By TYLER DAY
BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — Morale was low in the Fire’s locker room following a dreadful midweek performance in the semifinal of the U.S. Open Cup.
On top of that, the team’s three leading scorers, Mike Magee, Patrick Nyarko, and Chris Rolfe were all out of the starting lineup with injuries heading into a game they desperately needed three points from in order to keep up in the playoff race.
Perhaps with good fortune, the Fire’s makeshift attack got an opportunity against a suddenly vulnerable Montreal defense that had allowed 20 road goals heading into Saturday’s game and at least three in five of their past 11 games.
Fire wingers Joel Lindpere and Dilly Duka quickly added two more to that rising Montreal total, and five Sean Johnson saves helped the Fire narrowly survive a second half rush from Felipe Martins and the Montreal Impact to win 2-1 on Saturday night.
Lindpere opened the scoring early for the Fire, connecting on a shot from the top of the box in the 6th minute that took a fortunate ricochet off Impact striker Daniele Paponi and past goalkeeper Troy Perkins. Lindpere has been stellar as of late and was the point of distribution for the slim squad on Saturday.
Duka doubled the Fire’s leaded in the 23rd minute with another piece of fortune. Duka charged into the box and had the ball poked out from behind him. But the ball took a bounce off Impact defender Alessandro Nesta and back to the feet of Duka, who slid it past the goalkeeper to make it 2-0.
“It bounced around a bit,” Duka said with a grin after the game. “I was a little fortunate but it was a big play and it ended up being the game winner.”
Duka’s strong run in the second half of the season continued Saturday night as he showed his ability to attack defenders one-on-one. He was forced off in the 70th minute with an ankle injury, but he said it was just a tweak that will only keep him out for a couple of days.
Although he did not find the net, the Fire saw some positive qualities from new designated player Juan Luis Anangono. The Ecuadorian was a target up top and look poised to score, if the distribution had been a little more precise.
“Juan brought something different,” Fire head coach Frank Klopas said afterwards. “He physically is suited for the league. He’s got pace, he looks to run behind. We created chances and we were dangerous. And it was his first game, it is only going to get better.”
The game was in doubt until the final whistle as the Impact, who have now won only once in their last eight league games, created a number of dangerous chances.
Second-half substitute Felipe Martins made his presence felt immediately after coming into the game. In the 55th minute, Martins received a pass at the top of the box from Sanna Nyassi and hit a left-footed one-timer past a diving Sean Johnson to cut the deficit to 2-1.
The final 30 minutes were frenzied as the Impact had a number of chances to tie.
The best opportunity came from Matteo Ferrari in stoppage time. Ferrari headed a corner towards the far post, but late substitute Chris Rolfe was in the right place at the right time and headed the ball off the line.
“The defense was fantastic tonight,” Johnson said. “Limiting chances, not only the back line, but (Rolfe) at the end, clearing off the line, Austin (Berry) making a play sliding in, (Soumare) blocking that ball out. Everybody contributed tonight and that’s why we came away with three points.”
The Fire (9-9-4) now jump up into sixth place in the East, just two points behind Houston for the final playoff position. The club travels to New England next week for another crucial test against the seventh-place Revolution.
“Everybody had written us off after the start, but it’s not how you start, but how you finish,” Klopas said. “This group has never given up on our goal and our focus. This was just a massive game.”
Montreal (10-7-5) slides to four place and returns home looking to right the ship with a game against D.C. United.
Here are the match highlights: