When their season on the line, the Fire needed a big-time performance from the back line in Saturday night's second leg of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the New England Revolution. And did the defense ever deliver, putting together a comprehensive performance to shut down (and shutout) the Revolution and pave the way for the Fire to get into the Eastern Conference Final.
"I thought our team defending from the top to the bottom was tremendous," said Fire goalie Jon Busch. "The guys in front of me were as usual solid. I can't say enough good things about them."
"If you look at the plays at the end of the game and just doing whatever they needed to do, blocking shots, going up for headers, challenging, it was just a tremendous, tremendous team effort and you just can't say enough good things about these guys in the locker room. It's an honor for me to play with these guys because everybody left it on the field tonight."
The shutout marks the third time in the last four games that the Fire defense, which is enjoying a bit of an end of the year renaissance, has blanked an opponent. A major key to Saturday's clean sheet was the success the Fire had in limiting New England midfielders Shalrie Joseph and Jeff Larentowicz - both of whom gave the Fire fits throughout Game 1.
"I thought we played well defensively tonight and in New England," said Fire Head Coach Denis Hamlett. "We play them enough that we know Shalrie Joseph and Jeff Larentowicz pretty well; and their offense starts with those two guys. Logan Pause and John Thorrington did a really good job of being aware and staying close to them so they had to play sideways or backwards and I think when you can do that you can limit their influence on the game."
The Fire was also able to slow down New England winger Sainey Nyassi. Nyassi was a handful for the Fire in Game 1 - successfully launching cross after cross into the box and even hitting the post with a long range effort.
"We had a good game plan lined up for them," said Fire defender Daniel Woolard. "We knew they wanted to get balls in and cross it from out wide with Nyassi but we stuck to our plan and [shut them down]."
Another factor that contributed to the Fire's great defensive play was the successful weathering of New England's inevitable late push for a goal. The Revolution needed to score in the last five minutes of Game 2 to keep the series alive, but the Fire denied them at every turn.
"Our guys were so focused that we knew that they would start to dump some balls, some long throws and to our credit we made some big plays at the end," Hamlett said. "Busch made some saves, Dasan and C.J. were big, and it was a real good team effort all the way around."
Overall, it was one of the best defensive performances of the year for the Fire. Sure, they allowed New England a few chances and gave up a decent amount of shots, but given the circumstances and the fact that the Fire had to open the game up a little bit while pushing for goals it was very impressive. If the team puts in another defensive effort like that on Saturday against Real Salt Lake, advancing to the MLS Cup would almost be a formality.
"As long as we keep playing like this," said Fire defender C.J. Brown, "we're going to see these kinds of results."