Let the 2017 preseason begin.
For the fourth consecutive year the Fire came agonizingly close to returning to the US Open Cup Final and for the fourth straight time they bowed out with a whimper.
The build up to this match was centered around the realization that this game could salvage the season but the Fire never really threatened from the start. New England controlled the ball and pushed the Fire around as if this were any other away game. The same issues that plague them during regular season play reared themselves again in this match. Midfield is consistently overmatched and the attackers seldom get enough help to be effective while every error on defense turns disastrous.
Rodrigo Ramos was whistled for a foul on Kelyn Rowe in the penalty area in the 16th minute. Kei Kamara buried the spot kick to give New England the early lead that Chicago desperately tried to avoid with a conservative approach to start the game. David Accam, who seemed to be the one player on the Chicago side who didn't want to lose, leveled the match in the 40th after a brilliant bit of work in the box to maneuver around New England defenders in tight quarters earned him his 5th goal in this year's tournament.
In a microcosm of the last seven years of frustration, the Fire wasted no time in deflating themselves and supporters. Less than two minutes after Accam's score, a woefully defended corner kick was deflected to the front of the net where a flat footed and fumbling display by Matt Lampson, Michael Harrington, and others allowed Je-Vaughn Watson to tap-in a game winner.
The decision to start Lampson in every Cup game, including this one, coupled with Harrington on the field again and Matt Polster not on it, are questions that Veljko Paunovic should surely second guess for days to come. The Fire were slightly better in the second half but still never really seriously challenged the New England goal. Teal Bunbury beat Lampson with what looked to be a stoppable shot from an odd angle in the 86th minute and that essentially spelled the end of Chicago's season.
Accam capped the night with a Blanco-esque USOC moment, being shown a red card for taking a run at Rowe out of frustration in the 89th.
With two-and-a-half months to play in the regular season, the Fire will likely hang around the bottom of the Eastern Conference to remain within reach of fool's gold in the form a sixth place finish. The lack of quality in the East may say that they're mathematically still in it, but make no mistake, the reality of their situation says that the last 13 games are nothing more than auditions for spots on the 2017 roster.
The Fire are meekly exiting from a US Open Cup Semifinal for a fourth straight season, missing the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons and continuing their slide toward irrelevance with every passing day. Apathy among supporters has long since started to creep in and management must know that the clock is ticking.
There are interesting times ahead for all the wrong reasons.
Lampson; Ramos (Vincent 46'), Kappelhof, Campbell, Harrington; Cocis, Thiam (Polster 66'); Alvarez, Goossens, Accam; de Leeuw
Subs not used: Johnson, Gehrig, Stephens, LaBrocca, Calistri
Total shots: New England 16, Chicago 16
Shots on target: New England 5, Chicago 5
Possession: New England 58 - Chicago 42
Passing: New England 81%, Chicago 68%