The Fire headed into Sunday's Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals at the New England Revolution knowing that they couldn't afford to give the Revs many set piece opportunities.
"We have to limit their set pieces," Fire Head Coach Denis Hamlett said earlier this week. "[We have to be careful on] throw-ins and corner kicks because they do well with those."
But the Fire wasn't able to control New England's dead ball opportunities and they paid the price for it, surrendering two goals off of set pieces to fall to the Revolution 2-1. The loss puts all the pressure on the Fire, who now needs a victory in next Saturday's series deciding Game 2 just to have a chance to advance to the Eastern Conference Final.
The Fire started the game off on the right foot, controlling a lot of the early possession and getting some early opportunities of its own. After nearly connecting on a series of half chances, the Fire broke through in the 17th minute when Revs keeper Matt Reis deflected Marco Pappa's cross into the path of midfielder Chris Rolfe who one-timed a 10 yard effort into the top corner.
The Fire nearly doubled the lead just three minutes later when Brian McBride collected a cross from the right wing and fired a 15 yard shot off the left post. This near miss would come back to haunt the Fire who let New England gain some momentum in the 25th minute when Jeff Larentowicz caught Jon Busch out of his net but saw his shot from distance rebound off the left post.
After hitting the post, New England started to turn the tide of the match a little bit, defending much better against the Fire and controlling more of the possession. New England's better play culminated in a stoppage time goal - that not only knotted the game at 1, but also gave New England all the momentum heading into the second half.
The Revs got the opportunity to tie it up after Fire defender C.J. Brown fouled midfielder Sainey Nyassi 20 yards out on the right flank. Fellow midfielder Kenny Mansally stepped up to take the free kick and his delivery was excellent - picking out Osei with a hard left footed curler just in front of Fire keeper Jon Busch. The Ghanaian Osei made no mistake with his header, neatly flicking his shot into the top netting.
After the break the Revs continued to create chances against a suddenly shaken-up Fire team. However, Chicago's back four did well to clear out most of New England's chances and there weren't any major opportunities for either side until the 60th minute when a Nyassi cross found Kheli Dube inside the 6. Fortunately for the Fire though, Dube was unable to control the chance and the ball was safely cleared away.
The match's next opportunity came 11 minutes later, when Fire rookie Baggio Husidic absolutely blasted a half volley from 23 yards off of the crossbar. Baggio's shot then cruelly deflected off the bar and down towards the goal line - but it couldn't quite sneak over to give the Fire the lead.
New England took advantage of Baggio's near miss in the 75th when Shalrie Joseph capitalized on a loose ball in the box after a Mauricio Castro corner and put a bouncing ball in the back of the net - giving the Revs the lead for good.
Now the Fire have to come home to their personal house of horrors Toyota Park and hope they can pull out the win against the Revs. A one-goal victory would move the match into extra time (and possible penalties) and a two (or more) goal win would propel the Fire into the next round. Anything less and the Fire go home for the winter.
Here are a few questions I wanted to leave you guys with.
**1 - How disappointed are you with the result?**
Though the result is undeniably disappointing, I'm not all that down on how the Fire played this afternoon. I thought they played a pretty good game but got a little unlucky throughout - as the McBride and Husidic near misses illustrate. Brandon Prideaux and Baggio Husidic unexpectedly made very solid contributions and it's good to see those two play well. Unfortunately for the Fire though, their big name players didn't do enough and Brian McBride and Cuauhtemoc Blanco didn't do a whole lot (especially in the second half).
**2 - What's your level of concern heading into Saturday's Game 2?**
I'm pretty concerned. Toyota Park has been a house of horrors all season long for the Fire and (as I mentioned above) they need a win to have a chance of getting through to the next round. The Fire definitely have the talent to pull out the win - but I have my doubts they won't fall victim to the same mistakes (set piece goals, inability to finish) that have plagued them all season.
So, that's all for now but I'll be back tomorrow with much more coverage of the aftermath of this game and the rest of the MLS playoff scenario.