It's safe to say we are into the part of the summer where the games come thick and fast. This past week brought Chicago soccer fans a 1-1 Fire draw in Houston, a US Men's team shutting out Panama in the CONCACAF Gold Cup finale right here at Soldier Field, and a star-studded MLS All-Star Game against A.S. Roma Wednesday night from KC. This week will bring a firestorm of Chicago Fire action: The away match in Philadelphia this evening, the US Open Cup Semi-Finals Wednesday against D.C. United, and a home match against 3rd-place Montreal on Saturday the 10th.
Lets have a look at the week that was first. On Saturday the 27th the men in red took a point home with them from Houston's BBVA Compass Stadium in a hard fought brawl of a match in a hot Texas evening. BBVA has become a fortress for the Dynamo so it was essential that the Fire walk away with at least 1 point and a little dignity. The Fire held their own and equalized a goal by Houston's Cam Weaver with a beautiful cross by Patrick Nyarko to Mike Magee positioned 2 yards from goal. (To read more about last week's match, check out John Jenzeh's post game analysis here, Mark O'Rourke's OPTA breakdown here, and Sean Spence's player ratings here.) Although a draw was a reasonable result, the Fire sure could have used those two additional points.
On Sunday afternoon, Chicago fans were treated to the USA against Panama in Gold Cup finale at Soldier Field. Although ticket valued had dropped like Confederate currency after Mexico lost to Panama in the semifinals, the USA and Panama still played in front of a crowd of nearly 58,000. Watching from the upper deck of Soldier Field it was nice to see international soccer draw such a passionate fan base in the city that I love. The US controlled the pace of the match and held possession for very long stretches. Still, the US only found the net once after Alejandro Bedoya fed the ball to Landon Donovan who kicked and missed. Luckily Donovan drew Panama's goal keeper away while the ball rolled right to US's super sub Brek Shea in front of goal. That one goal was all they would need.
Overall, the tournament provided a nice look at the working parts the US National Team as they prepare for potential World Cup action next Summer. The tournament was also a great opportunity for Chicago Fire's own Sean Johnson to build up some international street cred. Although Johnson's playing time in the tournament was limited, he demonstrated his prowess in goal in the shutout of Costa Rica on July 16th. Johnson has made his case to be the goal keeper of the future for the US Men National team and I am truly happy for him that he got to climb on stage with the best that they US has to offer as they hoisted the Gold Cup trophy. I see nothing but big things for Johnson in the future.
Wednesday night, July 31st, brought more intrigue for soccer in the United States with the MLS All-Star game against A.S. Roma at Sporting Park in Kansas City. The All-Star game is kind of a strange event that is difficult to get excited about. The dynamics of a group of MLS players who for the most part have never played a match together sharing the pitch against a talented European side seems like an unnecessary spectacle. Clearly, despite the talent of the MLS players the All-Star team could not put any cohesion into their attack or keep their back line steady. Even in pre-season form, A.S. Roma demonstrated the power of familiarity, as their runs and timing had the MLS defense in shambles. At one point the All-Stars put 5 forwards at once on the pitch. With so many players out of position the midfield looked confused and inept. The All-Stars were lucky not to get shut out, stealing a goal at the end of the match in the 3-1 loss.
Overall, it was a bit of a dull watch (unless you are an AS Roma fan). On a more positive note, it was nice to see Mike Magee represent the Chicago Fire on the MLS All Star team, even if he did not make the starting 11. After having no representation last season on the All-Stars, it was nice to listen to the announcers chatter about Magee being in the running for MVP this season, even if they did suggest it would be unusual for player for a club that does not make the playoffs to capture the MVP. Magee played respectably and seemed to combine well at times with the other All-Stars.
It is probably best Magee did not play too many minutes against A.S. Roma - he will need fresh legs for the week just ahead. The Chicago Fire take on the Philadelphia Union away this evening. With the US Open Cup Semi Final scheduled for Wednesday the 7th, it would be easy to see the league game as less important - but as HTIOT editor Mark O'Rourke points out, this is a pivotal time for the Fire. If the Fire are to have any chance of making the MLS playoffs, they have to capture full points nearly every match from here out. When the Fire take the pitch against the Union they will need to be focused and ready to capitalize on opportunities against this division rival. The big prize of the Playoffs is still achievable, even if it is a long shot. Giving in is not an option; Philadelphia is a club the Fire can, and should, beat; so now is the time to prove their worth against the clubs above them in the standings.
Despite the importance of Saturday's match against the Union, the match I most look forward to watching is Wednesday's US Open Cup Semi Finale at Toyota Park. The "Kings of the Cup" take on D.C. United in a grudge match in what a friend of mine calls "an old fashioned knock out tourney". It has been tough to fill up seats for weekday matches this season but this is one we as fans should encourage all of our friends to attend. The winner of the match will take on either Real Salt Lake or the Portland Timbers in the finale for the trophy.
The Fire proved that they could handle D.C. United well at home when they dropped them 4-1 on July 20th in Chicago's most recent home appearance. Hopefully this match will prove to be another step towards the Fire capturing their 5th USOC trophy!
Saturday, August 10th the Fire will greet the Montreal Impact for their second meeting of the season, this time at home. The Fire were defeated by the Impact in Montreal on April 27th at Stade Saputo. Montreal are by no means a sophomore pushover and the Fire will need to take this match very seriously. The Impact sit in 3rd in the standings in a tough competition at the top of the Eastern Conference. To beat a club like the Impact, the Fire will need to avoid making the errors that have been oh-so-common in the back line this season. Also, players not named Magee will need to step up in goal-scoring opportunities.
For the rest of the season, the Fire cannot afford to take anything less than 3 points at home regardless of the caliber of team they are playing. While many fans wait for the English Premier league to return from its off season rest there is still plenty of action to follow now, especially for Fire fans. This week could mean the difference between respectability and mediocrity for the Fire in 2013. Even though the summer weather has turned cool, the Fire still burns hot! Grab you flags, grab your scarves pull your kit out of the closet and lets stoke the coals of the summer doldrums and get ready for an inferno of Chicago Fire Soccer!