When the Chicago Fire and the Colorado Rapids lined up for the National Anthem, it looked like a tale of two cities. Chicago's starting XI mirrored something close to their best squad while Colorado's... well it just did not. Spectators at Shea Stadium in Peoria had to wonder if smoke was preventing them from seeing the full Colorado bench. It turns out no, the Rapids really only brought three substitutes to the game. Even Carlos de los Cobos who caught flack last year for not saying the right things about the U.S. Open Cup in the past had this to say about last night's play-in game:
It was a difficult match. Colorado didn’t bring all their players but we took this match seriously because to us it was an important game to try and compete in this tournament in the best way. I’m very satisfied with the effort of my players.
That in itself is a victory of understanding. It showed in the Fire's 2-1 victory over Colorado. A full recap is after the break.
I was concerned when the starting lineups came out and Josip Mikulic was ruled out with a quad injury. Newly acquired Yamith Cuesta started in his place. The fact that Marco Pappa was on international duty flew under the radar pre-game but Diego Chaves, Gaston Puerari, and Patrick Nyarko have been lighting things up so well, Pappa's absence didn't get to me. It didn't seem to bother the rest of the team either as Chaves, Puerari, and Nyarko led successful attacks along with the help of rookie Davis Paul. Paul was making his first USOC start and started out on the left wing. Gonzalo Segares did not play his usual LM role in a 3-5-2 and the whole setup looked much more like a 4-4-2. This put Cory Gibbs at LCB, but everything else was 'normal' with Logan Pause and Mike Videria playing defensive midfield positions, Jalil Anibaba starting at RB, and Sean Johnson was of course in goal. It will be interesting to see if 4-4-2 is the 'Pappaless' lineup, the 'Mikulicless' lineup or the permanent new lineup. I could see reasons for any three being the cause in coach Carlos de los Cobos' mind.
Whatever the future might hold, the formation worked tonight with Chicago looking dangerous throughout the first half. That movement finally paid off in extra time when Diego Chaves crossed a ball into the box and Gaston Puerari one touched it before sending it into the net past the diving Rapids goaltender Ian Joyce. The Fire went into halftime with a 1-0 lead. My personal mood was one of total relaxation because I did not think Colorado's second unit could build on the few shots they had in the first half. I think the Fire came out with that same mood and were caught snoozing. Shortly after halftime, Quincy Amarikwa moved the ball deep into Rapids territory before getting the ball to teammate Andre Akpan in a dangerous scoring spot. Score Akpan did and any good vibrations were quickly deflated as the game was suddenly tied 1-1.
Around this same time period, a mysterious smoke cloud began to engulf the area around the goal the Rapids were trying to protect in the 2nd half. Allegedly this smoke came from the same area where about seventy Section 8 Chicago members were waving large flags, singing, and playing the drums but I've been to Peoria. Let me tell you the strangest coincidences happen in that town. Most of the smoke was gone after five minutes but it would be fair to say that some 'haziness' persisted on that half. In the 61st minute, Jalil Anibaba had just crossed midfield when he got the inclination to whip the ball towards the goal. As if being pulled in by Section 8 on a string, the ball sailed over 40 yards and right past the arms of a late jumping Joyce and right into the top right hand corner of the net. When asked about the goal, Jalil said:
I saw that I had space and time and I just measured up the keeper. I just tried to get it on frame and fortunately it went in. You work so hard for moments like that and when they actually do come, it’s pretty special.
Pretty special indeed, post-game people were clamoring for some video of this awesome strike that just so happened to be a game-winning USOC goal in addition to Anibaba's first professional goal. The team should have 'the shot' up for viewing soon as opposed to now because the camera work was run by Bradley University. Chicago Fire team writer Jeff Crandall and team communications manager Brendan Hannan even had to provide commentary for the game despite being relatively new to the trade. Major props goes to the team for getting this done in the first place. Replays can wait. I happy I was able to watch.
The last thirty minutes or so of the game were a back and forth with a couple of substitutions. Dasan Robinson entered for Cuesta in the 59th minute, Orr Barouch came on for Diego Chaves in the 89th minute and Colorado's only sub was newly acquired Josh Janniere coming in for Steven Emory in the 76th minute. None of it came to factor too much, the Chicago Fire won 2-1.
Since Chicago was able to hold on to the win, they move on in the U.S. Open Cup tournament. Some format moves need to be made and the Fire will figure out if they play either the San Jose Earthquakes or the Portland Timbers, when they play and where they play relatively soon. At the end of the day it was a big win for Chicago after being embarrassed in the past two U.S. Open Cups with loses to non-MLS clubs. The fact the team held on through Cuesta starting in the back, Paul starting wide left, and were possibly 'getting by with a little help from their friends' makes it all that more special. Onwards and upwards Chicago. The Fire are currently undefeated...