The Chicago Fire's recent success hit a significant bump in the road as they fell to the San Jose Earthquakes, 2-0, on Saturday at Buck Shaw Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
Chris Wondolowski had a goal and an assist and Ramiro Corrales also added a goal for San Jose, which ended a 13-game winless streak. The Fire's recent four-game unbeaten run came to a close, and what had been a positive stretch run took a wrong turn on Saturday.
"Dropping points now is not something we can afford," Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson said.
Having won back-to-back games, the Fire (4-8-15, 27 points) wanted to maintain some momentum to keep pushing for the playoffs. But the Quakes (6-10-11, 29 points) were the ones who quickly found the surge to take control of the game.
Wondolowski struck in the 10th minute after he got behind Fire left back Dan Gargan to take a 1-0 lead. Gargan was part of a significant set of lineup juggling by Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas to compensate for the absence of regular left back Gonzalo Segares (suspended for yellow card accumulation).
Gargan moved from right back to left back. Fire captain and midfielder Logan Pause was dropped to right back. And Baggio Husidic made his eighth start of the season in the midfield.
The Fire had their chances to swing the momentum heading into halftime. But former Fire and current Quakes goalkeeper Jon Busch kept his team in front by making two saves in first-half stoppage time. Busch saved a Dominic Oduro shot with his leg, then batted away a deep Pavel Pardo strike.
Chicago had more than doubled its shot attempts over San Jose in the first half, but the Fire were kept off the scoreboard.
The Quakes, meanwhile, pushed their lead to 2-0 in the 70th minute when Corrales chipped in a goal at close range past Johnson.
"We weren't good enough with the ball in the second half," Klopas said. "We weren't forcing the ball. There were turnovers in the middle of the field. We weren't doing enough in the final third. When we did get there, our plays were kind of predictable and we weren't moving the ball well enough."
Johnson did as much as he could to keep Chicago in the match. Wondolowski was a regular nuisance to the Fire defense, but Johnson stepped up on several occasions against him. He stopped Wondolowski's 53rd-minute penalty kick, bailing out Fire defender Jalil Anibaba who had a hand ball in the box. Johnson also stopped Wondolowski strikes in the 62nd and 69th minutes.
The Fire's best scoring chance came from Gargan, who hit the near left post in the 17th minute. Gargan made a good run after feeding to Nyarko, who played it back to Gargan. Instead of aiming to the far right post, Gargan tried to sneak his shot to the near left past Busch, but he was just off the mark.
Analysis: It is easy to say after the fact, but there is some curiosity on how the match might have worked out if the Fire didn't shift so many players around in the absence of Segares. With taking Pause out of the midfield and putting Husidic into the starting lineup, it changed the Fire's design considerably.
Husidic has not shown anything significant on the pitch this year to warrant a start during this stretch run.
This will be an issue next Saturday, as well, now that Gargan is suspended because of yellow card accumulation (he picked up a yellow in the 57th minute for dissent). Do the Fire once again drop Pause to right back? Do they move Anibaba to the right, where he has seen some significant playing time but has not looked as strong as his center back awareness?
While the Fire did have some strong possession late in the first half against San Jose, the Fire could not sustain an attack or some sense of fluidity out there. Oduro and Nyarko did not touch the ball a whole lot, though Oduro did have that strong scoring chance in first-half stoppage time.
Chicago had looked like it turned a corner during its four-game unbeaten run, but the Fire find themselves with a steeper hill to climb with only seven matches remaining.