The Fire enter tonight's fifth-round US Open Cup match against Charlotte very much reeling in league play - losers of four straight, 20th out of 20 on the overall table. Tribune columnist John Kass has already called the regular season a lost cause (and hoisted a bit of a pirate flag!):
Season's over. Blaming Frank Klopas won't work this year either. Good effort, not enough quality. That's on ownership not coaching #cf97— John Kass (@John_Kass) June 25, 2015
So supporters of the Men in Red now turn our eyes fully toward the Open Cup as, potentially, this club's only shot at redemption in 2015. The emotional devastation of another washout MLS season would be cushioned by reclaiming the club's claim to the moniker 'Kings of the Cup.' The Chicago Fire need to win this game, and badly.
They won't get much help from their highest-priced talent. David Accam limped back from international duty with Ghana, and hasn't been right since. His tetchy hamstring rules him out. Shaun Maloney came back from Scotland duty a bit weary, then got flattened by Quincy Amarikwa 45 minutes into his first shift back with Chicago, in the fourth-round Open Cup match two weeks ago. Diagnosis: Bulging discs; 3-5 weeks. In short, the attack which has not scored during regulation time since June 6 still is missing some crucial pieces.
It's not all coal in the Fire's stockings, however. Manager Frank Yallop has put around that Mike Magee could start tonight's game, which is fantastic news indeed. Magee's influence - even in brief appearances as he's gathered fitness - is palpable; his mental game has, if anything, expanded during his long layoff. Another potential X-factor is the improving health of Patrick Nyarko, who could make an appearance on the bench tonight for the first time this year.
The midfield selection will indicate how the Fire intend to play. Charlotte, under former Fire man Mike Jeffries, play a diamond 4-4-2; this leaves the Men in Red options to either keep the ball (by playing a triangle in the middle) or exploit the flanks (with a two-man central midfield and wingers). Matt Polster returns from a one-game MLS suspension at the back of midfield, likely joined by Razvan Cocis.
Given the likelihood of the Polster/Cocis central midfield, he other midfielders will indicate the shape:
- If it's Joevin Jones and Harry Shipp, then it's a flat 4-4-2 that will pressure high up the field, with Shipp on the right and Jones on the left;
- If it's Shipp and Michael Stephens, then it's more of a skinny-diamond shape in midfield, a pure possession shape, with tremendous responsibility for the fullbacks to provide width;
- If it's Shipp and almost anyone else - Matt Watson, Chris Ritter - then the technical staff's main concerns are defensive, and we will look to play very quickly on the counter.
The defense has been predictable throughout the season - if Jones is at left back, then it's Jones, Adailton, Jeff Larentowicz and whoever of Eric Gehrig and Lovel Palmer has looked best in practice. If Jones is in midfield, then it's the other four. The acquisition of Ty Harden in the Quincy Amarikwa trade promises more rotation in the near future, but Harden is cap-tied to San Jose for the Open Cup, so tonight won't be the beginning of that process.
Finally, the Fire play an MLS match in Houston less than 72 hours after tonight's game, so managing fatigue will be a concern. Buried deep in the playoff race, will Yallop put his best XI out tonight, and let Friday's game fall as may? Or will he roll the dice that a rotated squad can handle the last remaining USL team in the tournament in an effort to stave off a five-game losing streak in the league? Stay tuned.
The Charlotte Independence are coached by Mike Jeffries, whom most Chicagoans probably remember for sitting near Bob Bradley on the bench of the great Fire teams of 1998-2000. The Independence are a first-year club, and their record in USL is not eye-popping - but Jeffries has them playing solid, simple football which stymied an off-kilter New England Revolution in the fourth round long enough for Jorge Herrera to lash home a winner.
The offense revolves around Herrera, who plays at the tip of the Charlotte diamond as a playmaker, looking for pockets of space to control the game. Enzo Martinez and former Crew winger Ryan Finley create problems on the flanks, and Polish battering-ram Tomasz Zahorski will make every cross a battle.
Defensively, the Independence rely more on team structure than defensive skill. If the Fire can exhibit good movement when approaching and within the area, they'll be able to create chance after chance against the likes of Mechack Jerome and Andrew Ribero.