For 280 minutes, the Chicago Fire could not put anything in the net. But on Sunday, Fire forward Cristian Nazarit broke that scoring drought with a game-winning tally in second-half stoppage time en route to a 1-0 win over the Columbus Crew at Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.
The win was Chicago's first since its March 26 home-opening victory over Sporting Kansas City, and it snapped a team-worst 11-game winless streak.
"It's always great to get a win, especially going this long without one," Fire midfielder Patrick Nyarko said. "It's a happy locker room, and rightly so. Things haven't gone our way, but we have kept at it and kept fighting."
Nazarit's first goal was a long-awaited moment for the Fire (2-4-8). Second-half sub Orr Barouch had the initial attack on the sequence, fighting his way in between the Crew's Julius James and Josh Gardner, then forcing Columbus goalkeeper William Hesmer into making a save to his right. Nazarit was there for the rebound and had an open net in front of him to give Chicago the lead.
"He created a lot out of nothing," Nyarko said of Barouch's effort on the game-winning sequence. "He beat the defender and did an excellent job. He's not a one-dimensional player, and he can beat you off the dribble."
Before that goal, the pattern of missed chances was the usual story line. Gaston Puerari had two close-range scoring chances in the 62nd and 66th minutes, with Nyarko setting him up on both occasions. But one shot went over the crossbar and the other was blocked by James.
Barouch had a couple of scoring chances when his attempt was blocked by James in the 72nd minute, then his 79th-minute strike from just outside the box hit the frame of the goal.
Nyarko was the most consistent attacking presence among the Fire players, especially in the second half.
"They gave me the green light to go ahead and be myself," Nyarko said. "In the first half, I was a little indecisive. When we went into halftime, they told me to do what I do best -- be aggressive and go into an attack mode."
Chicago moved ahead of the New England Revolution in the Eastern Conference standings, and both sides will meet next Saturday at Gillette Stadium. The match wraps up the Fire's three-game road trip, which was preceded by scoreless draws against Seattle Sounders FC and Sporting Kansas City.
Under interim head coach Frank Klopas, who replaced Carlos de los Cobos on May 30, the Fire have yet to concede a goal. Columbus did not put a single shot on goal against Chicago as Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson and his defense turned in another clean sheet.
Klopas made multiple changes to his lineup that he utilized against Kansas City on Thursday. Rookie defender Jalil Anibaba returned to right back in place of Bratislav Ristic. Baggio Husidic and Nyarko started ahead of Daniel Paladini and Corben Bone in the midfield. And Diego Chaves started ahead of Nazarit. Nazarit entered Sunday's match in the 79th minute for Chaves and scored the game-winner less than 12 minutes later.
Analysis: The Fire were the more dominant side in terms of both possession and scoring chances, so it was only fitting that Chicago ultimately gained the advantage on the scoreboard.
Nyarko got into a groove that was reminiscent of his assist-heavy 2010 campaign. Nyarko was the prime setup man for the bulk of Puerari's and Barouch's scoring opportunities. If the Fire improved their finishing touch, he would have had multiple assists on Sunday.
This was a big victory for Chicago on so many levels. It was the boost that the Fire needed to start making a climb back up the standings. The Fire are fortunate to be playing in the Eastern Conference, where even through this winless stretch, Chicago still has some time to move into a playoff position.
It was a much-needed win for Klopas, who has the task of showcasing a team that was mostly assembled under his watch. And it was a necessary win to keep some general interest within this club. Let's face it -- under an 11-game winless streak, the fans were understandably growing restless.
Two of the Fire's next three matches are against East foes: New England on Saturday and the New York Red Bulls on June 26. Chicago has been trying to get over the hump for some time now to make a move in the East standings. Perhaps the Fire's first road victory will serve as that long-awaited moment to turn the tide.