CARSON, Calif. -- It was a battle of the conference leaders as Chivas USA took on the Chicago Fire in the Home Depot Center in a midweek game.
The 23,079 fans there to see Mexican legend Cuauhtemoc Blanco were not disappointed as the veteran notched a brace, including an injury time gamewinner, in an enthralling and tumultuous match. Crammed full of end-to-end action, cards, and late drama, the Fire took all three points in a 3-2 win.
The game opened energetically right off the bat, with both teams motivated and quivering to start the game off right. Each ball was hotly contested and every play hustled.
In the opening minutes, Maykel Galindo showed his intent by wiggling free of two markers. His cross left much to be desired, and Eduardo Lillingston had no chance of reaching it. A minute later, Shavar Thomas clattered into Cuauhtemoc Blanco to much displeasure from the crowd.
Though the game was off to a raucous beginning, it wasn't until the 12th minute that a clear chance was created. Brian McBride played a quick free kick over top of the Chivas backline for John Thorrington. The midfielder bore down on goal, but shanked his shot wide as Thomas came sliding in. All the players turned to the referee to see what he would call, but he pointed to the corner flag saying Zach Thornton had gotten a piece of it.
Chicago continued to pin Chivas back, taking control of the game. Several set pieces were wasted, and McBride headed a good Marco Pappa cross wide.
That's when Chivas struck. Against the run of play, Paulo Nagamura collected a short Sacha Kljestan pass deep in his own half. He ran towards goal and uncorked an absolute cannon that knuckled all 35 yards on the way to goal before swerving around Jon Busch into the net. The Brazilian celebrated his goal by mimicking Samuel Eto'o's "blood of my father" arm slap.
The lead lasted less than 10 minutes.
A Blanco free kick was punched clear by Thornton, but Nagamura yanked Wilman Conde down by his shirt. The referee, Terry Vaughn, consulted with his assistant for a couple minutes before awarding the penalty and issuing a yellow to the goal-scorer. The experienced Mexican stepped up to nestle the ball in the corner and out of Thornton's reach.
More good chances were carved open as things began to heat up. Sacha Kljestan was lucky to escape a booking after pushing Fire players off the ball on multiple occasions. One, on Bakary Soumare, had Fire coach Denis Hamlett of his bench and arguing furiously with any official who would listen.
Chicago's high pressure seemed to be causing Chivas all sort of problems when trying to play out of the back, but ten minutes from half, the Goats broke free. Galindo skipped past the tight marking of Soumare towards the byline, but the Malian defender hacked down both his legs. The Cuban himself stepped up to slot the game's second penalty away.
Yellow cards were flashed in a fury as the half rounded out frantically.
The game hit a minor lull with the opening of the half, but sparked back to life again quickly with another batch of yellow cards. Jesse Marsch and Blanco picked up cautions in close succession.
10 minutes into the half, Galindo should have doubled his tally and the lead. Kljestan led a slicing counterattack through the heart of the Chicago half. He laid the ball off to Lillingston, who smacked a low cross behind Galindo that the Cuban couldn't get a foot onto with the goal gaping.
Seconds later, Chivas was at it again. Nagamura won a powerful header in the midfield which Galindo flicked past the Fire backline and raced in on goal. However, when he should have slotted it home himself, he cut back for Nagamura, who had followed the play. The Brazilian sliced his shot horribly and it landed on top of the net rather than in it.
Chicago's midfield looked to have collapsed and Chivas players were cutting right through it. Just after the hour mark, however, the Fire got a gift. Marsch slid in late on Blanco to draw his second yellow.
Even missing a man, the game continued its frantic pace. Both teams spurned scintillating chances.
Grinding into the last ten minutes, however, Chivas sat back further and looked to hold on to the slender one goal lead. Usually so adept at doing so, Preki's men collapsed.
A minute from time, Rolfe hit a diagonal cross which Thomas flicked through to substitute Patrick Nyarko. The youngster made no mistake from a tight angle to beat ex-Fire 'keeper Thornton.
Then, deep into the five minutes of extra time added, Blanco hit a hopeful ball into the box. McBride went down under minimal contact from Mariano Trujillo, but the referee pointed emphatically at the spot for the game's third penalty kick. 'Temoc himself stepped up and buried it to an eruption of cheers from the fans in the stadium wearing Club America jerseys.
Quickly thereafter the game was called, and East escaped from the West with three hard-fought points.