Real Salt Lake's offense found some life in the second half, and the Chicago Fire escaped Rio Tinto Stadium with a 1-all draw Saturday night in Sandy, Utah.
For just a little more than 70 minutes, it looked like the Fire were en route to their seventh road victory. But Real's Jamison Olave netted an equalizer as he snuck behind Chicago's defense, and he almost had the game-winner in second-half stoppage time.
About 4 minutes and 40 seconds into stoppage time, Olave struck a solid header off of a corner kick, but Fire goalkeeper Jon Busch came up with a huge save as Chicago earned the one point on the road.
"We felt we could have had three (points) tonight," Fire head coach Denis Hamlett said afterward. "Obviously we fell asleep on their tying goal. But overall I thought we defended well, we had a good game plan, we made it hard for them. ... We'll take our point from the road."
The Fire (10-6-9) are currently tied for the Eastern Conference lead with 39 points alongside the Columbus Crew. But the Crew take on the Houston Dynamo on Sunday, and after that game Columbus will have played one less game than Chicago. RSL is now 9-9-7 on the season.
Chicago also had a good chance in second-half stoppage time to come away with the win Saturday night. Peter Lowry's strike above the box forced RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando to make a diving save to his left.
Chris Rolfe (pictured above) netted the Fire's lone goal in the 44th minute, his sixth goal of the season, to tie for the team lead with Brian McBride. And speaking of McBride, he made his first appearance after an eight-game layoff with a shoulder injury. McBride had one big opportunity when his 24th-minute header sailed over the net off of Mike Banner's free kick on the right side.
Busch made four saves for the Fire and Rimando had three for Real.
With limited chances throughout most of the first half, the Fire came through with a huge momentum builder entering halftime. In the 44th, Marco Pappa provided a cross from the left to Rolfe in the middle. Rolfe quickly chested the ball, and between two Royals defenders Rolfe hit the ball with the outside of his right foot and put enough velocity to strike it past Rimando's left side.
Real Salt Lake responded in the 72nd minute when Chris Wingert provided a deep ball just after he crossed the halfway line on the right side. With RSL defender Olave running past C.J. Brown and getting behind Wilman Conde of the Fire defense, Olave one-touched the ball near post and drove the ball past Busch for the 1-all score.
Next up: The Fire host the Columbus Crew on Sunday, Sept. 20, for a 2 p.m. match at Toyota Park. The game will be televised on My50 and Telefutura.
SlideTackles.net thoughts: The Fire still are in great shape from a playoff standpoint, that's for sure. But escaping with a win at Rio Tinto really would have created some separation down the stretch. Instead, we're seeing a continuation of a logjam of teams in the hunt for the postseason.
Chicago should definitely take some pride in its defensive effort against an RSL team that thrives on the offensive end at home. RSL's Yura Movsisyan obviously has the ability to get into a player's head and capitalize from it. Dasan Robinson was fortunate to get away with a bit of a headlock on him, even though Movsisyan initiated the contact. Nevertheless, the Fire's defensive back line kept RSL's leading goal scorers in check. Movsisyan and Robbie Findley have combined for 16 goals this season, with Findley leading the Royals with 10.
Fire midfielder Cuauhtemoc Blanco was not available because of visa issues. The midfield was actually not too bad against RSL, including Justin Mapp. But Chicago always is going to miss what Blanco brings to the table, especially for set pieces.
Next Sunday is starting to shape up into one of the biggest - if not the biggest - games of the season for the Fire. Every point holds so much value during this final stretch.