Heading into Saturday night's inter-conference clash between the Chicago Fire and Chivas USA, Chicago had been playing some of the best soccer in all of MLS. They torched their competition for 18 goals in the month of June, notched one positive result after another.
On Saturday at The Home Depot Center, expansion side Chivas USA proved to be a tough road test for Chicago, but the Fire still managed to escape with a narrow 1-0 victory thanks in large part to a red card ejection to Chivas defender Orlando Perez.
Perez was ejected for an apparent stomp on Chicago's Chris Rolfe while he was on the ground appealing for a penalty. Immediately following the incident, the Fire capitalized on their free kick, scoring the game's only goal in the 78th minute as Gonzalo Segares deflected home a Jim Curtin cross, but after the game Fire head coach Dave Sarachan had nothing but praise for his opponents.
"I think Chivas did a good job. It wasn't an easy night for us to be honest," said Sarachan. "To come out of here at The Home Depot center with three points is still a big moral victory for us."
The game wasn't just a moral victory -- it was the real deal and Chicago walked away with the full three points. With the one-goal win, the Fire continues to build on the momentum that they have been developing over the past several weeks.
The Fire started the season rather slowly, struggling to find themselves. Two early season losses to Eastern Conference frontrunners New England Revolution still sit in the back of the Fire's minds, but according to Jesse Marsch, his mates have come a long way since then.
"We just kind of figured out how to get the best out of certain guys at certain positions," said Marsch. "Sometimes it takes 10, 12, or even 15 games to figure out what your team's going to look like."
Marsch almost was the goat Saturday. In the 69th minute he had a penalty kick opportunity that could have given his side the lead. Instead, Chivas 'keeper Brad Guzan guessed correctly and saved his shot.
Redemption came to Marsch though, as his free kick started the play that led to the game-winning goal, earning himself an assist on the night.
"I felt pretty bad about missing the penalty," said Marsch. "It doesn't matter who scored though so long as we got the goal and the win."
To the credit of Chivas USA, they never quit, even after going down a man and a goal late in the second half. Their best chances came in the opening 45 minutes, but goalkeeper Zach Thornton was equal to everything thrown his way.
In the first half, Thornton was forced to make a couple saves, including a brilliant effort on a Thiago Martins shot that was destined for the back of the net.
"(Martins) got through and I was able to make the save," Thornton said. "But the guys in front of me were doing a good job all night."
The Chicago captain managed to deflect the attention from himself and onto his teammates, but the massive keeper was the hero of the first half. Thornton kept his clean sheet, and his team kept their momentum heading into next weekend's game against the Revolution with first place in the Eastern Conference on the line.
"To get a road win, and to get it the way we did will give us some confidence against New England, the best team in the league," said Thornton.
With the victory, Chicago took over first place for the time being, though they've played four more matches than the Revolution. New England will try and reclaim the top spot for themselves in a matchup of their own in Carson against the Los Angeles Galaxy on Monday.
"Right now on points we're in first place. We know we have some games in hand, but we have a nice win streak going and we have a two-week homestand," said Sarachan. "I think our confidence is high going into next week."
Greg Daurio is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.