The Columbus Crew gave coach Robert Warzycha a road point in his coaching debut, playing to a 1-1 draw with the Chicago Fire on Saturday afternoon at Soldier Field.
Rookie Eric Vasquez -- making his professional debut -- gave the visitors a second-half lead with a powerful drive from outside the penalty area, but Justin Mapp pulled the Fire level with a terrific free kick that left Crew 'keeper Jonny Walker flat-footed.
Key to Chicago's table-topping success this season has been to score the game's first goal -- they had done so a league-record 11 consecutive matches before Saturday -- and to accumulate points against the league's bottom feeders -- they had a perfect seven wins in seven games against the four teams in the league below the .500 mark. Neither streak survived Saturday's match.
The Fire were without a slew of first choice players whom were representing their respective countries' national teams in the CONCACAF Gold Cup including Chris Armas and Tony Sanneh (both USA) and Samuel Caballero and Ivan Guerrero (both Honduras).
Warzycha, who took over after Greg Andrulis was let go on Tuesday, would have little sympathy for that list, as his own team was also depleted. The Crew was without defender Frankie Hejduk (USA) due to Gold Cup play and veteran central defender Robin Fraser due to suspension. The Crew's first-choice side was further depleted by injuries to Jon Busch (knee) and Edson Buddle (tendonitis).
Yet both teams started the match as if striving to conserve energy in the stifling 87-degree heat. But the Fire, looking to extend their three-point Eastern Conference lead, had the early running.
Chris Rolfe's 20th minute flash header required a full-extension save from Walker and the Crew 'keeper was rooted to his spot five minutes later when Will John placed a 20-yard shot just wide of the post.
The Crew had the next best chance of the first half when Chad Marshall took advantage of slack marking and headed a 31st minute Crew corner kick directly on frame. Fire 'keeper Zach Thornton extended and punched Marshall's header wide of goal.
Vasquez snapped the Fire streak of hitting for the first goal on 54 minutes. It was also his first-ever MLS shot on goal, a 25-yard laser beam into the side netting that left Thornton rooted to his spot in the center of goal.
The Fire, not accustomed to conceding a game's first goal responded with waves of attacks. The home side was buoyed by the throngs of fans that began to nearly fill Soldier Field in anticipation of the nightcap match featuring Real Madrid and Chivas de Guadalajara.
Chicago's persistence was rewarded just after the hour mark when hard-working striker Chris Rolfe was tripped outside of the penalty area. Mapp stylishly curled the ensuing Fire free kick over the Crew wall and into the goal to tie the game.
The Crew sat back after Mapp's strike, looking content to earn one point despite potentially extending their winning streak to six matches. Chicago was eager to impress the big crowd, but legs were heavy on both sides of the ball and neither team could produce a gusto or guile to tip the match in their favor.
It was the first time the Fire had dropped a point against the bottom four teams in the league, coming into the match with a perfect record against Chivas USA, Colorado, Columbus and Real Salt Lake, all of which are below the .500 mark. The Fire have a losing record (5-6-2) against teams with a winning slate.
The Fire visit the Colorado Rapids next Saturday (July 23) in Denver before hosting UEFA Champions League runner-up AC Milan at Soldier Field on July 27 at 8 p.m. CT. Columbus plays host to the MetroStars on Wednesday at Crew Stadium (7:30 p.m. ET).
MLSnet.com Man of the Match: Jonny Walker (Columbus Crew)
Ivaldo Basso is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.
Columbus Crew (4-10-2) vs. Chicago Fire (11-6-2)
July 16, 2005 -- Soldier Field
CLB -- Eric Vasquez 1 (David Testo 2, Kyle Martino 2) 54
CHI -- Justin Mapp 2 (unassisted) 62
Columbus Crew -- Jonny Walker, Chad Marshall, Chris Wingert, Mark Schulte, Chris Henderson, Simon Elliott, Eric Vasquez, David Testo (Jamal Sutton 84), Danny Szetela (Mario Rodriguez 72), Knox Cameron, Kyle Martino (Cornell Glen 72).
Substitutes Not Used: Bill Gaudette, Ryan Kelly.
TOTAL SHOTS: 12 (3 tied with 2); SHOTS ON GOAL: 4 (4 tied with 1); FOULS: 18 (Mark Schulte 5); OFFSIDES: 1 (Chris Henderson 1); CORNER KICKS: 7 (Chris Henderson 4); SAVES: 6 (Jonny Walker 6)
Chicago Fire -- Zach Thornton, Logan Pause, C.J. Brown, Jim Curtin, Gonzalo Segares (Jack Stewart 64), Scott Buete (Will Johnson 46), Will John, Jesse Marsch, Justin Mapp, Chris Rolfe, Lubos Reiter (Andy Herron 67).
Substitutes Not Used: Chad Barrett, Leonard Griffin, David Mahoney, Jared Montz.
TOTAL SHOTS: 12 (Chris Rolfe 3); SHOTS ON GOAL: 7 (Chris Rolfe 2); FOULS: 9 (Will John 3); OFFSIDES: 2 (Chris Rolfe 2); CORNER KICKS: 2 (Jesse Marsch 2); SAVES: 3 (Zach Thornton 3)
CLB -- Danny Szetela (caution; Professional Foul) 40
CLB -- Chris Henderson (caution; Game Disrepute) 75
Referee: Richard Heron
Referee's Assistants: Fabio Tovar; Paul Scott
4th Official: Jose Gesundheit
All Statistics contained in this boxscore are unofficial.