What Are They All About? St. Louis FC
They all count the same. This past weekend the Chicago Fire defeated Atlanta United 2-0 at Toyota Park on the back of a Luis Solignac strike and a Nemanja Nikolic PK. Complaints from the players and coaching staff about the win not being “pretty” will fall on deaf ears as the Fire fan base is continually pinching themselves while looking at the table. It was a hot day, Atlanta looked to clog the midfield and stop play at every chance, and the chemistry seemed a bit off, but Chicago is within touching distance of first place in the East. Next up, a break from MLS action. It’s time for everyone’s favorite tournament of the year as the Fire prepare for their first foray into the 2017 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. We’ll reminisce about the glory days, visit sub-par pitches, say hello to some familiar faces, and introduce Bastian Schweinsteiger and Nemanja Nikolic to bus rides on the plains. This round sees Chicago partake in what is being dubbed the I-55 rivalry as they visit their former USL affiliate, Saint Louis FC.
Saint Louis FC currently find themselves in eleventh (out of fifteen) in the Eastern Conference of the USL and have won just one of their last seven league matches. Additionally, growth off the field has been equally frustrating as recent attempts to pave the way for MLS expansion to the city took a nose dive when an April ballot initiative to publicly fund a stadium was voted down. Succeeding in this tournament could be a source of vindication on multiple fronts and the magic of the Open Cup allows for Cinderella storylines.
Having served as coach for Chivas USA and Toronto FC, Saint Louis head coach Preki Radosavljevic knows what it takes to beat MLS caliber teams. The former USMNT player and current all-time leader in goals and assists for the club formerly known as the Kansas City Wizards took the reins this season and is hoping to reignite his coaching career. Will Chicago underestimate lower league opposition, or will Saint Louis live up to their predicted role as a punching bag? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
St. Louis Form Guide (last five USL matches): L-W-D-L-D
Previous Result: A 2-1 home loss against Bethlehem Steel.
Formation: 4-4-2; Gorrick; Charpie, Howe, Cabalceta, Plewa; Walls, Stojkov, Alihidivoc, Dalgaard; David, Volesky
Strengths: If we’re being honest, any scenario in which a mid-table USL squad faces a strong MLS side is one in which the outcome is fairly inevitable. If these strengths seem shallow and vague, they are. However, with the exception of last year, at least one USL side has made it into the fifth round of play since the league’s inception in 2011. St. Louis will be hoping to continue that trend on Wednesday. Let’s see where they might succeed.
Cohesion and Rest: While Chicago’s coaching staff has assured the supporter base that they will be taking the Open Cup seriously and Nelson Rodriguez has highlighted that he wants to win the trophy, the early rounds of the tournament have traditionally served as a way for MLS sides to rest starters and give minutes to some of the youngsters and fringe players. Schweinsteiger and Nikolic will surely travel but seeing the likes of Conner, Arshakyan, Doody, Johnson, and Alvarez start certainly isn’t far-fetched. Intra-squad scrimmages and training aren’t the same as game time experience and there could be a lack of chemistry present in the Fire lineup for Saint Louis to exploit.
On the other hand, Saint Louis does not have the luxury of having talented depth and therefore their starters will know each other’s tendencies quite well. They’ve also had time to rest key starters for what is surely to be their most important match of the season thus far. Striker Jose Angulo did not feature at all in the loss against Bethlehem Steel while his preferred partner Christian Volesky was subbed off with half an hour remaining. Additionally, stalwart left back Aeden Stanley did not feature in the eighteen. Preki clearly had his eye on the midweek encounter and three of his biggest contributors will be ready to go on Wednesday.
Pushing Down the Right: Should the Fire indeed choose to rotate the lineup by resting David Accam and Brandon Vincent, they might be exploited by Saint Louis’ right sided attack. Over their last three matches, SLFC has heavily favored playing on the right-hand side through midfielder Dragan Stojkov and supporting overlapping runs from right back Wesley Charpie. Angulo likes to drift towards the right flank as well, with Volesky playing centrally and making runs underneath him. The chemistry down the right-hand side has yielded an average of 85% passing completion over the last four matches (despite the team average being 76%) and has seen the development of an overwhelming majority of their goal scoring opportunities. Asking your left winger and left back to gel on the fly is no easy task.
Homefield Advantage: While Toyota Stadium is small by MLS standards, Saint Louis FC and the Louligans have created a passionate and intimate atmosphere. The match is close to selling out and with an opportunity to showcase the soccer culture of their city, the crowd could play a role in this one. Aside from the atmosphere, Toyota Stadium also features turf, a new experience for a some of Chicago’s roster, and the temperature at kickoff is predicted to be near ninety-five degrees. This past weekend the Fire showed that their “build from the back” tactics has issues being implemented in high temperatures and from replays of Saint Louis’ match against Bethlehem Steel, it doesn’t look like the pitch is in a condition conducive to smooth rolling play… Ultimately, Chicago cannot expect a walk in the park or they will be punished. Whatever the outcome, this match is not set up to be pretty.
Sweet Revenge: Because we like anomalies and odes to the past, we’d like to remind our readership that former Chicago Fire defender Tony Walls will most likely feature in central midfield for Saint Louis FC. Although he played just one competitive game for Chicago (ironically, a US Open Cup match in 2012) he tasted success against his former team in a reserve match for the Rochester Rhinos in 2014. Perhaps he can channel some of that magic for Wednesday’s encounter.
Weaknesses: Much like the aforementioned semi-formality of the result in terms of strengths, we won’t harp on the over-evident weaknesses of this Saint Louis FC side. We can’t just skip this section so let’s leave it to Preki.
Fairy-Tails are for Books: “We beat ourselves. Honestly, the mistakes we are making they’re childish mistakes”. That is not something you want to hear coming out of your coach’s mouth after losing 2-0 at home to a side that was below you in the standings. Worse yet, it happened just three days before the biggest match of your season. The truth of the matter is that this Saint Louis side isn’t very good. In a league that is plagued by inconsistency due to short-term loans from parent clubs and affiliates, problematic travel distances and accommodations, and struggles to garner fan support, St. Louis have a solid base to work with in all those categories. Given that base it’s strange to see them relegated to mid-table mediocrity. While everyone aside from Chicago is hoping for a David vs. Goliath scenario, it doesn’t look likely in this fixture.
Prediction: Veljko Paunovic, Nelson Rodriguez, and the Chicago Fire players owe it to the fan base to start a strong squad, play with determination, and remember the proud history the club has in this unique tournament. Should they give the Open Cup the respect it deserves, the Fire will come out on top. Chicago 6-1 St. Louis. Michael DeLeeuw (hat trick), Daniel Johnson, Arturo Alvarez, and Juninho for Chicago. Tony Walls cracks a sly smile with the consolation for Saint Louis.