After 401 scoreless minutes, the Chicago Fire unearthed their hidden offense as they tallied three goals and blanked the San Jose Earthquakes, 3-0, late Wednesday night at Buck Shaw Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
Freddie Ljungberg tallied a goal and two assists to lead the way as Chicago (7-10-8) erased a seven-match winless streak and mathematically kept itself in the playoff picture.
"I think we knew that the goals would come," Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson said. "Tonight was a complete game on both sides of the ball, defensively and offensively -- finished our chances and held it tight for 90 minutes."
Chicago defender Steven Kinney ended the Fire's all-time longest scoreless drought with a 39th-minute tally off of a Ljungberg corner kick to take a 1-0 lead. Ljungberg crossed the ball from the right side, hooking up with Kinney who made a strong run to lose the Quakes' Brandon McDonald. The cross went just over the head of San Jose's Chris Wondolowski, and Kinney's header went toward the upper left of the goal past former Fire goalkeeper Jon Busch.
Ljungberg notched his first goal in a Fire jersey in the 72nd minute. Patrick Nyarko sent the ball to Ljungberg who made a run up the middle to lose San Jose's Christopher Leitch. Ljungberg made one touch with the ball to lead himself forward and get past the Quakes' Jason Hernandez, then chipped the ball with his left foot over Busch and into the right side netting for a 2-0 advantage.
Nyarko tallied his first goal of the season in second-half stoppage time to take a 3-0 lead. Brian McBride dished to Ljungberg who made an overlapping right toward the right side. Ljungberg crossed to Nyarko who shot the ball toward the right side of the net for the match's final goal.
A young Fire lineup maintained the clean sheet. Rookie goalkeeper Johnson made four saves, and the back line consisted of first-year players Kinney and Kwame Watson-Siriboe, Dasan Robinson and Krzysztof Krol -- a vastly different back line in comparison to the normal lineup of Gonzalo Segares, C.J. Brown, Wilman Conde and Robinson.
San Jose (11-8-6) held a 13-8 advantage in shots, and they had their scoring chances. Probably the biggest scare from Chicago's standpoint came in the 23rd minute, when Watson-Siriboe could have been called for a hand ball in the box, but referee Abeey Okulaja did not award a Quakes penalty kick.
During the sequence, San Jose midfielder Bobby Convey crossed the ball in from the right side and had some space because Krol had to decide between covering Convey or marking another Quakes player on the outside. Convey sent the ball toward the far left post to try and find Wondolowski. As Wondolowski tried to direct the ball, Watson-Siriboe's right arm did connect with the ball, but Okulaja either felt it was incidental contact or simply did not see the contact.
The Quakes' Ryan Johnson also created a 35th-minute chance with a header from the left side as Kinney lost his man. But Johnson's header went just wide right.
Busch made four saves for San Jose during his first in-game action against his former Chicago squad.
"I think we lacked that killer mentality that we showed last Saturday in Toronto," Busch said, referencing a 3-2 victory at Toronto FC. "I think we may have just thought we were going to show up and get our points. And maybe this is good. Sometimes you need a wake-up call."
Analysis: The smaller pitch at Buck Shaw always lends itself to some good back-and-forth play. For a Fire team that has not generated much from the run of play, Wednesday's second half was one of the most exciting stretches for Chicago in quite some time.
The team hustled, was chippy, aggressive and moved much better away from the ball compared to some recent efforts.
The Fire's young back line was a pleasure to see, as well. There were a few shaky moments in there, but they maintained their composure and kept pressing, rather than sitting back with the lead. Kinney had the goal and also made a nice little move to lose Convey to get a shot on goal in the 70th minute. Watson-Siriboe plugged up the center of the pitch with some decisive marking and clearances.
Ljungberg performed the way he was advertised when the organization brought him in two months ago, showcasing an energetic effort that led to his involvement in every goal against San Jose.
The only major question following the Fire's match is this -- where has this Chicago team been over the past month and a half?