It had been coming.
As the second half of the 4-1 win over Colorado Rapids began to develop into a rout, and little connections began to work all over the field, it was possible to see ghosts of touches from recent games — the flick that hadn’t quite come off last time but did today, the through balls that found the lanes instead of the roadblocks.
Seen in the light of an emphatic victory, all of those moments from previous games start to look less like minor frustrations, and more like tracer fire for an attack finding its range.
In particular, there was something particularly satisfying about Nico Gaitán starting to make his connections.
As a fan you watch big players arrive to play for your team and their opening moments in the shirt are all about your magical thinking of what they might do, could do. As they’re going through the necessary motions that every incoming player has to do (finding their fitness, learning their teammates’ runs — the general vital, but prosaic, workload that star status does not insulate you from), we’re on the sidelines investing every touch they make with a desire to see what makes them special. Looking for gold in every glimmer.
I’d remembered watching Gaitán jog onto the field as a substitute against the Red Bulls, for his first appearance in a Fire shirt. He’d run straight to the corner flag and his first touch was a dangerous looking inswinger that hung dangerously in the six-yard box. It was a solid corner, but you couldn’t help extrapolating from it to think, “So if he does that now, what’s he going to do when he finds his feet?” And as the minutes mounted up over the next handful of games and you saw him flick a little reverse pass to a player in red, you weren’t seeing the potential interception as the relative strangers figured out each other’s game, you were seeing the possibilities for when they became familiar teammates.
And today it came good. From the perfectly flighted cross out of nothing for Nemanja Nikolić to open the scoring, to the touch with the outside of his boot to set up Mihailović for the team’s third, Gaitán was finding pockets to do creative work in all over the attacking third, and getting his reward. It could even have been a hat trick of assists, after what might have been his most sublime touch – a needle-threading angled touch to set substitute Amando Moreno through one-on-one – just failed to come off. In the tunnel afterwards Moreno sounded as much like a fan as a colleague as he marveled at Gaitán having the touch and instinct to thread the pass in the first place (“He is so talented in tight spaces. I was just concentrating on making a run — I didn’t think he had the time to find that pass then.”)
For Gaitán himself, there will be more of those passes and more that will work. As he matter-of-factly put it after the game, when asked if he had personal regrets about not scoring yet himself: “I’m a player who works to assist my teammates.” Yet as he addressed the press in the locker roon, Gaitán mainly sounded happy to have gone much deeper into this game before feeling fatigued, than he’d managed in his previous outings. He’s still clear about the honest work that has to be done, even if he did allow himself a sheepish, “Rock and roll!” and a giggle as he made his way up the tunnel brandishing his Heineken Man of the Match guitar.
He wouldn’t have been human if he hadn’t. This was a cathartic game for a lot of Chicago players. CJ Sapong called the second half, and in particular the moments after the team opened up a multi-goal lead, “A chance to express our creativity. We know we have it. We see it in training. But this was a chance to truly enjoy ourselves and show it to our fans.”
Sapong was also happy to see goals spread across the front three, as Nemanja Nikolić moved to three goals in three games, and another attacking talent come good in spectacular fashion. Aleksandar Katai came into the game having taken more shots than anyone in the league who had not yet scored. He left having rattled in a golazo to add to his already spectacular highlight reel. It was a moment for this kind of game.
And, just as with Gaitán, Katai’s contribution was so decisive that it too felt like it redefined the history of their previous efforts in a heartbeat. They’d been finding their range. This had been coming.