Fire

Fire's late-season struggles persist in playoff loss to Houston

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Fire's late-season struggles persist in playoff loss to Houston

The Fire were a good home team until Wednesday night.

And, the Houston Dynamo was a bad road team until Wednesday night.

That trending went out the window in the first match of the Major League Soccer playoffs. The Fire, 11-3-3 in its regular season home games at Toyota Park, tumbled 2-1 to a Houston club that was 3-9-5 on the road (and an even more revealing 1-9-5 in the last 15).

The Fire have been in MLS postseason play 12 times in its 15 seasons, and Wednesdays knockout round loss was the clubs first home regulation defeat in a playoff match. The Fire are 16-2-3 in home playoff matches over 15 seasons and 4-1-1 at Toyota Park, but that run of form didnt continue against Houston.

So, the Dynamo -- a 1-0 loser to the Los Angeles Galaxy in last years MLS Cup final -- moved on to a two-game, home-and-home Eastern Conference semifinal series against top-seeded Sporting Kansas City that begins in Houston on Sunday while the Fire try to figure out what happened in a final few training sessions that will be conducted without games to be played.

"Everyone has to keep their heads up," said veteran defender Arne Friedrich. "We have played throughout the season with very young players, and they did very good."

But clearly not good enough. At a point in the season where the Fire should have been playing at its best, it played its worst. The Fire, 17-11-6 in a largely uplifting regular season, was 1-3-1 to conclude the MLS campaign before coming up empty against the Dynamo a club that wass a 3-1 loser at Toyota Park on Sept. 2 and settled for two draws with the Fire before that.

The Fire fell behind in the 13th minute when Will Bruin headed down Brad Davis corner kick, then found himself with an open shot after Fire defender Jalil Anibaba stumbled. With ex-Fire forward Calen Carr providing a distraction in front of the net goalkeeper Sean Johnson was slow in reacting.

"After that first goal we had a feeling this was our game," said Bruin, who had 12 goals in the regular season and scored both for his team on Wednesday. "We felt we were playing well under pressure. We got that goal as a reward for our good play."

The Fire were unable to answer the rest of the first half so Fire coach Frank Klopas pulled his captain, defensive-minded Logan Pause, for Brazilian attacking midfielder Alex at the start of the second half. Houston foiled that move immediately, when Carr slipped a pass between Fire defenders Friedrich and Austin Berry to set up Bruin for his second goal just 18 seconds after play resumed.

"We started the second half in the worst way," said Klopas. "It just wasnt meant to be this year."

The Fire didnt do much offensively until Alex caromed a 10-yard shot into the net off the right post in the 83rd minute. That created some suspense for the time that remained and brought the crowd of 10,923 to life, but the Fire couldnt get the equalizer even with ex-Dynamo Dominic Oduro creating some opportunities off the bench.

"If you give them chances like we did its going to be hard to beat them," said forward Chris Rolfe, the Fires MVP and golden boot winner this season.

"I have a lot of respect for the Chicago Fire organization," said Carr, who was traded to Houston for Oduro one game into the 2011 season in a deal that helped both clubs. "Theyve had a good season and should be proud of what theyve accomplished. But, at the same time, the stakes are high and weve got our goals here with the Houston Dynamo."

Carr was riddled with injuries in five seasons with the Fire before the trade and arrived in Houston battling the effects of a concussion. He revived his career and was in the first 11 for the Dynamo on Wednesday while wearing a helmet.

"Ive had a tough string of luck, for sure," said Carr, "but Im feeling good and stayed healthy the end of last season and this season. Ive put together a good run of form and want to help this team any way I can. Coming to Houston was great for me. I enjoyed my time in Chicago. I look back on it fondly, but the best time of my career is now. I feel lucky to be a part of this group."

Notes from the rewatch: What stood out about the goals in Fire's win against Union

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USA TODAY

Notes from the rewatch: What stood out about the goals in Fire's win against Union

Normally when revisiting games there are trends or performances that stick out, but the most notable plays from Sunday's Fire win against Philadelphia were the goals.

Here's what stood out from the four goals that were scored from open play in the Fire's 3-2 victory.

Nikolic gives Fire early lead on long ball

Believe it or not this pass was a direct assist on the first goal of the game:

Brandon Vincent is barely beyond his own penalty box when he launches one for Nemanja Nikolic. The ball bounces three times before Nikolic gets his first touch on it. His second touch is a goal.

The pass itself is nothing special and a defensive error plays a part, but it's hard to believe a pass from that far back can result in an assist.

Philly’s first goal is a chain reaction

On the first goal for Philly, the play begins when Matt Polster is caught way too high in press. Philly was building out of back and Polster, the Fire's right back, pressed well past midfield to win a ball and didn't.

When he doesn’t win it, the ball falls to Fafa Picault behind him on the left wing. Next it's off to the races for the Union.

Center back Johan Kappelhof moves wide to cover for Polster and defend Picault, who makes a nice switch to Chris Pontius after the Fire appeared to be getting back in position. C.J. Sapong beats Joao Meira, who a minute before shook off a leg injury that forced him to have a significant limp after the match. Sapong probably had the edge in the first-step department at that point to get some separation. Kappelhof had to try to slide it away because Picault was waiting at the back post for a tap-in.


The Fire had a chance to recover, but it all started with Polster getting caught too high up the field.

Union string passes together to take lead

A Dax McCarty turnover gave Philadelphia possession and the Union combined passes for an impressive team goal. First it was eight straight passes before one was broken up, but Philadelphia immediately regained possession and connected 12 more passes. After an initial cross is headed away, the second pass after that is Haris Medunjanin chipping a pass to Alejandro Bedoya for the goal. Just an impressive team goal from the Union.

Nikolic shows his instincts for game-winner

As for the Fire’s third goal, just watch Landon Donovan and recently-fired New England Revolution coach Jay Heaps explain what happened:

Bobby Portis punches Nikola Mirotic, breaking bones in Mirotic's face

Bobby Portis punches Nikola Mirotic, breaking bones in Mirotic's face

Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic were involved in an altercation that resulted in Mirotic suffering two broken bones in his face after Portis punched him, according to sources.

Mirotic, who’s out indefinitely, was evaluated for a concussion and taken to a hospital, where he was released but was apparently a bit out of it, according to a source. The altercation began with pushing and shoving between the two before Mirotic lunged forward at Portis and Portis hit Mirotic, sending him to the floor.

“I’ve seen worse,” a witness said.

Mirotic was taken to the training room and Portis went to the other side of the floor.

Apparently the two have had testy moments since Portis entered the league in 2015. The two play the same position and have battled for minutes, with Portis often getting the short end in the rotation.

Where this leaves Portis with the Bulls for the immediate future as far as a suspension is unknown.

But what was supposed to be a so-called nondescript season has suddenly put the spotlight on the players and the coaching staff, who’ll have to navigate the relationship between the two teammates.