(Editor's note: I somehow missed the submission of this article some five days ago; we publish it today as part of the buildup to tomorrow's fifth-round match against Columbus. To Mr. Engelhardt and our loyal readers, my apologies. - ss)
It's not easy to dole out rankings after only 48 minutes of soccer.
The odd, wet, delay-filled game last Wednesday was an unusual viewing experience. The game had a different feel to it, but both teams seemed focused. Mike Magee especially seemed fully concentrated on the task at hand, generally staying away from side shows with referees on this evening.
Whether it was Frank Yallop's understanding of what the Cup means to Chicago, or the players, all those associated with the Men in Red seemed to push for a win. There was no defensive bunker after taking a lead as we have seen in MLS games.
It was going to be high pressure all night, for however long the night lasted.
Yallop deserves all the credit in the world for his approach and his ability to keep the team focused during three hours of delays. He said the team was going to take the game seriously and field a strong side, but it was even stronger than I expected.
I thought perhaps with the luxury of Magee and Amarikwa up top, Yallop might give Larentowicz a night off and give Chris Ritter more minutes. At the very least, I was certain we would see Kyle Reynish in goal.
But Yallop wanted a win and he wants the Cup. With an MLS season already on the brink of collapse, the mental approach Yallop brought to the Cup Wednesday might be the Fire's best chance at silverware this season.
XI: Grant Ward – Young Grant Ward gets his first trip to the top of my rankings after netting his first goal in a Fire uniform. Ward has plenty of promise (as we all know) but has looked overwhelmed and overmatched at times in MLS play this season. On Wednesday, he looked like a composed veteran, getting plenty of touches up the right side and calmly looking to advance the play or maintain possession. His run into the box to receive the Quincy Amarikwa pass that led to the goal shows he is starting to see plays develop before they happen. Strong game.
X: Jeff Larentowicz – He could have easily been Man of the Match with no complaints from me. Given more freedom by Logan Pause's inclusion in the lineup, the captain was all over the field, pressuring the ball anytime the Riverhounds tried to regain possession in their own zone. Aside from wreaking havoc, he was also an offensive threat. He won the corner that led to a Harry Shipp corner, which led to Big Red heading the ball to Mike Magee's magic feet for the second goal. Larentowicz also cleared the lone Pittsburgh goal but the referee saw it otherwise.
IX: Mike Magee – He was asked to do a lot this match and he answered. The league MVP floated around the field much more than usual, often falling back to the center of the pitch to help move the ball forward as Logan Pause struggled on the night. He did well as a facilitator and connected on a good amount of his passes that advanced the team. His deep drop backs may very well have helped him with scoring opportunities. Pittsburgh may have lost track of him as he was unmarked on his goal and unmarked again on a shot that hit the crossbar and bounced off the goal line.
VIII: Quincy Amarikwa – Like Magee, Amarikwa helped get the offense flowing and was more than just a target man. With Pittsburgh playing nearly every man behind the ball, Amarikwa did a lot of work with Ward to try to unlock the defense and the two eventually found ways to break it down. He provided his vintage hard runs, causing defenders to pull on his shirt multiple times though it went unnoticed by referees. But in a nice change of pace, Amarikwa stayed on his feet even when he wasn't getting calls he probably deserved.
VII: Bakary Soumare – Soumare and his defensive mates were not tested much on the night but Soumare still stood out with his offensive contributions. Anytime Pittsburgh tried a long ball to beat the defense, Soumare knocked it down and started the counter. Anytime the Riverhounds tried to clear, Soumare was at the center line to intercept and quickly keep the attack going.
VI: Harry Shipp – He took a beautiful corner kick, had a shot on goal and tried some creative things. So in other words, he was Harry Shipp. He wasn't as involved as we've seen in most MLS fixtures this year, but still fun to watch when he had the ball. He had an interesting moment when he ran a corner kick attempt out himself to the box because of the acres of space the defense gave. He connected with Larentowicz who laid it off to Ward who eventually missed the target on a shot attempt. It was a cool sequence. Shipp nearly connected with Magee on a great long ball as well.
V: Patrick Ianni – Soumare's partner Patrick Ianni was not called upon often but was solid in sweeping behind to retrieve the rare long ball that trickled toward Sean Johnson. Ianni was more assertive offensively, making a couple runs up the middle of the field well past the center line. It was a side of Ianni's game Fire fans haven't seen this year and while it wasn't terribly effective, it was an interesting wrinkle.
IV: Sean Johnson – I had to put Sean Johnson somewhere so I put him here. He didn't have a bad game or good game because he didn't really have a game. He was on the field.
III: Matt Watson – Watson has carved himself out a nice role as a super utility man on this team. I don't mind him as a holding midfielder or right back and he played the latter Wednesday. He had his usual Watson performance of being responsible defensively and a bit slow on offensive decisiveness. Anytime Watson shares the field with a player such as Logan Pause he is a bit less effective. The more offensive players on the pitch, the better Watson generally performs.
II: Greg Cochrane – I love the offensive potential of Greg Cochrane but I still take issue with the way he defends. The Riverhounds focused their attacks on his side of the field and found much more space for open crosses than on Watson's side. The free kick that led to a goal was also taken from Cochrane's area after he was caught high and out of position a bit.
I: Logan Pause – He was clearly the player who struggled the most Wednesday. He got overwhelmed in the midfield early and never really recovered to get momentum moving in his favor. He seemed a step behind the play, needing to make sliding challenges too frequently, and was disconnected in passing and receiving the ball. But Pause did set a club record for most appearances in Cup competition, which is an honor he has certainly earned and deserves.