Cunningham, RSL send Fire packing
Real Salt Lake took a while to get going, but once the home team found the range they began hitting fast and hard. With three goals in the span of 20 minutes, RSL extended its unbeaten streak to a team-record four games with a 3-1 decision against the Chicago Fire.
To be sure, Jeff Cunningham has shown himself to be a second-half player. In RSL's previous three games, Cunningham entered the game in the second half as a substitute for Atiba Harris and recorded four goals.
But with Harris unavailable because of two yellow cards the previous week against Colorado, Cunningham got the start. He ended up with two of his team's three goals, and moved to the top of the MLS scoring charts.
RSL took the lead with the first goal of the game in the 57th minute. Cunningham put the ball in with a sliding shot across the face of the goal and inside the far left post. Carey Talley played it over the top from midfield to record the assist.
Only five minutes later, Chicago's Brian Plotkin scored an unassisted goal with a powerful shot from 35 yards out and towards the right touchline. With plenty of space to work with, Plotkin sent the ball from long distance into the far left corner of the goal for the equalizer.
It was Plotkin's second boomer from way out in six minutes. His first did not have quite enough topspin, as it bounded off the crossbar and out of the penalty area.
But Chicago's fortune did not extend to the 69th minute. Cunningham worked the ball into the penalty area from the left, got to the endline and took a short-angle shot with not much to aim at. But the effort still paid off as the Fire's Dasan Robinson deflected it into his own goal to give the lead back to RSL.
While Cunningham was denied his second goal of the game by Robinson, he was not denied in the 77th minute with a chip shot from outside the penalty area, right of the restraining arc. With an assist from Jason Kreis, Cunningham chipped Fire goalkeeper Zach Thornton and hit inside the upper-left corner of the goal to give RSL some insurance.
Chicago had the early advantage. The Fire earned a pair of corner kicks in the first two minutes, then took the first shot of the game when Chris Rolfe played it into the right side of the box and passed to Thiago outside the goal box. The one-touch chip shot flew high and left of the goal.
RSL orchestrated a fine attack in the ninth minute after Cunningham cleared the ball out of their own defensive third. Kreis sent a beautiful pass to Willis Forko, who worked it into the left for a cross. Kreis could not connect with the centering pass, and Ballouchy was denied on the rebound shot.
But RSL had shown themselves to be dangerous. Moments later, Cunningham took a straightaway shot that was deflected at the top of the 18-yard box. Thornton had little trouble collecting the ball.
Thornton then came off his line in the nick of time in the 14th minute. Kreis connected with Chris Klein with a fine pass, but Thornton attacked and shut down what otherwise was a certain RSL goal.
By the 17th minute, RSL's attack was fully charged. Kreis had a breakaway, but was taken down from behind by Robinson one yard outside the penalty area. Robinson was shown a yellow card, and RSL was awarded a free kick. Kreis was denied at the wall, and RSL tried two more shots before the ball was cleared out of the box.
Chicago had a fine chance to score in the 24th minute. Plotkin played it across the face of the goal to Andy Herron who had a wide-open chance, but the shot inexplicably flew wide left.
Chris Armas forced RSL goalkeeper Scott Garlick to make his first save of the game in the 38th minute after the defense allowed him too much room to work.
Chicago had the early chances in the second half. RSL's Kevin Novak committed a foul against the endline. Armas took the free kick, but the Fire could not deflect it in. Armas had a straightaway, point-blank header moments later, but the shot flew high.
In the 54th minute, Kreis was taken down outside the arc, giving RSL a choice free kick chance. Kreis left it for Klein, but the shot went off the wall and past the endline. RSL found no joy after the corner kick as well.
RSL replaced Kenny Cutler with Williams seconds after taking a 2-1 lead, improving its offense and giving the second-year midfielder a rest for his sore ribs.
Peter Richins is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.