Hope is a strange emotion. It leaves you perched on a precipice between joy and despair.
If you're a New York City fan, hope hasn't been abundant over the first two-and-a-half months of the season. Going into tonight's game, the Blues were mired in an eight-game winless streak, their record a pallid 1-6-3. In fact, you couldn't really describe it as a winless streak anymore. Let's be real: New York City was assiduously working on a four-game losing streak.
Thirty minutes into this game, it was looking like the streak would reach five games. Forty minutes in, it looked for all the world as if New York City had simply given up. For the first time this season, the team was going through the motions of playing soccer with none of the enthusiasm. It was ugly stuff, indeed.
The Blues came into the game fresh off a demoralizing, crushing loss to the New York Red Bulls. Despite being up a man for 55 minutes, New York City nevertheless managed to get stampeded by a ruthlessly disciplined Red Bulls squad. That loss looked for all the world like it was still haunting the Blues; from the start, the Chicago Fire dictated the pace of play. In the eighth minute, Shaun Maloney appeared to score in a goal scramble; he didn't. Offside, he was.
That reprieve lasted scarce minutes. In the 14th minute, in another surge forward, a Mehdi Ballouchy foul gave Chicago a free kick. Razvan Cocis got his head on the ball, and dinked right over goalkeeper Josh Saunders.
That the Fire midfielder was that open was due to defender Chris Wingert letting him float free, giving Cocis the chance to score with comfort. He was able to float the header in because Saunders was playing off his line. Why was he doing that? Because 10 games in, Saunders has no confidence in his back line's ability to protect him. He's not a shot stopper; Saunders depends on his spatial awareness and experience. But an injury-ravaged back line effectively forces him to be a sweeper keeper.
It hasn't worked out for New York City.
Like that, the Blues trailed 1-0.
It got worse. In the 27th minute, a Fire breakaway saw forward David Accam get hacked down by defender RJ Allen. It was the soccer version of a slow-motion car crash happening. Referee Ted Unkel had no choice but to award the penalty and give Allen a red card. Let's speak frankly: that New York City finds itself starting someone like RJ Allen -- who didn't play at all last year -- is emblematic of all the club's struggles. We speak of Kreis being under pressure; we speak of Kreis being under fire.
But shouldn't that pressure lie even heavier on Claudio Reyna, who's been the club's technical director since day one? Isn't he just as responsible as Kreis -- if not more so -- for how this roster looks? After all, isn't that one of his chief functions as technical director?
More on that anon. Back to the game.
Just like three weeks ago, New York City was down a man after a tactical foul; just like three weeks ago, the Fire were running rampant. You wouldn't have been blamed for thinking that you were weirdly watching MLS' take on Groundhog Day. Jeff Larentowicz lined up to take the penalty; he scored.
Chicago 2, New York City 0. I swear, this was a new game, not a replay. Three minutes later, coach Jason Kreis made his first sub: defender Shay Facey on for midfielder Pablo Alvarez. But as the first half wore on, the team's morale seemed to sink lower and lower with each Chicago attack. In a young season that's already seen plenty of lowlights, the stretch of tonight's game between 31' and, say, 40' stands out. The Blues' play went from dispirited to lackadaisical to downright lethargic. I'm not the only one who saw it.
Goals can make a difference, though; more than that, when you score goals matters even more. As halftime drew near, David Villa made a buccaneering run forward, full of mazy dribbling. He uncorked a shot from 25 yards out that Chicago goalkeeper Sean Johnson saved, but was unable to corral. The rebound fell peachily to Mehdi Ballouchy; as he was scythed down by a Fire defender, Ballouchy nevertheless managed to poke the ball home.
Chicago 2, New York City 1. As players celebrated, Ballouchy writhed in pain. A foul wasn't called; Villa vehemently protested, bodying up to the referee, Unkel. That earned him a yellow card. As Villa argued with Unkel, a clearly seething Kreis walked past him.
After Sunday's loss to the Red Bulls, Kreis was asked in his post-game press conference if he had anything to say to his players. Kreis pointedly said that it was often wiser to walk away and reflect, rather than simply let fly in the heat of the moment. I can only imagine that Kreis chose to do something else at halftime, because New York City came out flying in the second half.
Within seconds of play beginning, the Blues just barely missed getting the equalizer in an almighty goal scramble. New York City kept the pressure up throughout the first fifteen minutes of the second half. 60 minutes in, Kreis replaced forward Patrick Mullins with Khiry Shelton. Throughout the first 10 games, Shelton's excelled as an impact sub, far more than as a starter. Tonight was no different; he provided a jolt of energy for the Blues, and helped keep the Fire defense honest, rather than letting them serve as launching pads for Chicago attacks.
Not that the Fire sat back. In the 53rd minute, David Accam flashed a header wide of goal. In the 64th, he got his feet on a brilliant, incisive pass, but got dispossessed in the nick of time. Again, in the 74th minute, Accam found himself with the freedom of New York City's goal, but couldn't make it count.
But as the game entered the last ten minutes of normal time, both teams looked exhausted. In a final toss of the dice, Kreis decided to switch to a 3-5-2, withdrawing defender Jeb Brovsky in favor of Tom McNamara.
Yes. You read that correctly: Tommy McNamara, He Who Rocks the Mullet, actually played in a game.
Why the excitement? New York City lacks out-and-out attacking midfielders with vision. In his time with Chivas USA, before injuring his knee, McNamara impressed everyone with that, specifically. He was clearly rusty, having had very little playing time this season. But we know that Sebastian Velasquez hasn't worked out; why not see what you have with McNamara? Regardless, the offensive substitution meant that Chicago spent the last ten minutes of the game pinned back.
Five minutes of stoppage time were awarded. Chicago managed to foray forward, forcing Saunders and the shaky backline to defend. A third Chicago goal — after playing with such dangerous intent — would certainly have crushed New York City's spirit.
Instead, this happened:
Yes. Shelton scored. Khiry Shelton, one of the two players that New York City fans unreservedly adore, tied the game with his first professional goal. In the second minute of extra time. You...have got...to be kidding me. It's now a nine-game winless streak, to be certain.
But never a draw has felt sweeter than 92 minutes in. Pandemonium. Exhiliration. Tonight, unlike other nights, New York City fans fell from the precipice of hope into unremitting joy. The manner in which New York City kept striving, kept digging away, always essaying forward went a long way towards erasing memories of that putrid first half performance. I'll say it again: Goals can make a difference; more than that, when you score goals matters even more. Should they manage to win next week against Real Salt Lake — and for Kreis, a win would be bittersweet indeed — one could look to tonight as a platform for that win.