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Fire move into playoff spot in big night of Eastern Conference games

Photo: Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Fire prevailed over the New England Revolution on Saturday to move into a playoff spot.

Chicago and Houston claimed big wins, Montreal suffered a shocking defeat and Fabian Espindola scored a magical header as the New York Red Bulls claimed sole possession of the divisional lead in a night of big games in the Eastern Conference.

Game of the day

Chicago Fire 3, New England Revolution 2

Almost exactly twelve months after his previous MLS goal, Alex came off the bench to make a huge contribution on Saturday night with a late winner as the Fire moved above its opponent and into an Eastern playoff spot.

Chicago had the bulk of the chances, though New England twice held the lead. The suddenly-prolific Kelyn Rowe's dipping effort from distance after nine minutes gave the visitor the advantage, but the Fire responded through Juan Luis Anangono.

Saer Sene put the Revolution up 2-1 shortly before the break, though there was suspicion of a handball by Dimitry Imbongo in the build-up. Sene then had the ball in the net again but was wrongly ruled offside before Mike Magee's tenth goal in 16 Chicago starts made it 2-2 at Toyota Park.

With four minutes to go, New England cleared a corner to Alex, whose low shot from the edge of the penalty area beat Bobby Shuttleworth despite the goalkeeper getting a hand on it.

Chicago is now in the playoff places for the first time this year, having recovered from a dire start largely thanks to the acquisition of Magee from the Galaxy. Its next two fixtures will also have an important impact on the playoff picture: away to Columbus next Saturday, then at home against Montreal the following week.

As for New England, it looks imperative that it'll take three points from its upcoming home game with bottom club D.C. United. After that comes a daunting trio of tests: Houston, New York and Montreal.

Player of the day

Ricardo Clark, Houston Dynamo

The 30-year-old seems firmly out of the U.S. national team frame, but has been essential to the Dynamo since re-signing for the club 13 months ago to end an unhappy spell in Germany.

A quiet character off the field and undramatic on it, Clark does the necessary midfield basics so efficiently that it's easy to overlook his importance. He's one of those players whose true value is clearest when he's absent. He played only 37 minutes in the club's previous four games because of illness and the Dynamo lost three, drew one and conceded a combined 12 goals.

A second-half Clark header was the difference as the Dynamo beat the Philadelphia Union 1-0 on Saturday night -- the same scorer and scoreline as the previous meeting between the two teams in July at BBVA Compass Stadium. The result saw Houston leapfrog its opponent and return to the Eastern Conference's top five.

Each team entered the game in poor form, struggling to score because a key striker was woefully out of sorts. That hardly sounds like the recipe for a clash between two clubs vying for the playoffs, but such is life in the East, where the sheer number of inconsistent and flawed teams is creating plenty of intrigue, if not always making for high-caliber soccer.

Houston was indebted to an old friend it hasn't seen often lately: a set-piece goal. Brad Davis' free kick from the left was headed in from close range by Clark, and it was enough for the Dynamo's first MLS clean sheet since the win over the Union on July 6. Then, Clark scored in the 59th minute; this time, the 53rd.

Primarily defensive, Clark has been sneaking forward more often this year, and it's working. This was his third goal of the season. Allied to his three assists, it's his best-ever offensive production, and necessary since Houston's attack is so ice-cold it ought to star in a beer advertisement. Only four MLS teams have scored fewer goals in 2013. It's exactly what a coach would hope for from a veteran international such as Clark: the ability to bail out his teammates.

The Union's Jack McInerney and the Dynamo's Will Bruin are case studies for the growing pains that young strikers tend to suffer when confidence evaporates. Both were in such fine form earlier in the summer that they made the U.S. roster for July's CONCACAF Gold Cup, yet both returned to their clubs acting as if the size of the nets has shrunk to something out of Lilliput.

Each missed excellent chances at PPL Park, as did Conor Casey and Cam Weaver. Bruin had the opportunity for a late insurance goal, McInerney to equalize after he came off the bench. They had time to think before taking their shots -- and when you're lacking in self-belief, it equates to time for anxiety and doubt to course through the body like fast-acting poison.

The Union man showed great instincts to turn past his marker and fashion the chance. Then, all he had to do was side-foot the ball from 15 yards past goalkeeper Tally Hall into a gaping net -- essentially, just pass the ball into the goal. If McInerney was on halfway and playing the ball forward to a teammate, he'd place it exactly where he wanted it, nine times out of ten. But here, he flashed his shot wide.

Same technique, different pressure. It's why forwards get the biggest paychecks, the most adulation -- and the most derision.

One of the reasons for soccer's appeal is its relative unpredictability, and that's down to a relationship between territorial advantage and results that are less intimate than in other team sports such as football or rugby.

Philadelphia was in control for much of the match but did not seize its moments and was punished, though it could also point to a first-half Keon Daniel "goal" that was contentiously ruled out for offside. Possessing, creating and missing: that was the exact narrative the Dynamo has lived out in recent weeks, to the team's own cost. But on this occasion, Davis' delivery and Clark's execution changed the script.

Stat of the day

1-4-1 - The Montreal Impact's all-time record against the Columbus Crew

It is only the Impact's second MLS season, but traditions develop quickly in the youthful world of North American soccer. A bogey team: every club should have one. It is one of the great truisms of soccer that regardless of the league, and sometimes even regardless of the facts, all teams must have a dreaded opponent who seems to have their number, form and talent be damned.

Implausibly, for the Los Angeles Galaxy it is lowly Toronto FC. For Montreal, the Crew is assuming the role of bogey team.

After last weekend's results, a gap opened up between the New York Red Bulls, the Impact, Sporting Kansas City and the rest. Finally the standings reflected the long-held impression that these are the three best teams in the division. And then, on Saturday, Montreal blew a 1-0 lead at home and lost 2-1 to Columbus: resuscitating the Crew's moribund campaign while casting its own credentials in doubt.

"In football you always have a bête noire," Impact head coach Marco Schallibaum told MLSSoccer.com after the match at Stade Saputo. "I think we're something of a bête noire to Kansas City and Columbus are ours. It's tough to explain. They don't fit with us. Higuain always hurts us, he plays really intelligently."

Schallibaum's comment alludes to the superstitious nature of sports: there always seems to be something mysterious and inexplicable about how bogey teams retain their powers. But then he gives a valid reason for this particular result: the excellent performance of Federico Higuain, who provided a quick pair of assists as the Crew recovered from a 1-0 halftime deficit.

Goal of the day

Fabian Espindola, New York Red Bulls (vs. Toronto)

Some nights, MLS is replete with superb strikes from distance. Other days, sharp team goals predominate. Headers took center stage on Saturday: Bryan de la Fuente's precise finish for Chivas USA against the Portland Timbers; Kyle Porter's shock equalizer for D.C. United against the Galaxy; a rare header from a prolific goalscorer as Marco Di Vaio scored for Montreal against the Crew, only for Chad Marshall to reply with a thunderous effort. And Clark's game-winner for Houston.

But none was quite as unique as the goal scored by Fabian Espindola in the 79th minute of the Red Bulls' 2-0 victory over Toronto. In soccer jargon, headers are often described as "textbook". There is no manual to describe this one, unique because it came from an angle so acute only a trigonometry professor could calculate it. The substitute was only a yard in from the touchline as he looped the ball back over the goalkeeper and covering defender and into the far corner.

From that position it would be hard enough to get the ball on target by using a foot to impart sidespin, let alone trying it with the forehead. Even teammate Thierry Henry, a man who has made the incredible look routine during his career, looked amazed.

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