Will powers twice as Dynamo eliminate Fire
By Michael Ligot, Eastern Conference Correspondent
The Chicago Fire will have nightmares of a Missourian wearing Halloween colors this offseason.
St. Louis’ Will Bruin connected twice, early in each half, as the orange-clad Houston Dynamo knocked the previously resurgent Fire out of the MLS Eastern Conference playoffs 2-1. The 2011 MLS Cup finalists now begin their semifinal series Sunday against Kansas City in their BBVA Compass Stadium fortress, while Chicago still searches for its first playoff win since eliminating New England in the 2009 semifinals.
Bruin’s first goal, a dozen minutes into the October holiday contest, came through a tried-and-true method: a Brad Davis set piece. The talismanic midfielder’s corner kick found the head of Bruin, unmarked due to Fire defender Jalil Anibaba slipping on the cold surface. Goalkeeper Sean Johnson couldn’t do much to prevent the shot.
Bruin, scorer of 12 regular-season goals, was equally wide open for his brace. Seconds after the post-interval kickoff, Houston’s Ricardo Clark stripped Gonzalo Segares and fed Calen Carr. The former Fire player burned his ex-employers with a two-touch that sent Bruin clear of central defenders Austin Berry and Arne Friedrich. Johnson again surrendered cleanly, this time from the right side of the penalty area.
A stymied Chicago, which did have several sustained-but-fizzling rolls at the Dynamo area in the second half, finally made it interesting with seven minutes left. On an unusually rare Friedrich long ball, Patrick Nyarko eventually found Alex. The Brazilian, a halftime sub for an ineffective Logan Pause, narrowly snuck a shot past Tally Hall. For the first time in the match, the crowd at half-full Toyota Park came to life.
Alex almost had a chance to tie on the onset of added time, after Dominic Oduro swiped defender Corey Ashe, but his shot sliced badly. Houston shut down the remainder of Chicago’s attacks, including a Rolfe shot from a direct kick just before the final whistle, and made the Fire wish they had gone trick-or-treating themselves.
This match marked a reversal of the season trend, and season series, for both teams. As recently as a month ago, Chicago sat in a strong second behind formidable Kansas City, and was regarded by several pundits as an MLS Cup dark horse, but finish losing four of their last six games. Houston, meanwhile, needed results in three of its last four regular-season games just to make the playoffs, despite a franchise-best 53 points.
As for the season series, the Dyanmo won for the first time in four. The three goals also marked half of the six scored in the three regular-season games between them and the Fire, which included a thunderstorm-shorted 1-1 Bridgeview draw April 15 and a scoreless pre-Independence Day BBVA slugfest that wasn’t as exciting as the scoreline suggested. Chicago won the other match 3-1 September 2, when both teams scored second-half injury-time goals.
Despite the Fire’s frustration and the intensity required by one-and-done first-round format, the match between two of MLS’ three least-whistled teams produced little foul play. Referee Baldomir Toledo assumed a “let them play” mindset, issuing several warnings in lieu of cards and playoff hockey-like “no harm, no foul” calls. He didn’t issue the first of his two cautions until halfway through the second term, and one of them was for Hall’s delay tactics on injury time.
Houston, which has missed the playoffs only once since its 2006 relocation from San Jose, returns to BBVA, where they sit undefeated. The main NBC network (not NBC Sports Network) will carry the game against Kansas City at 11:30 a.m. Pacific time.
1) Houston, Bruin (Davis) 12′
2) Houston, Bruin (Carr) 46′
3) Chicago, Alex (Nyarko) 83′
Chicago: Johnson; Segares, Berry, Friedrich, Anibaba (Paladini 77′); Pardo (Oduro 60′) , Pause (Alex 46′), Fernandez, Rolfe, Nyarko; MacDonald.
Houston: Hall; Ashe, Taylor, Boswell, Sarkodie; Davis, Moffat, Clark, Boniek Garcia; Bruin (Ching 78′), Carr (Kandji 78′).
Officials: referee Toledo, referee’s assistants F. Anderson and I. Anderson, fourth official Guzman.