spot, signaling a penalty kick for Chicago.

Section 8 rose to their feet, chanting for Logan Pause to step up and take the shot. It seemed like a dream scenario for Pause, to score the tying goal in front of a rabid group of supporters on his final professional soccer match. In the end, however, it would have to remain a dream, as Pause deferred to Jeff Larentowicz, the de facto team captain for the season, who went far post with the kick and leveled the match in the 66th minute. Momentum had now shifted, the stadium came to life and the Fire players fed off the atmosphere. In the 78th minute the din rose to thundering levels as the 4th official signalled that Logan Pause was to be subbed off. The players on the field dropped the mask of opposition, choosing instead to shake hands with Pause, applaud him, or embrace him. It was a moving moment, no matter for which team one rooted.

Pause was replaced by Chris Ritter, who had what was nearly a goal of the season candidate in the 88th minute when his curling strike from distance pinged off the crossbar. It was a big moment for a player making only his 10th professional appearance, and it shows well for his future on the team. Perhaps it was a prescient moment, having him replace Pause, as he could easily go on to fill his shoes at the club as well.

The pace in the last 15 minutes of the game was electric, with the Fire enjoying the majority of possession as they unspooled the Dynamo defense and began to make a real push to end things on a high. As the 90th minute approached 3 minutes of extra time were added, but the Fire needed only another few seconds, as Grant Ward curled into the box where it found the French forward Florent Sinama-Pongolle who headed it home for his first goal in a Fire uniform. Sinama-Pongolle made an immediate bee line to the Fire bench where he met Pause who had jumped the boards to celebrate with the entire team. It was an emotional display to see such a recent addition to the team feel such a connection to his elder teammate.

Three minutes later, the scoreline held. The fireworks had been set off, and people were already filing out into the unseasonably warm night. Pause and his family were making their way around the stadium for one last time, stopping to greet with fans, take photos, and sign autographs. It was clear that he could not have had a happier ending to his career, going out on a win at home on a wonderful evening. And that feeling was transmitted to all the fans assembled. Things may have been rough this season, but the enthusiasm felt in a win is impossible to ignore. Pause spent a dozen years chasing that feeling, it was a pleasure to share in it with him.

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