In one of the most grueling matches of its season to date, the Chicago Fire were unable to withstand late pressure from 10-man New York City FC in a pulsating second half, emerging with a 2-2 result in front of 23,315 at Yankee Stadium.
Behind a first-ever goal from Romanian midfielder Razvan Cocis and a penalty kick from captain Jeff Larentowicz - and goals in first- and second-half stoppage time from NYCFC - the Men in Red secured their first draw of 2015 on Friday night.
Showing an astute and spirited initiative, the Fire nearly opened the scoring in the seventh minute, as Scotsman Shaun Maloney turned the ball into the back of the net, only to be dubiously flagged for offsides.
The Men in Red continued to pose a threat for the hosts in the opening quarter of an hour, with David Accam latching on to an expertly weighted pass over the top of a wobbly NYCFC defense in the 10th minute, heading his effort straight into the hands of ‘keeper Josh Saunders.
Four minutes later, Yallop’s side broke the deadlock after Maloney’s quickly taken free kick found Cocis, who strode into the box unmarked and glanced a header over Saunders to give the Fire a deserved advantage and supply the midfielder with his first MLS goal.
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Accam, who returned after serving his one-match suspension in the team’s 2-1 loss to Real Salt Lake, tormented the home side all night long and, just as in their initial meeting on April 24, led to NYCFC’s undoing in the 26th minute.
After picking up the ball in the opposition half, the Ghanaian international closed in on goal with just Saunders to beat. After being taken down from behind by RJ Allen - drawing a straight red card in the process - a penalty kick ensued, which was calmly stroked home by captain Jeff Larentowicz.
Despite putting in arguably their most polished first half performance, a mental lapse in the backline allowed for David Villa to unleash a shot at Sean Johnson, which was spilled only for Mehdi Ballouchy to capitalize and give the home side an unforeseen jolt on the stroke of halftime after being thoroughly outplayed.
"It was probably the best we’ve played in a long time in the first 44 minutes," said Yallop after the match. "There could have been more. I just talked to the guys in there and I’m just disappointed in how we handled the second half. We just stopped playing.
The goal right before halftime obviously gives them hope, then you’ve just got to get one goal to get a tie. I just felt that we allowed them to play when we shouldn’t have. We had chances to bury the game as well, but still, we shouldn’t give them a chance. We’re just disappointed.”
In a fiery second half, both sides went toe-to-toe, exchanging punch after punch. After yellow cards were dished out to Larentowicz, Joevin Jones and Maloney within a span of seven minutes, the closing stages opened the door for NYCFC to push on and snatch an equalizer, which eventually arrived in stoppage time.
Good awareness and tight maneuvering from Villa resulted in the Spaniard relinquishing the ball to rookie Khiry Shelton, who cropped up in the box tucked his left-footed shot past Johnson and into the back of the net in the 91st minute for his first career MLS tally.
“The first half was probably as good as we’ve played all season," Maloney said. "I think as a team and as a whole we have to be really brave when we are in this position.
"We were a little bit too predictable. Without condensing the middle of the pitch and then going wide I think it was far easier for them to defend us.”
The Fire will be left to rue what might have been after being on the cusp of its first away win of the season. Still, the draw moves the Men in Red up to fifth place on 10 points in the Eastern Conference for the time being. Yallop's side will continue its stretch of seven consecutive matches against Eastern Conference opposition with an away fixture at Columbus Crew SC on May 22.
Chicago Fire Starting XI (subs)
(4-2-3-1): Sean Johnson; Lovel Palmer, Jeff Larentowicz, Adailton, Joevin Jones; Matt Polster, Razvan Cocis; David Accam (Jason Johnson, 88'), Shaun Maloney, Harry Shipp (Michael Stephens, 71'); Kennedy Igboananike (Quincy Amarikwa, 68').