On paper, Wednesday's game in San Jose was going to be very hard for the Fire.
The team was coming off a bad road loss in Philadelphia three days earlier and rotated a lot of the starting lineup with a big game coming up against New York City FC. The Fire delivered one of the best performances of the season and two of the key performers were not regular starters.
Richard Sanchez made eight saves in his first Fire appearance and Djordje Mihailovic scored his first MLS goal to give the Fire an early lead. How good were the two young players?
Sanchez's oddly busy first start
The score said 4-1 and it was 4-0 until the final minutes of the game, but Sanchez was very busy between the posts in San Jose. He had to make eight saves, the most for a Fire goalkeeper since Matt Lampson made nine saves in Vancouver on May 11, 2016.
Sanchez had one tough save to make in the first half, a hammered free kick by Danny Hoesen that was right at Sanchez. He held his ground and did well to not give up a rebound on that, instead blocking it away from danger.
In the second half, after the Fire took a 3-0 lead in the 48th minute, San Jose put an onslaught on the Fire's goal. San Jose had 12 shots in the second half, 10 of which came in the final 25 minutes. This save below was Sanchez's best highlight.
The ball appeared to have smacked off his face, but it's his positioning that deserves credit. He was in the right spot and made himself big so he didn't have to make a reaction save. He was already where the ball was most likely to wind up.
Sanchez didn't show anything notable, good or bad, in his distribution. He came out well for crosses on occasion, although he did fail to get a strong fist to a corner he attempted to clear in the 70th minute. Overall, it was a strong first start for the 23-year-old, one worthy of starting a legitimate goalkeeper battle with Lampson.
Strange final numbers
As mentioned, the Fire dropped back with a three-goal lead early in the second half and allowed San Jose to dictate play. The Earthquakes ended up creating a lot of opportunities and on another day could have been in this match. The Fire dominated the first half and deserved to have a two-goal lead at the break, but a pair of mistakes by San Jose goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell made the game a blowout.
While Sanchez was having a solid game, Tarbell turned the ball over deep in his own end with a bad pass that led to the third goal. On the fourth goal, he came off his line to challenge Michael de Leeuw on a breakaway. De Leeuw chipped Tarbell, who froze on the shot. Nemanja Nikolic, like any good goal poacher, continued to chase after the shot and won the race for the rebound after the chip hit the bar and bounced back into play. A goalkeeper who can use his hands to punch away a ball should never lose a race to a ball with a player forced to used his head.
The Fire probably don't drop as deep without that third goal and maybe they can maintain the pressure of the first half, but it's reasonable to think that without Tarbell's two mistakes the game could have had a very close finish. San Jose outshot the Fire 20-14, although the Fire maintained a 10-9 edge in shots on target, and nearly got possession back to 50-50 after the Fire controlled the first half. It's crazy to think a three-goal game was decided by the goalkeepers, but Tarbell cost his team two goals and Sanchez might have saved the Fire one.
Mihailovic's positive performance in a new role
The Fire's teenage homegrown player had three MLS starts before Wednesday. All of them were in attacking roles, either centrally or out wide. In San Jose, Mihailovic played as one of the deep midfielders alongside Dax McCarty.
When Mihailovic had played in attacking midfield spots, he tended to get lost in the game. Maybe he didn't know where to be or maybe he was failing to be assertive enough to get involved. Either way, that wasn't a problem in the deeper role on Wednesday.
His skillset has led many to believe that he is somewhat of a classic playmaker, but he also seems to have the profile of a deeper midfielder. For one, his pressing ability is among the best on the team. That has shown whenever he is on the field. It's not traditional defensive play that is needed as a defensive midfielder, but it can be enough when a veteran like McCarty is next to him. He also is smooth enough on the ball to not turn the ball over too many times in traffic, something that Drew Conner struggled with the previous two games.
Mihailovic still made some mistakes, one turnover in the 32nd minute which resulted in San Jose getting a free kick just outside the box. He also showed good connecting play going forward. Check out this give-and-go with Nikolic.
Mihailovic completed 56 out of 64 passes, including 39 out of 42 in the first half, and scored his first MLS goal.
Here's a deeper look at his goal, which featured a nice job of filling the space up top as de Leeuw dropped deep to play a pass.
Armchair Analyst: Matt Polster's having a great season as an overlapping fullback because he does the simple stuff consistently well pic.twitter.com/brTgCID5wh— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) September 28, 2017
A goal worth a special mention
The Fire have had a few goals with extended strings of passes this season and added another Wednesday. The second goal was a 17-pass sequence that resulted in a crazy volley cross assist from de Leeuw.