St. Louis City SC striker Joao Klauss takes a shot in a game played earlier this season at CITY PARK against New York City FC. (Photo by Brad Piros)

ST. LOUIS - In what was billed as a “Battle of I-55” and a few other somewhat-forced monikers, St. Louis City SC hosted the Chicago Fire in their first meeting at CITY PARK Saturday night.

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Yet another clash in the long history of sporting contests between St. Louis and Chicago, this one would go the way of those in City Red, not Fire Red. An early opener and two second-half strikes from Joao Klauss sealed a 3-1 victory for St. Louis City.

Before I could even tweet out a picture from before kickoff, City's Rasmus Alm opened the scoring, clipping a long-range shot over lunging Chicago Fire goalkeeper Chris Brady. A bit of confusion in the Fire midfield left a loose ball in the path of Alm, who took a look up, noticed Brady was off his line, and hit a sublime shot over the Fire keeper’s outstretched arm and under the crossbar.

Not even 90 seconds had elapsed, and City had already scored a goal, something they failed to do in 90 minutes last week in Houston. The goal, officially clocked at one minute and 24 seconds into the match, is the fastest City goal in the team's short history. It surpassed Indiana Vassilev's 3rd-minute strike in a 3-1 loss outside Salt Lake City earlier this season.

“To go up a goal early is very difficult to manage,” said City head coach Bradley Carnell after the game. “Especially when over the last stretch that we've had, it's very easy to fall negative, fall passive, and drop off… I never want us to be complacent and passive. Sometimes [early goals] are the worst things that can happen, because you can fall into a sort of a comfort zone.”

City’s comfort zone early was the Chicago 18-yard box but failed to add a second goal that could have ended the game before it really began. Chicago’s biggest chance to equalize in the first half came in the 24th minute when Fire frontman Xherdan Shaqiri played a great pass to find winger Brian Gutierrez alone in front of Roman Bürki and the City goal.

Gutierrez, standing at the penalty spot, sliced a poor effort with his right foot while falling down that went out of play for a goal kick. City’s defense had been warned, if not truthfully tested.

Vassilev, who has become the go-to cultured left foot for City, had a few close calls on free kicks and shots outside the box. Vassilev had one free kick from outside the area miss by maybe a yard, and another free kick of similar range saved by Brady.

City were up a goal and cruising when the halftime whistle blew, but maybe let their foot off the gas to start the second half. On a play within the first minute of the second half, City were still mentally in the locker room, and fell asleep defensively, leaving Chicago left back Andrew Gutman unmarked at the edge of the City six-yard box on the far side of the field.

Chris Mueller, who had made a run to the end line on the right flank, cut a cross back to the wide open Gutman, who headed the ball back across goal, where it fell kindly to Fire number nine Hugo Cuypers. Cuypers swung a boot at the ball on the bounce, and blasted a shot past Roman Bürki, who was left in no man’s land by his team’s momentary defensive lapse.

“Everyone was late, it creates kind of a domino effect,” said Alm postgame. “It’s annoying to give up the goal, but I’m happy we still did the things we wanted to do. I feel we had a perfect game except for that start to the second half.”

As Alm alludes to with that quote, City were not deterred by the Chicago goal. 10 minutes later, City’s own number nine would strike to regain the advantage.

As is becoming more and more common, Célio Pompeu made a run down the left wing, looking to cut a pass back across the face of goal. Pompeu made it to the byline, kept the ball in play, and fizzed in a short-range cross that Klauss stabbed out of midair with a volley that tucked into the back corner of the Chicago goal.

City’s Brazilian connection once again showing their chemistry in action, Pompeu’s cross was laser-guided to Klauss in front of goal. Klauss simply had to redirect the cross beyond Fire keeper Chris Brady. In Kansas, it was Klauss who’s play to win the ball and set up Pompeu for the latter’s stunning strike in a thrilling 3-3 tie against Sporting Kansas City.

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“It was great. I think Célio did everything. I just put the ball in,” said Klauss on the goal following the game. “But it was a great play from him. I have been telling him for two or three weeks how I gave him the assist against Kansas City and that it was now his turn to assist me.”

Moments later, Pompeu made another run into the heart of the Chicago defense, and was within a few feet of chipping Chris Brady with a looping right footed effort. Célio was oozing confidence, and City were constantly threatening.

The hosts would find their third and Joao Klauss’s second on the night in the 67th minute. Midfielder Tomas Ostrak played a pass down the right wing to Chris Durkin, who lofted a cross to the far post where Klauss leapt for a gorgeous header that Chris Brady had no chance of stopping.

The goal was made just as much by Durkin’s cross as Klauss’s movement in the box. The big Brazilian striker lost the Fire backline, and had a simple header, thanks to the placement of Chris Durkin’s assist.

“We've been preaching service into the box and making the runs,” said Chris Durkin following the win. “Klauss comes on to the second post and nails in a great header. Extremely happy to help out in whatever way possible. Really happy with the form that Klauss is coming on to. Really respect everything he is as a player, so I'm really happy for him.”

Durkin, while contributing on the offensive end with the assist, was tasked with keeping an eye on Chicago’s star midfielder Xherdan Shaqiri. Shaqiri arrived in Chicago after more than a decade in Europe, playing for Bayern Munich, Liverpool, and Stoke City along the way.

Now 32 and in his third full season in MLS, Shaqiri has been a lone bright spot in an otherwise dreary time for the Chicago Fire. He was named captain of the team this season.

“Always going against these big players, these big DPs (designated players, usually stars who don’t count against a team’s budget), it’s always a great challenge to see how we can control them,” said Chris Durkin, after keeping an eye on Shaqiri for 90 minutes.

“Shaqiri is a guy that kind of comes in and out of the game, and it’s just about being focused for 90 minutes with him. We wanted to come into this game and frustrate him a little bit, and I think we did a good job with that. But I always love the challenge against any talented player.”

Managing a player like Shaqiri against a team like Chicago is important, because of the lack of creative options around him. One of the reasons Chicago sits near the bottom of the Eastern Conference is a real lack of creative attacking threat around their well-traveled number ten.

Chicago’s biggest scoring threats after falling behind came late, a Tom Barlow header that Roman Bürki parried away, and a bouncing ball in Bürki’s six-yard box that was launched to safety. It was not the City captain’s busiest night between the sticks.

The full-time whistle confirmed what had been a foregone conclusion for much of the second half. Bradley Carnell praised his team’s efforts after giving up the weak goal to start the second half.

“I thought it was a very controlled performance, bar the goal we conceded just after halftime,” said a quite relaxed Carnell after the win. “Very happy with the way that we continued to apply the principles, to apply the game plan and very happy to have a response when we conceded the equalizer. So credit to the boys. Very happy about this, a very important three points, and this hopefully kicks off for a good stretch here at CITY PARK over the next couple of weeks.”

It is a busy week for Carnell and City, with no time to revel in victory. Up next is a big midweek match hosting LAFC on Wednesday. Both teams will be coming off emphatic wins, with LAFC winning 3-0 over Vancouver at home Saturday night, improving to fifth in the Western Conference with 18 points. After their win, City is ninth in the West with 16 points.

City hosts LAFC at CITY PARK Wednesday night, with kick-off set for just after 7:30 p.m.

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