Normally, games involving a desperate team during the latter stages of a given MLS season become tense, chippy affairs where chances are at a premium. The Chicago Fire didn't follow the script tonight though, and in the end D.C. United found themselves in a wild, back-and-forth game that saw both teams take the lead before ending 3-3 at Toyota Park. Luis Silva scored two goals - pushing himself ahead of Fabian Espindola for the team lead - for United, while Bobby Boswell poked in a third to give United a brief lead. The Fire, meanwhile, scored via Jeff Larentowicz, Quincy Amarikwa, and Matt Watson.
After a decent opening few minutes for the visitors, Chicago firmly took command of a game they more or less had to win to keep their playoff hopes alive. Rookie of the Year candidate Harrison Shipp - recalled after being relegated to a substitute's role of late - looked like the guy that took MLS by storm in the spring, creating multiple chances in a floating role in Chicago's 4411.
The first quality attempt at goal by either side came in the 13th minute following a clever rehearsed free kick sequence by the Fire. After all three players standing over the ball played their parts, Shipp spun away from the group and curled a shot earmarked for the back post, but was denied by the fingertips of a sprawling Bill Hamid.
United didn't heed the warning, though, as the ensuing corner kick turned into a dangerously chaotic sequence inside the 6 yard box. A goal was starting to feel inevitable, and Chicago took the lead in the 16th minute. Shipp found a pocket of space left of center and between United's defense and midfield lines, and he used the extra time to swing a ball out towards Amarikwa. Taylor Kemp's attempt to intercept the ball missed it entirely, and the error was compounded when Amarikwa opted to cut the ball back against the grain to send Kemp flying past the play. Amarikwa then confidently picked out the lower corner from about 13 yards out, leaving Hamid with no chance.
The goal didn't serve to wake United up. In fact, ten minutes later Shipp served up a carbon copy of the pass that created the first goal, but this time Amarikwa opted for a first-time volley that ended up traveling parallel to the goalline rather than becoming a true shot attempt. The Fire could sense that their guests were having an off night, and repeatedly took advantage of both a deep defensive line and a lackluster start from central midfield duo Perry Kitchen and Davy Arnaud.
It would be Kitchen, in fact, playing the role of the guilty party as Chicago made it 2-0. Boswell and Amarikwa battled just inside the box as the pesky Fire striker attempted to spin away, and Kitchen arrived to help end the threat. His arrival was reckless, however, and though the penalty call seemed a bit harsh one has to admit that no one would have protested the same foul being given at midfield.
Chicago has missed five penalty kicks this season, but Jeff Larentowicz looked like a natural on this one, firing a virtually flawless effort low and into the inside netting to Hamid's left to make it 2-0 after 31 minutes.
Even at 2-0 down, United wasn't quite awake yet, and Chicago blew two huge chances to make it 3-0. In the 35th minute, Shipp's cross following a short corner kick found Larentowicz wide open, but couldn't make clean contact with his head or shoulder, and the cross's trajectory took it just barely wide of an open back post. A minute later, Amarikwa nearly scored his second. Sean Franklin took a big gamble by leaning in to bump the well-traveled forward, though, and despite being in a great position Amarikwa could only send a weak, off-balance shot on goal that Hamid was able to palm wide.
Despite the onslaught, United would pull one back soon thereafter. Kemp did well to get past winger Grant Ward and draw a foul just inside the Fire defensive third, and Silva's lovely service was glanced on goal by Boswell. Sean Johnson made a good reflex save after spotting the shot late, but Bakary Soumare could only thump the ball high into the Illinois night. Kitchen won the ensuing jump ball and nodded it back towards the 6, where Johnson, Soumare, and Gonzalo Segares all arrived to sandwich Steve Birnbaum.
Referee Fotis Bazakos immediately gave a penalty kick, though it was not immediately clear whether he had spotted Soumare's extended arm on Birnbaum's neck or whether he felt Johnson's leap to punch the ball away was too violent. In any case, United was glad to receive the penalty kick, which Silva converted in the 39th minute. It wasn't easy; Silva's shot was not well-placed, but had enough power to carry over the goalline despite Johnson getting his entire left hand onto the attempt.
United woke up after the goal, and Kemp won a very similar free kick to the one that lead to the PK in first-half stoppage time. Silva floated in another excellent ball, and this time it was Michael Seaton - making his first start of the season after Eddie Johnson's concussion issues flared back up late in the week - whose glancing header forced a smart save out of Johnson on the line.
United made two subs at halftime, bringing Chris Pontius on for Seaton to lead the line and giving Chris Korb his first minutes since pulling his hamstring weeks ago. Pontius nearly made an instant impact with his 47th minute through ball for Silva, but Lovel Palmer arrived with a brave block to end the threat.
The match had really become end-to-end from that point, but it would be United who would equalize in the 54th minute with a glorious Silva free kick. Luck was again a factor: Razvan Cocis appeared to poke the ball away from Kitchen cleanly enough, but Bazakos gave the foul about 4 yards outside the box. Silva stepped up to curl a wondrous shot over the Fire wall and into the upper corner of Johnson's net.
The game was now turned on its head, with Chicago looking tentative and United taking over as the aggressor. A great attacking move forward on the hour mark required a heroic lunge from Palmer to prevent Pontius from having a sitter from inside the 6, and then Franklin - moved up to right midfield for the half - saw his goalbound follow-up strike Larentowicz and go out for a corner.
Chicago coach Frank Yallop responded with his own double sub, as the Fire - in desperate need of all three points - turned their 442 into what was more or less a 424. However, United would go up 3-2 soon thereafter. In the 68th minute, Kemp's free kick from midfield looked like a poor one, but Pontius arrived outside the box to get a touch and keep the chance alive. The ball skewed awkwardly as Boswell used the outside of his foot to pop it over Larentowicz, but the play worked as Kitchen poked it past Johnson at the back post. Segares made a goalline clearance, but the ball fell straight to Boswell inside the 6 for an easy finish.
Chicago wasn't dead yet though, and the equalizer would come from an unlikely source. Midfield destroyer Matt Watson collected a layoff from Amarikwa from along the endline about 23 yards from goal, and powered a shot on goal. Unfortunately for United - perhaps paying back some karma on the earlier goals? - the ball clipped Birnbaum on the way in, wrong-footing Hamid and making it 3-3 in the 78th minute.
Both teams created one more serious look, with the Fire taking a quick free kick about 8 yards away from where the foul actually occurred. Substitute Robert Earnshaw was in on goal but didn't get great contact on his shot, allowing Hamid to save in the 82nd minute. Just as stoppage time began, Collin Martin - in for Silva - came very close to getting a touch on Kemp's long ball, but Johnson arrived to grab the ball a beat before Martin would have been able to get a toe to it.
In the end, United was probably the happier team with the tie given the moribund opening 40 minutes and the fact that they came to Toyota Park on short rest. The Black-and-Red increased their Eastern Conference lead to three points, while the draw means that Chicago has equaled the MLS record for ties in a season. Naturally, they pull even with themselves, as the Fire also had 16 ties in 2011. Next up for United is a CONCACAF Champions League match Wednesday night against Tauro FC.