The Chicago Fire have traditionally been one of the handful of MLS teams who take the US Open Cup very seriously. Not only have the club won the Cup four times, but they've also made the final twice more - six finals in 18 years is impressive as well. So, even though we've lost three straight MLS games, today's US Open Cup fourth-round match against USL club Louisville City FC should feature a strong lineup, right?
Let's not get ahead of ourselves. Like most shiny things around the Chicago Fire Soccer Club, the luster of the Fire's ‘Kings of the Cup' reputation has become a bit tarnished in recent years. The last title came in 2006 - the year before current ownership came on board! Last year's run to the semi-finals was certainly better than losing to an amateur side on an indoor field (as the Fire did to the Michigan Bucks in 2012), but it ended with a soul-crushing 6-0 eradication at the hands of Seattle. The Sounders went on to win the Cup again in 2014 after steamrolling the Men in Red - their fourth in five years' existence. Safe to say we can put the ‘Kings of the Cup' gear away until after the next time our boys bring it home.
Then there's the fatigue. If any Chicago starters take the field this evening, they'll be able to close their eyes and remember a moment, just 71 hours before, when they were kicking off against New England in a rainstorm. Open them, they're facing one of the better teams in USL ... most likely, in a rainstorm. Some confusion is understandable. Today's game will be distinguishable by the fact that it's being played on grass. Of course, Bridgeview will have received somewhere between 2 and 3 inches of rain in the 48 hours before kickoff; grass over turf may not turn out to be a net advantage.
So: A field that's likely to be heavy and sloppy, added to players who played less than 3 days ago 1000 miles away, equals squad rotation. There's a reason MLS teams win the majority of these games, and it's their depth; the Fire should be able to play a fresher squad than Louisville and still have an advantage in overall ability. Chicago is less deep than usual right now, though; David Accam and Joevin Jones are still on international duty, while Shaun Maloney may as well be, having just arrived after playing two games for Scotland in Europe. Mike Magee's comeback has been delayed by a hamstring problem, and Patrick Nyarko is still a ways from inclusion. In other words, six of the team's top eight attacking players won't see much, if any, time.
Who's left? The following players logged 90 minutes against New England: Harry Shipp. Kennedy Igboananike. Matt Polster. Razvan Cocis. Eric Gehrig. Jeff Larentowicz. Adailton. Lovel Palmer. Jon Busch. Thankfully, Guly do Prado and Greg Cochrane were substituted later in the match, and may have some spring left in their legs. Wait wait wait ... this can't be right. Let's do this again.
- Out due to injury: Magee, Nyarko
- Out due to international duty: Accam, Jones
- Probably too tired to walk due to international duty: Maloney
- Played 90 minutes in a driving rainstorm in Boston less than three days ago: Shipp, Igboananike, Polster, Cocis, Gehrig, Larentowicz, Adailton, Palmer, Busch.
- Played less than 90 minutes in a driving rainstorm in Boston less than three days ago: do Prado, Cochrane, Quincy Amarikwa, Jason Johnson.
Fresh and ready to party: Sean Johnson, Michael Stephens, Chris Ritter, Matt Watson,
Patrick Doody,* Collin Fernandez.
[*EDIT: Doody is apparently still with St. Louis, based upon this tweet. So it's worse than I thought.
I do apologize terribly for any difficulty
in wagering this error may have caused. The fault is entirely my own. - SS]
Oh ehhh ... wow. In order to have even 10 guys available who didn't play 90 minutes Saturday evening, the Fire have recalled
Doody from his loan in St. Louis and Fernandez from his (very brief) loan to tonight's opponent. Tonight's alignment is likely to be very simple, since it will feature at least several players who have not featured for the Men in Red much, if at all. That last group - ‘Fresh and ready to party' - had better be truly ready, because Louisville City is no pushover. The best guess is that the Fire will roll out 4-5 starters, with quick hooks ready if they can just build a lead. Whether they can build a quick lead against the visitors remains to be seen.
Most Cup upsets come from two simple, but opposing, ideas: Team solidity, and a moment of magic. If Louisville City can get a bit of both - especially against this weakened, uncertain Fire side - then there's every chance to fear they could end Chicago's Open Cup run at the first hurdle. If winning and losing are habits, as some would have it, the boys from Kentucky (5-2-5) should be favored over our Fire (4-8-2).
The solidity is a team-wide thing, and hard to gauge. Prominent names in the LCFC backline include Conor Shanosky, the one-time perennial centerback-of-the-future Homegrown for DC United. Longtime Charlotte Eagle Juan Guzman came over to Louisville after his old employer went semi-pro; his play in midfield, along with Danish youngster Magnus Rasmussen, will go a long way to determining how much control over the match the visitors in purple enjoy. In 12 USL matches, LCFC have given up only 10 goals.
The magic could come from either of two players with an axe to grind; LCFC's top attackers each have spent time with the Fire. Kadeem Dacres was drafted by the club in 2014, but was cut barely a month into training camp. Dacres therefore missed the tenure of Matt Fondy, a journeyman target forward whom Fire fans immediately named ‘The Fondler' after his acquisition midseason from Chivas USA. It wasn't fair, but zero goals from eight appearances failed to force the snarks to search for another alternative.
Fondy's intelligent movement and willingness to grind have netted him six goals in USL already this season; would Fire fans now be happy with a guy who scores every other game? Dacres is a pure dribbler, a traditional winger who could make something happen, especially on a sloppy surface against an inexperienced defense. Whatever they have to say about it pregame, it's hard to imagine they wouldn't feel 12 feet tall to score a devastating goal in front of a stunned and shrieking Section 8.
LCFC pressure v unfamiliar Fire backline: The Fire can't seriously just roll out Palmer-Adailton-Larentowicz-Gehrig, can they? If they don't, who comes in? Because, there's no one on the Fire roster besides those guys who's played any defense for Chicago this year. Add to that the fact that Fondy generally leads the Louisville front line into brief rounds of kamikaze pressure, and there's a potential for a disastrous mis-touch or clearance off someone's back - just the kind of thing a third-division side needs win this kind of cup match. Could the rumored move of Polster back to defense help in this regard?
Fire v Zombie Fire: The Fire are an inconsistent but compelling group who play stop-start whirling attacking football. The Zombie Fire are filled with terror for the terror god, and find the prospect of entering the penalty area triggering because something bad happened there once. Other Zombie Fire triggers: Keeping the ball, running right at goal, wall passes. Key signifier: Harry Shipp on one side of a four-man midfield? RUN AWAY IT'S ZOMBIE FIIIIRE. On Zombie Fire, Shipp is a Special Guest Star who signed a 10-episode contract, and visibly regrets it. "Lookit me, going back to play defense," his expression says, his lips twisted in a ‘Whaddaygonnado' smirk.
Matt Fondy v ‘The Fondler': Really ask yourself - would you be cool with ‘The Fondler' as a nickname? WOULD YOU? So let's back off the Fond ... Matt for a second. Because this game - a flat big-league team that's super tired against a fresh smaller team with something to prove - sounds a little bit too much like the midpoint in a bad sports movie to take it for granted. Every movie has a protagonist, and the Fire need to make sure that Matt Fondy does. not. become. that. protagonist. Maybe we'll drop the ‘Fondler' thing if he agrees to, y'know, not score twice in injury time as a stirring, slightly dated orchestral score indicates that the human spirit has triumphed, or something.
Prediction: 3-1 Fire.