The best road team in MLS proved their road worthiness yet again as the Chicago Fire drew 1-1 with Real Salt Lake on Saturday night at Rio Tinto Stadium. Chris Rolfe scored his fifth goal of the year for the Fire to give the visitors an early lead. His strike was enough to guarantee Chicago a share of the points despite a second-half goal by Jamison Olave.
Salt Lake came out flying and nearly scored less than a half-minute into the match. Andy Williams fed a ball through to Pablo Campos on the left side. Campos got off a low, hard shot to the near post, but Jon Busch was there to make the sliding save.
The Fire had their first good opportunity of the match in the ninth minute when RSL made a turnover deep in their own end. The ball ended up at the feet of Rolfe 25 yards straight away from goal. Rolfe unleashed a hard left-footed shot that just missed the left post.
In the 24th minute, Brian McBride nearly scored his first goal since coming back from injury. Awarded a free kick just outside the penalty area on the right, Mike Banner served up a perfect free kick to the far post where McBride was waiting. McBride got his head on it, but he was unable to keep the ball down and it sailed just over the crossbar.
Both teams had trouble owning the midfield in the first half of the game, and the action went very much end to end. But Chicago was the better team as they were able to possess the ball much better in the attacking third and they created the more dangerous scoring chances. The Fire forced Real back on their heels, and the home side could do little going forward except play long balls over the top.
Then just before halftime, all the effort finally paid off for Chicago. In the 44th minute, the Fire combined to score a beautiful goal courtesy of Banner, Marco Pappa and Rolfe.
Banner tracked down a long ball up the left wing and with his first touch, he flicked a header over to Pappa. Pappa lofted a soft cross to the penalty spot where Rolfe was waiting. Rolfe settled the ball a few feet in front of himself with his chest, and before the RSL defense could close him down, he lunged with his right foot and poked the ball past Rimando.
The visitors picked up in the second half right where they left off, working to take advantage of a RSL side obviously more keen to get forward. In the 48th minute, a Chicago counterattack ended up finding Pappa on the left edge of the penalty area. Pappa wasted no time putting a hard shot at the near post, but Rimando made a good diving save to preserve the scoreline.
Thanks to stout defense and some tidy possession soccer on the part of Chicago, Salt Lake did not generate their first real scoring chance of the half until the 62nd minute. A free kick deep in Chicago's end was not well cleared by the Fire, and a slow bouncing ball came to Will Johnson at the top of the penalty area. Johnson hit a hard volley with his first touch that missed just wide.
But in the 72nd minute, Salt Lake's urgency and aggression finally paid off. From the midfield stripe on the right touchline, Andy Williams played a beautiful 60-yard ball into the center of the Chicago penalty area towards Olave, who was pushed forward because of a corner kick a few seconds earlier. Williams' ball landed right on the foot of Olave, and he finished with his first touch past a helpless Busch.
Eager to take full points, Salt Lake kept pressing for the win. In the 84th minute, Robbie Findley found Fabian Espindola at Busch's right post just a few yards out. Espindola tried to snap a header into the goal but could not get enough power behind it and Busch was there to make the save.
Then in the 86th, Yura Movsisyan chested the ball down and tried to take a hit from a thin angle, but he cut it too far across goal and the shot rolled harmlessly wide.
Peter Lowry nearly stole a win for Chicago when he combined with Austin Washington at the top of RSL's penalty area. After receiving a pass from Lowry, Washington made a neat heel flick back to Lowry. Lowry's first-time shot was destined for goal but Rimando made a good diving save to keep the game a draw.
Then it was Real's turn to nearly steal the points when in second-half stoppage time, Movsisyan struck a hard left-footed shot from 25 yards out that hit the right post and rolled harmlessly away. Then Olave nearly scored his second of the night on the final play of the game off a header from a corner, but Busch made an excellent save right on the goal line.
Chicago sees its next action in a pivotal match against the Columbus Crew in a battle for the top of the Eastern Conference next Sunday afternoon at Toyota Park.
Jeremy Horton is a contributor to MLSnet.com