ORLANDO – It might as well be two different worlds the teams are living in since they last faced each other four-and-a-half months ago.
There has been a pandemic, a lengthy suspension of the season, and now both clubs are playing on a neutral site in Orlando chosen specifically to isolate them from the world. Nothing looks the same as it did when the reigning MLS Champion Seattle Sounders bested Chicago Fire FC 2-1 on March 1st at Centurylink Field.
Yet the team’s meeting on Wednesday at the unusual time of 8 AM CST played out very similar to that contest that seems much long than a quarter-year ago. A tightly-contested match remained even well into the second half, as each team battled for points in a still young tournament.
It was even the same Chicago Fire FC player that had their only goal until the final moments, but this time a teammate was able to bring his own contribution to flip the result.
Bolingbrook native Mauricio Pineda got his first career MLS goal off a corner kick in the 84th minute to give the Fire at lead they wouldn’t relinquish in a 2-1 victory over the reigning champion Sounders in their tournament opener.
It’s the first win for the club in the Raphael Wicky era, since the team lost to Seattle then tied the New England Revolution before the season was suspended.
“I’m obviously very, very happy with the team spirit, with the fighting spirit the team put on the field. It’s tough for everyone,” said Wicky. “It’s our first game since four months, and so I wanted to see a team who works together, fights together. We saw that.”
They also saw a longtime product of the team’s developmental system come to fruition on a national stage. A strong corner kick from Gastón Giménez got from the right side of the net to the left and to the foot of Pineda, a homegrown player for the franchise, who put it home for his first MLS score.
He started his first game against the Sounders back in March and now has his breakthrough moment against that same club four months later.
“I felt good. I think everyone was looking forward to this game. We were all really anxious to start playing games again and I think everyone worked really hard today,” said a humble Pineda after the match. “We all really wanted a good result today to start the tournament off and just for the league points,”
It capped off an offensive half of soccer which was started quickly by Robert Beric, who recorded his first MLS goal against the Sounders on March 1st. In the 52 minute he put on an impressive run to the net, stealing the ball around midfield, then shaking off a defender at the top of the box and firing the shot in the goal to make it 1-0.
Jordan Morris, who scored the stoppage time game-winner for the Sounders against the Fire in March, would play a big part in tying the match in the 77th minute. He slid a pass from the right post to the front of the net for Handwalla Bwana, who put in the goal to even it at one.
It looked as if a similar ending to March was brewing, but this time, the Fire and their newest player had something else in mind.