In soccer circles, the home fans represent the 12th man on the pitch. From the Chicago Fire's standpoint, they had a partially direct impact toward the Fire's game-winning goal.
With the smoke still clearing from some previously lit flares close to the Colorado Rapids goal, Fire right defensive back Jalil Anibaba cracked a shot from more than 40 yards out, finding the back netting during Chicago's 2-1 victory over Colorado in a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup qualifying match on Wednesday at Bradley University's Shea Stadium in Peoria, Ill.
Anibaba's game-winning strike came in the 61st minute, giving the Fire a 2-1 advantage that held up over the final half hour. Anibaba's deep shot through the smoke appeared to cause a delayed reaction from Colorado goalkeeper Ian Joyce, who then scrambled to his left but could not get to the ball in time.
From Anibaba's view, though, the smokey environment was not taken into account on his decision to shoot from deep.
"To be honest, no, I wasn't thinking about that," Anibaba said. "I was just thinking about how much time and space I had. I got the ball played out wide, and I had a lot of time. My initial thought was to take the defender one-on-one, but I just focused on my strike and getting that on frame."
With the win, the Fire will face either the San Jose Earthquakes or Portland Timbers in the qualification finals.
Gaston Puerari netted the Fire's other goal on Wednesday, and Andre Akpan scored for the defending MLS Cup champion Rapids.
Heading into the match, the Fire had the bulk of their first team available. The only major absences were Marco Pappa (international duty with Guatemala) and regular starting defender Josip Mikulic (quad injury). Davis Paul earned the start in the midfield and Yamith Cuesta got his first start at right-center back as Chicago went with a 4-4-2 formation. Anibaba played to the right of Cuesta and gave high marks toward the Fire defender.
"He was very aggressive, has good instincts and plays well out of the back," Anibaba said. "He's smart and I definitely liked playing with him."
The Rapids missed their highly touted scoring duo of Omar Cummings (international duty) and Conor Casey (stayed in Colorado), and were without midfielders Jeff Larentowicz and Pablo Mastroeni, as well as several other absences.
Chicago held the possession advantage in the first half, and it wasn't until the 45th minute when the Fire finally broke through on the scoreboard. Puerari, who received the ball from fellow Uruguayan Diego Chaves, made a swift run from the left side toward the box. He took a low strike past Joyce and toward the inside of the left post for the 1-0 halftime lead.
The Rapids came out of the halftime break with high energy and an immediate result as Akpan's tally tied the score at 1-1 in the 47th minute. Quincy Amarikwa put together a couple of crossover moves during the attack, found Akpan to his right, and Akpan's low shot went underneath Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson and into the far left-side netting.
"Overall, I was definitely happy with the result," Anibaba said. "When you give up a goal, you have to go back to the drawing board to see how we can improve. It was a humbling game."
Johnson saved four of five shots for the Fire, and his counterpart Joyce saved three of five shots on frame.