Chicago Fire FC lament loss to Vancouver Whitecaps, disallowed CJ Sapong goal

For 62 minutes on Thursday morning in their final group stage game at the MLS is Back Tournament, everything for Chicago Fire FC was on track.

Sure, the match remained scoreless, but Chicago had strong advantages in possession, shots and expected goals over the Vancouver Whitecaps

Then came a lightning delay, a stretch of more than 90 minutes, after which nothing was the same. 

The Whitecaps restarted quicker and capitalized almost immediately, when Yordy Reyna rounded Kenneth Kronholm and scored after just two minutes. A few minutes after that, Cristian Dajome doubled Vancouver's lead. Just like that, needing only to avoid a two-goal defeat, the Fire were out of the MLS is Back Tournament with a 2-0 loss to the Whitecaps.

“Right now, it hurts a lot," head coach Raphael Wicky said afterward. "We had everything in our hands, we just had to grab it. So it hurts.”

Mildfielder Alvaro Medran took it further.

"It's the worst type of game you can lose," he said through an interpreter. "After we came back from the stoppage, there were two mistakes that we can't have."

Chicago got off to such a strong start at the tournament, despite difficult circumstances, which saw their opening match postponed and ultimately their group assignment changed. They rolled with the last-minute alterations and beat reigning MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders when their opening match finally arrived, before losses to Earthquakes then Vancouver condemned them to elimination. 

“We’ve had three games with this group, we’re in the beginning," Wicky said.

The club have played five games this season but a number of players, including Designated Players Gaston Gimenez and Ignacio Aliseda, hardly even trained with the team back in March before the season was suspended.

"We’ve seen good moments, but we see that there is work to be done. But today it hurts,” Wicky added.

Despite the loss, the Fire nearly got the goal that could have kept them in the tournament.

Trailing by two as the game neared the final whistle, Chicago kept attacking, since the Whitecaps needed a two-goal win to advance at Chicago's expense. 

The Fire thought they found their moment in the 84th minute. Medran's shot clattered off the crossbar and then skyward, and CJ Sapong inserted himself in a goal line scramble that eventually saw the ball trickle into the net.

Following referee Armando Villareal's Video Review, however, he ruled Sapong had committed a handball on the play.

Video replays on TV suggested that may have been the case. But was it "clear and obvious," as is the Video Review protocol?

"I checked the highlights after the game, it's hard for me to say" Fire defender Jonathan Bornstein said. "VAR always says it has to be clear and obvious. From my view, it wasn't clear and obvious whether it was a handball or not. There were three players right there battling, they kind of sandwiched CJ. It looks like it could have hit anyone's hand in that situation, for me it's not clear and obvious. But obviously the referee felt different. It is what it is. In the moment you're upset, but there's nothing we can do now." 

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