The Fire defeated D.C. United 3-2 on aggregate to advance to the MLS Eastern Conference Finals.
Before Thursday night's game, not many MLS followers would've bet on Chicago to advance—even with their 1-0 lead after last week's opening-game win.
I don't blame them.
D.C. United (16-7-7) held the Supporters' Shield—sporting the best regular-season record in MLS.
In last week's 1-0 loss, D.C. was without the full services of two of their best players—Luciano Emilio and Jaime Moreno. But both would be starting Thursday night, giving even more hope to D.C. fans that United could overcome the one-goal deficit.
The Screaming Eagles (D.C. United's fan section) were prepared for the best. The flag-waivers and drum-beaters were in full force at RFK Stadium.
But they were quieted just 31 minutes into the game.
Chicago's Chad Barrett scored the game's opening goal, virtually shutting the door on D.C. The series looked completely finished just two minutes later, when Chicago's Chris Rolfe scored a beautiful goal in the 33rd minute.
At half, the score was 2-0 Chicago. Worse still for D.C., the aggregate was now 3-0 in favor of the Fire.
In the second 45 minutes, D.C. would need three goals just to force extra time—otherwise they could look forward to the offseason.
Chicago continued to pressure D.C.'s end of the field after the break. In the 63rd minute, Chicago's Calen Carr was taken down inside D.C.'s box—only to draw a free-kick rather than a penalty kick after a bad call.
Chicago couldn't capitalize, missing an opportunity to drive the final nail in D.C.'s casket.
Six minutes later, D.C. began their comeback, scoring their first goal in nearly six playoff games off a Clyde Simms strike. Simms hit the ball solidly, and beat Fire goalkeeper Matt Pickens in the lower left-hand corner.
D.C. wasn't done yet.
The Screaming Eagles erupted after Christian Gomez's 74th-minute goal. The goal tied the game at 2-2, and brought D.C. just one score away from evening the aggregate series.
For the next 16 minutes, D.C. forced more pressure on Chicago's goal than Bill Clinton faced during the late 90s.
But it wasn't meant to be.
Gomez looked to have scored the series-tying goal in stoppage time, but it was disallowed on a handball call. Chicago hung on for the remainder of stoppage time, clinching their spot in the Eastern Conference Finals.
If nothing else, the game proved that the MLS can produce some very entertaining soccer. But while I was on the edge of my seat, I couldn't help but notice some subpar play.
I found myself criticizing Chicago defender Wil Conde more than anyone. Conde seemed to be two steps slower, one foot shorter, and 20 years older than the rest of the competition.
Yet, unlike D.C. United, he'll get his shot at redemption in the next round.
The Chicago Fire will take on the winner of the New England Revolution-New York Red Bulls matchup in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Photo: (Tony Quinn/WireImage)