On Wednesday afternoon, July 15, the Chicago Red Stars were still within mathematical reach of first place on the WPS regular season table.
A few hours later, after the smoke cleared from the Wednesday schedule, Chicago found itself again fighting for the last seat on the lifeboat.
They also found themselves, for the first time, without absolute control of their destiny.
By losing this head-to-head match with their closest competitor, Chicago not only lost any possibility of a miracle first-place finish but also put themselves in a position of needing all of their closest competitors (Sky Blue, Boston, and The Freedom) to lose more than once. And that's with the assumption that the Red Stars defeat Sky Blue on Sunday.
While the Red Stars were losing to the Breakers in Boston 1-0 and also losing the Boston series, 2-1, Sky Blue was playing Washington to a draw, thus adding a point for a total of 19 points, extending NY/NJ's lead over Chicago to two, and bringing Washington even with Chicago at 17 points.
Things deteriorated further on Saturday evening (July 18) when Washington defeated St. Louis to leapfrog over The Red Stars and Sky Blue for sole possession of fourth place, with 20 points.
Chicago has gone, in one match, from being in the driver's seat, to being in the water, clinging to the side of the boat.
A win would advance Chicago to a tie with Washington for fourth, for the time being but would be only minor blow to resurgent Sky Blue who have played like a champion since replacing their head coach a few games into the season. Chicago would lead Sky Blue by a point but Sky Blue owns the Chicago series, so would only need to gain a point on Chicago by the end of the schedule, should the two teams find themselves tied in points for fourth position.
On the other hand, a loss to Sky Blue in the upcoming match would serve to pry Red Star fingers off the side of the boat and leave them treading water as the vessel drifts slowly away. Hence the near-apocalyptic importance of Sunday's match.
Normally, when someone uses the expression, "there's nothing but blue sky ahead" it indicates easy, happy travels. In the case of the Red Stars however, it refers to the essential obstacle that must be overcome.
Either the Red Stars dispose of Sky Blue in Sky Blue's house, or the Red Stars will have to start praying even harder then they will need to play, for the duration.
So what should we expect?
Chicago has been an inconsistent and unpredictable club in their inaugural season in the new league. But, thus far, at least, they have been predictable in their will to survive.
The Red Stars have consistently found a way to win the matches they absolutely needed to win to stay in contention. They've never fallen more than a couple of points out of fourth place: the final playoff berth.
Last weekend, Chicago disposed of one potential opponent by defeating FC Gold Pride decisively, winning the series and knocking the Bay Area team out of contention.
Chicago can win the Washington series with a win at home against the Freedom on July 26, which will make the difference should the two finsih with an equal point total in the fourth berth.
They are also in position to tie the LA series with a win at home on Aug. 2, and win the St. Louis series with a victory in St. Louis on Aug. 5.
But realistically, the Red Stars are fighting for third or fourth place. A head-to-head victory over the first or second-place teams could be meaningless in their quest for the post-season.
So, it really does come down to one match, one team, one day, July 19, 2009 on the campus of Rutgers University, Red Star Carli Lloyd's alma mater.
Let's hope Carli is able to channel more of her old school spirit to Chicago's advantage on this trip than on the previous visit here, when the Red Stars lost 1-0 (Lloyd shown in photo above at Rutgers versus Sky Blue, photo by D. Durochik).