The Chicago Fire kept their faint playoff hopes alive Wednesday night, crushing the sixth-place San Jose Earthquakes 3-0 at Buck Shaw Stadium.
The win, which was the Fire’s first in seven games, was the best performance by the Fire in recent memory.
Chicago kept the ball well, finished their chances, and defended stoutly throughout, deservedly taking all three points.
“It was important for us,” Fire forward Freddie Ljungberg told MLSsoccer.com after the match. “We played really well today. … We won as a team and that’s the main thing.”
It was Ljungberg who guided the Fire to victory. The Swedish Designated Player, who lined up as a supporting striker, played a huge role in all three Chicago tallies, notching two assists and a goal in what was easily his best statistical performance since he joined the Fire in late July.
WATCH: Full match highlights
“I felt great,” Ljungberg said. “My teammates played really well; they made me look good, so I thank them. And of course I’m quite happy with my performance.”
Despite the lopsided final score, the match wasn’t always in the Fire’s control. In fact, it was San Jose who came out of the gate in charge. The Earthquakes had the better of the play for much of the first half, controlling possession and registering the better chances throughout the opening frame.
But San Jose – normally so adept in the final 15 minutes of each half – fell asleep at the end of the first 45. Forward Chris Wondolowski lost track of Chicago defender Steven Kinney on a 39th minute corner kick, and the rookie defender made the hot striker pay, flicking Ljungberg’s wonderfully delivered ball inside the back post from the top of the six-yard box. The goal was the Fire’s first in 401 minutes.
Kinney’s goal seemed to give Chicago a boost. The Fire began attacking confidently, knocking the ball around the pitch beautifully and getting forward more frequently after taking the lead.
“We haven’t had the results that we really wanted recently and that can make you a bit nervous, especially when you have young players in the team like we do,” Ljungberg said. “But I think scoring the goal settled a lot of nerves and all of a sudden we started playing some great football. We got in the game and I think Steve’s goal had a lot to do with it.”
The Fire continued their high energy play in the second half, eventually doubling their advantage when Ljungberg scored a fantastic goal – his first in a Fire uniform – in the 72nd minute.
Substitute winger Patrick Nyarko fed a streaking Ljungberg just outside San Jose’s 18-yard box. The World Cup vet took a sublime first touch, splitting two Earthquake defenders to get into the left side of the box. Former Fire keeper Jon Busch came out to cut off Ljungberg’s angle, but that made no difference as the crafty Swede delicately chipped his shot over Busch and into the back of the net from 8 yards.
Ljungberg’s goal sealed the victory for the Fire, who looked good in the back all game. Kinney, Dasan Robinson, Kwame Watson-Siriboe and Krzysztof Krol played all 90 minutes on the back line and each performed well. Rookie center back Watson-Siriboe was the standout, shutting down the opposition’s forwards for the second consecutive game.
Nyarko added a third goal in second half stoppage time. The Fire immediately head to Dallas, where they’ll take on FCD at Pizza Hut Park on Saturday night. They’ll need another win to keep their hazy playoff chances alive.
“It’s about pride,” Ljungberg said. “I hope that Chicago fans will appreciate that we fought really hard. We’re going to keep on doing that and we’ll see where it goes.”
Sam Stejskal covers the Chicago Fire for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @samstejskal.