The Chicago Fire and FC Dallas showcased a fitting example of two teams performing at the complete opposite ends of the spectrum this season.
Playoff-bound Dallas's movement and flow were strides ahead of Chicago's defensive gaffes and lack of scoring during FCD's 3-0 win over the Fire on Saturday at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas.
The Brimstone Cup remains with Dallas, which has held the trophy every year, with the exception of the Brimstone's inception in 2001.
Several days after posting a convincing 3-0 victory against the San Jose Earthquakes, Chicago was put in its place as Dallas orchestrated a dominating performance capped off by Jeff Cunningham's penalty kick tally in the 67th minute to tie an MLS record with his 132nd career goal.
Fire head coach Carlos de los Cobos went with the same defensive combination that ended the team's seven-match winless streak. But no matter how the back line looked during Saturday's match, the Fire (7-11-8) could not halt Dallas (12-2-13), which extended its unbeaten run to a staggering 18 matches -- tying an MLS mark set by the Columbus Crew in 2004.
Dallas forward Milton Rodriguez netted a 1-0 lead in the 19th minute. Rookie Fire defender Kwame Watson-Siriboe wanted to play Dallas goalkeeper Dario Sala's send on a hop. The ball just went over FCD midfielder David Ferreira's head and Watson-Siriboe was caught off-guard, knowing that the ball was going to sail past him. Rodriguez took advantage and snuck his shot past Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson at the near left post.
The start of the second half went the complete opposite of how the Fire wanted to get things started. Ferreira sent the ball to Marvin Chavez who easily got behind Fire right back Steven Kinney. After tracking down the ball, Chavez cut back inside and took a shot that deflected a bit off of Kinney and got past Johnson only 20 seconds into the second half (46th minute).
Cunningham, who was a second-half substitution, was awarded a PK when Fire defender Dasan Robinson took him down in the box, trying to make up for Cunningham losing Chicago defender Wilman Conde. On the PK, Johnson guessed correctly to his right, not taken aback by Cunningham's hesitation. But the ball was just out of the rookie goalkeeper's reach.
The Fire had their usual scoring opportunities, here and there, but came up empty.
In the 14th minute, Patrick Nyarko made a run behind the defense as Freddie Ljungberg set him up. Nyarko could not finish the play, however. He tried a quick touch to his right to try to get around Dallas goalkeeper Dario Sala, but Sala converged to get his glove on the ball.
In the 33rd minute, Brazilian Dallas defender Jackson intercepted a high scoring opportunity for the Fire. Bratislav Ristic had the cross from the right side, looking for Calen Carr on the far left post. But Jackson retreated to the defensive third and slid feet first into the low cross. If he did not intercept, Carr would have had an easy chance to tap in the equalizer.
In the 85th minute, Carr sent a solid cross in from the right side to second-half substitution Brian McBride. But McBride could not handle the pass and his scoring chance went wide left.
Analysis: For the numerous personnel changes, injuries and other setbacks that have slowed down the Fire during this topsy-turvy season, those talking points are moot when facing a Dallas team that has absolutely shined despite those identical setbacks. FCD has everything put together from front to back and side to side on the pitch.
The Fire's midweek high was short-lived, and the same problems that have plagued this team were at the forefront once again.
There were some questionable personnel decisions by De los Cobos. Probably the most confusing during the match -- if Chicago truly was looking to maximize on the attack -- was leaving midfielder Logan Pause in the match while he sat on his 28th-minute yellow card.
Unlike the San Jose match, the Fire's young back line was burned by several mistakes. At this stage of the season, it's a benefit to let them work through this and look toward the future. The postseason mathematics still state that Chicago is in it, but reality is setting in that the Fire will miss the playoffs for only the second time in their 13-year history.