The Chicago Fire and Sporting Kansas City went into their meeting last Thursday starving for victories, and signs of life in a pair of seasons that had been, to that point, thoroughly disappointing. Neither was able to muster a goal at the opening of the beautiful $200 million Livestrong Sporting Park , in a painfully boring and forgettable 0-0 tie, but three days later, each of the Eastern Conference stragglers finally gave their fans reasons to think their seasons may not be lost causes.
Sporting KC thrashed a previously red-hot FC Dallas side , 4-2, and the Chicago Fire knocked off the Columbus Crew , 1-0, at Crew Stadium, where the Crew hadn't lost all season.
The convincing win was a long time coming for Kansas City, which had gone 10 matches without winning, a stretch dating all the way back to its season-opening triumph over Chivas USA in March.
In fairness, KC had also endured a 10-match road trip while waiting for Livestrong Sporting Park to be finished. The team showed signs during that stretch of having the offensive weapons to compete, but its defense had far too often let the club down.
Peter Vermes' side looks to be getting the hang of the defending side of things, having allowed just two goals in their past five matches. French centerback Aurelian Collin has stepped and given the team a good presence in the back while
Offensively, it took Vermes shaking up his lineup to spark the KC attack. With regular starters Teal Bunbury and Kei Kamara on the bench, and Omar Bravo sidelined by a back injury, Sporting dropped four goals on a normally stingy Dallas defense that had allowed just four goals in its nine previous games.
The win not only provides some hope for a Kansas City side that badly needed some, it could also provide a boost for a team ready to go on a stretch of 15 home games in 19 matches in Livestrong Sporting Park, a state-of-the-art facility that is an immediate rival to Red Bull Arena as the most impressive stadium in MLS.
The Chicago Fire doesn't have that sort of home stretch coming up, but with a vital win against Columbus, and new head coach Frank Klopas in charge, the Fire could still make something of a season that looked doomed before Chicago snapped its 11-match winless streak.
On Sunday, the Fire showed the formula that could lead to a resurgence. Colombian forward Cristian Nazarit delivered a late game-winning goal while the Fire's defense pitched its third straight shutout. With Nazarit having just recently arrived, he has given the Fire the physical presence up top the team has been lacking. Partnering him with Diego Chaves suddenly gives Chicago the makings of a potent strike force, although the team has managed just one goal in its past three matches.
The team's defense has responded well under Klopas, posting three straight shutouts (the Fire managed just one shutout in 11 matches under former head coach Carlos De Los Cobos). The group, led by the centerback pairing of Cory Gibbs and Yamith Cuesta, has settled down after an inconsistent and underachieving start to the season.
With a revamped offense and improving defense, Chicago suddenly finds itself back in range of challenging for the playoffs. With the new MLS playoff format including 10 playoff teams (and a minimum of three teams from each conference), the Fire sits just four points behind the Houston Dynamo and Columbus Crew, who are in third and fourth place in the East at the moment. In other words, a run for a playoff berth is still well within the Fire's grasp.
Things will be a bit tougher for Sporting KC, which currently sits in last place with a league-low 10 points. What Kansas City does have is the fewest games played in the East with 12, meaning KC has at least two games in hand on most of the teams in the conference. Throw in the fact that Sporting KC will play 15 of its next 19 at Livestrong Sporting Park, a facility that will give the team a better home-field advantage than the team has ever enjoyed, and you can see why folks in Kansas City haven't given up on the playoffs, or the 2011 season, just yet.
MLS Player of the Week
San Jose striker Steven Lenhart beat out a very strong field for this week's honor. He tallied a hat-trick and also delivered an assist in the Earthquakes 4-2 win against D.C. United at RFK Stadium. The D.C. defense had been stingy (allowing four goals in its previous five matches) but Lenhart was too much for the young United back-line.
MLS Rookie of the Week
Lenhart wasn't the only player to impress in the San Jose-D.C. United match. Blake Brettschneider stood out yet again, starting at forward for D.C. He scored his first career goal on a beautiful move and has quietly been one of the more impressive rookies on a D.C. team stacked with young standouts.
MLS Team of the Week
Having just played the first game at Livestrong Sporting Park, Sporting Kansas City traveled to Texas to take on red-hot FC Dallas and promptly thrashed the Western Conference champions, 4-1. Even a second-half red card to Milos Stojcev couldn't slow down a Kansas City attack led by a standout performance by Graham Zusi.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.