What Are They All About? Chicago Fire Open Cup Preview
On Saturday night the Chicago Fire drew closer to the inevitability of missing the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year. Mathematical probability suggests that a less than 5% chance of reaching the post season still exists but you’ll have a hard time discussing that number with even the most faithful supporters. The latest team to add to the Chicago’s growing road winless streak was RSL as they defeated the Fire 3-1.
The result didn’t surprise anyone and head coach Veljko Paunovic rightly pointed out that the squad choices and the unfolding of the match ultimately reflected the fact that Chicago had one eye on a different occasion. With the RSL result behind them the Fire look ahead to a match that will define their season: the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup match against the New England Revolution in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
What is on the line for Chicago cannot be overstated. Yes, a victory over New England means that Chicago will host a final almost ten years to the day that they won their last trophy, but the semifinal against the Revolution goes way beyond that. The Open Cup has served as a glimmering albeit fleeting sense of hope for the Fire in their recent years of failure. The competition has long been one that allows the possibility of minnows to go toe to toe with sharks and come out on top. Unfortunately for Chicago they have slowly been morphing from the latter into the former.
They have gone from being touted as “Kings of the Cup” to grasping at memories of a time when that was true. Victories in the ’98, 2000, 2003, 2006 iterations of the cup have been overshadowed by embarrassments. The last three years of the competition have been especially cruel as Chicago has reached the semis and been knocked out each time in bizarre circumstances.
Under the tutelage of Frank Yallop Chicago found themselves in the 2015 semifinal against a Philadelphia Union side that was only one spot ahead of the then last place Fire. One of the dullest matches in recent cup history saw the Fire ousted 1-0 by a late Sebastian LeToux strike. The Fire side lacked tactics, ability and even belief registering just two shots on target and conceding possession statistics.
The Philadelphia result was at least somewhat better than the showing provided by Yallop and company the year before. The 2014 semifinal saw Chicago fall 6-0 to the Seattle Sounders in the Pacific Northwest. After the match Yallop spoke solemnly to reporters stating, “We’ve been battered by a good team at their place and that’s all you can say about that.”. Unfortunately it was a common theme for Chicago that season as Seattle went on to win the Open Cup and the Supporters shield while the Fire licked their wounds and stumbled into a ninth place finish in the East.
The Fire’s exit from the 2013 Open Cup came under slightly different circumstances. The Fire had started the MLS season poorly before beating DC United at Toyota Park in June and going on an eight match unbeaten streak. Chicago would go on to beat DC in the other two regular season meetings as part of a run that saw the Fire miss out on playoffs by the slimmest of margins (they were beaten out for qualification based on goal differential). DC would finish the season in last, having won just three matches. When Chicago drew DC in the Open Cup semi that year it was assumed that the Toyota Park faithful would see a route in favor of the home side. Frank Klopas’ side had blown out that same DC team 2-0 and 4-1 by that point of the season but shockingly lost 2-0 in Cup play.
You may be asking yourself why you are still reading about Chicago’s failures instead of New England a page and a half into a match preview. Well, the truth is that the match on Tuesday will come down to the Fire and not their opponent. While we understand that the players, the coach and the GM are not the same and that a fresh start has been promised, the truth remains that the mentality surrounding the club in these situations has not been strong enough. That cannot be the case this time around.
The Fire have touted the domestic cup experience of some of their starting players and Paunovic was hired based on his U-20 World Cup performance, it is time for those things to come through. A fourth consecutive exit at this stage of the competition would be devastating. Discussion of “the process”, calls for support, asking for patience and amassing funds for the future will all fall on deaf ears if Chicago falters. There is nothing accidental about a fourth consecutive exit at the same stage. At that point it becomes systemic. The easiest way to prove that there is a change at hand, that a connection to the rich history of the club exists, that any of the moves made this season have made sense is to bring the Final to Chicago.
New England Form Guide (Last 5 Competitive Matches): L-L-W-W-D
Previous match: A 4-1 away loss to TFC
Formation in the last match: 4-2-3-1: Shuttleworth; Tierney, Goncalves, Woodberry, Barnes; Kobayashi, Koffie; Rowe, Nguyen, Fagundez; Kamara
Weaknesses: We previewed New England two short weeks ago and not much has changed for them since then. Their strengths remain the same so we will allow you to revisit those if you choose but we will focus on where they have fallen short over the course of their last two matches. The Revs have lost both of the MLS encounters they have had since that meeting with Chicago and our critique of their defense applied in both of those games.
Jay Heaps elected to go with a full strength side this past Saturday against Toronto which may leave Revs fans scratching their heads more than the Fire faithful have been over the last few days. The Revs allowed TFC to notch four goals over the course of the 90 with Giovinco adding another hat trick to his resume and Altidore poking home in the dying minutes. That result left New England with 40 GA on the season and a goal differential of -11, the worst in the league for both categories.
Jose Goncalves and London Woodberry’s continuing struggles were on full display against Toronto. Miscommunication on a set piece saw Givonico unmarked at the top of the box for TFC’s first, he wasn’t closed down at the top of the box for his second either, and his third came off of a needlessly conceded penalty. The fourth goal came as Altidore barreled down the middle of the pitch and through both center backs before slotting home. Again, the mistakes are glaring and Micahel de Leeuw, David Accam, and John Goossens should have ample opportunities to make an impact in this match.
New England struggled in pass attempts and in pass completion as well, stringing together just 277 passes. Their lowest passing total over the last three matches. They conceded roughly 60% possession to TFC in the match, a worrying stat given that one of their strengths recently has been keeping the ball. To round out the repetition of their struggles, Kei Kamara touched the ball just 24 times in the match (9 successful passes, 9 unsuccessful passes, 2 shots off target, and 4 failed dribbles).
The match against Orlando City was not much better of a display. Kamara opened the scoring and gave New England a hopeful start before the start of the second half set a collapse in motion. An Orlando counter attack started off the half and Cyle Larin levelled in the first minute. Questions were rampant among the Revs’ backline as he ran off in celebration. A couple of Kevin Molino near misses had the youngster frustrated before two hit the back of the net. Like a broken record the center backs were nowhere to be seen on the first, a tap in from a Brek Shea cross, or the second, a shot from outside the box that beat Bobby Shuttleworth. One thing remains ever true when playing against New England, if you can beat the outside backs the pair in the middle will put up very little resistance.
MLS Voodoo: Jay Heaps has noted on a number of occasions leading up to Open Cup matches that the primary object for the Kraft organization has been to make deep playoff runs consistently. It showed in his line up selection this weekend and it might come back to haunt them on Tuesday. Chicago on the other hand has all but admitted that the Open Cup is their last hope. Perhaps a sense of cosmic justice will come through for the side that needs it most.
Prediction: In keeping with tradition we will not provide a score prediction. This is the Fire’s biggest match in recent memory and we look forward to the possibility of bringing you an Open Cup Final preview.
Filed under: 2016 US Open Cup