By TYLER DAY
BRIDGEVIEW, Ill.– With less than ten minutes left in Sunday’s Eastern Conference showdown, it looked like the Chicago Fire and New York Red Bulls were headed towards a draw at Toyota Park.
But two pristine finishes from Chicago substitute Maicon Santos in the 83rd and 89th minute sent the Fire to their first win of the season, a 3-1 victory against the visiting Red Bulls.
Santos’ goals completed a three-goal rally that began with a Daniel Paladini header just before halftime that canceled out a Jamison Olave score for New York.
The second half showed a Fire team desperate to secure all three points, and when Santos entered the match he helped spearhead a late surge that capitalized on late-game Red Bulls defensive breakdowns to help Chicago earn the team’s first win and drop the Red Bulls to 0-7-3 all-time at Toyota Park.
“More than anything I never lost belief in the group,” said Fire head coach Frank Klopas, “and neither did our team. The important thing is we kept working hard. The group is united – there is a belief with the group.”
New York started the scoring in the 17th minute when Jamison Olave finished a backwards volley after a couple of headers in the box from Tim Cahill and Brandon Barklage.
Fire striker Chris Rolfe nearly answered back with a penalty kick in the 24th minute, but his shot rolled wide left. Rolfe led the Fire in goals last season, but is now scoreless through five games in 2013, and ten going back to last year.
But right before half, the Fire did find its equalizer when Paladini headed in a cross from Hunter Jumper in the 44th minute.
“We came in with a game plan not to give a goal up,” Paladini said. “It happens, but I think we matured as a team today.”
Jumper floated in a cross from distance that was held up a bit in the wind, allowing Paladini to beat Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles to the ball.
Paladini would finish with a goal and two assists, calling the performance his “best game as a pro.”
“It was probably the most fun I’ve had in a long time. It was a team effort and we all played well.”
Santos, who replaced Sherjill MacDonald in the 63rd minute, was the recipient of Paladini’s two assists.
In the 83rd minute, Paladini put Santos through on the left side of the box. Santos cut back around Olave and then Robles, calming placing the ball in the back of the net to make it 2-1.
“It feels nice not just for me but for the whole team,” Santos said. “It feels nice to get three points at home and celebrate the win.”
Santos finished off the game for the Fire in the 89th minute at the far post when he put in Jeff Larentowicz’ header from across the box. Paladini had served the ball in to Larentowicz.
With Dilly Duka, Patrick Nyarko, and others returning soon from injury, both Santos and Paladini are making strong cases for the starting eleven.
“That’s not my choice, that’s the coaches choice,” Santos said about the possibility of starting next week. “I’ll keep doing my work and I’ll be there for whatever the club needs.”
New York certainly had its share of chances against the Fire, particularly from Peguy Luyindula. Starting for the injured Fabian Espindola, Luyindula had four or five quality chances, but couldn’t get one past Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson.
Thierry Henry came on for the Red Bulls in the 61st minute and immediately made his presence felt. In the 69th minute he cut across the top of the box and curved a shot that hit the left post that would have given the Red Bulls the lead. The rebound fell to Luyindula, who again could not find the target.
Henry seemed to hobble after that opportunity and was ineffective the rest of the way.
“I think we just lost momentum in the second half,” said Red Bulls forward Tim Cahill. “We learned our lesson today that maybe we were trying to chase the game and go and win it, and in the end we got caught.”
New York, 1-3-2 on the season, will travel to D.C. United next Saturday in a rematch of a scoreless home draw last month.
“I think it’s the way we lost, not that we lost today,” Cahill added. “We are better than that collectively. The mindset is we’ve got a lot of good pros who have played in big stages. We need to lift the lads up – all of us.”
Chicago, now 1-3-1, will look to build on its first win of the season as it travels to Houston next Sunday. Klopas hinted the team could have Arne Friedrich, Duka, and Nyarko back in the team, giving him a number of options, and some tough decisions, when they face the Dynamo.
“I give my team a lot of credit,” Klopas said. “We have a long way to go, but the effort, the attitude, and the work goes in every day.”