Rain doesn’t slow Fire down

By JeffGraveline

For the Chicago Fire, the 2009 season has been one of ups and downs.  The team started the season going 5 – 2 – 6 (wins-losses-ties) during the first two months of the year, but finished 11 – 7 – 12 because of a slump during the latter part of the regular season.

The Fire’s second-half slump left them in a precarious place in the Major League Soccer Cup playoff picture.  A loss on Oct. 22 would cause the Fire to watch the playoffs from their homes.

A tie and the Fire would need help to make the Cup chase. Chicago would need a series of wins and losses by specific Major League Soccer teams to back into the playoffs.

A victory meant the Fire were guaranteed a spot in the Cup Playoffs for the 11th time in 12 years.

The Fire took matters into their own hands on Oct. 22 against Chivas USA, notched a 1 – 0 victory and earned a spot in the playoffs.

“Obviously it is a relief. It took 30 games to get to this point, but we’re finally in the playoffs,” said Fire coach, Denis Hamlett.

The Fire’s season started slow when the team managed to win only two games, while losing four during the month of June. The Fire didn’t drop a game in July, heading into the Major League Soccer All-Star break, but after the break their season hit the skids.

Chicago had earned only three wins in the previous three months, while losing five games and tying in six. Because of the breakdown during the season, the Fire went into their season finale Oct. 22 match against Chivas USA, a team already locked into playoffs. As the second seed in the Major League Soccer Eastern Conference, the Fire needed a win or tie to secure a playoff spot.

As a steady rain fell throughout the day on Oct. 22, the Fire and Chivas USA took to the pitch with playoff hopes on the line for the Fire.

After two 45-minute halves of play in the rain, the Fire emerged with a 1 – 0 victory after Chivas USA scored on their own goal in the 67th minute of play.

“This is great; now we can enjoy the weekend, instead of sitting around biting our fingernails, waiting for what’s going to happen,” said Fire forward Chris Rolfe.

During his press conference after the match, coach Hamlett spoke about Chivas USA’s Eduardo Lillingston’s own goal that gave the Fire the victory.

“Tonight,  it wasn’t a pretty goal, it was an own goal,” Hamlett said. “But we talk about getting breaks and last week we could have gotten in and we didn’t get it.  This week, we got an own goal.”

In the first half of the game, the Fire notched eight shots on goal.  Although their shots didn’t find the back of the net, the Fire controlled the ball in the Chivas zone for much of the half.

After 45 minutes of play and injury time, the game was knotted at 0 – 0 as the teams headed into the

locker rooms.

In the second half, the Fire continued their strong play on their opponent’s side of the pitch despite the rain. The Fire held the ball deep in Chivas’ for much of the 90-minute game and earned 14 corner kicks, including five of them in just a seven- minute span in the second half.

“During the second half, a lot of water started building up in the center of the park. That started to slow the game down a little bit,  made it a little sloppy. I thought we dealt with it well and really played hard.”

“Defensively we’re getting back to the way we played early in the year,” Hamlett said. “I think to be able to win championships, you got to have a good defensive mindset. I think we can build on these last two games [the win over Chivas and 0 – 0 tie with New England].”

Fire Midfielder Logan Pause said that the strong defensive effort came from a team effort, starting in the backfield.

“We pride ourselves in defending from the top down,” Pause said. “ Although it’s the back four, the goalkeeper, for the most part, that the people look at. We’re great from guys like Chris Rolfe and [Brian] McBride and even when Temo [Blanco] came in and was slide tackling and getting involved.  It was great to see, especially leading into the playoffs.”

The victory sent the players and fans in attendance into a celebration as their team had marched its way back to the playoffs. Chicago enjoyed the victory with their fans, but they know there is more work to be done to reach the championship game in Seattle on Nov. 22 at Qwest Field.

“Knowing we have four more games to reach our goal, it’s a little celebrating, but not too much,” said Rolfe.