There's a special frustration in stepping out of the shadow of an older sibling - every comparison seems unfair, every intended compliment a subtle insult: "You remind me so much of your brother." "Your sister made us laugh just like that." I mean, like, gahhhhhhhhhsh, I'm my own person. The process can be long and painful, full of half-measures and false starts.
It's especially fraught when one's elder sibling is a king.
The Chicago Fire of today seem a sort of kid brother to the team that won four Lamar Hunt US Open Cup trophies from 1998-2006 - although crazy uncle Rolfe is still tearing it up in the east, I hear. Since then, they've seen their house's honor tarnished by the challenge of a well-funded upstart from the Pacific coast, sufficient that any claim to the throne by either would need to be subject to a formal process of legitimization. In short, next winner wins, and becomes Kings of the Cup. And Seattle's already bombed out, so ...
Comes now these Fire, deeply flawed and unlucky, perhaps cursed, kid brother to a cunning, vicious elder; but full of promise, into the spotlight to swear themselves true: We intend to win this. We intend to rule. In a performance as comprehensive as it was shocking, the Men in Red defeated Orlando City, 3-1, in the US Open Cup quarterfinals Wednesday. If big brother was watching, he had to be delighted.
The visitors looked loose and confident before kickoff, but that evaporated quickly. In the place of the rather loose, timid Chicago side who've gone 1-5-1 over the last 7 in MLS play was a vivid, energized group playing a sensible brand of high-pressing attacking football: Running at defenders, dividing the attacking zone, the Fire made it extremely difficult for Orlando to filter the ball toward the feet of Kaká, the transcendent Brazilian genius who makes the Lions' attack purr.
And lucky! The last time these two teams met, Dame Fortune didn't only turn her face away, she mooned the Men in Red; Adaílton's MLS-record two own-goals? What else can that be but ill Fate? Today the rubber band of fate snapped back the other way in the third minute, when Jon Busch's goal kick caught the Orlando City defense deep in an acid flashback. Patrick Nyarko, drafted the year after the last Cup win, ghosted in behind the moribund Lions defense (but, the colors, man, the colors), finishing cooly with his right foot to the back post to stake the Fire to a 1-0 lead.
Then, a sort of equilibrium settled over the match, with la Maquina Roja more incisive and organized. The pairing of Shaun Maloney and Harry Shipp, restored by Maloney's recovery from back issues, was again clever to the point of obnoxiousness; after a month away, the pair instinctively moved to exploit overloads and offer an out-ball. The return of Joevin Jones, coupled with Matt Polster's move to right back, meant that the Fire had a freak athlete who could also play a bit of football on each wing. Chicago went into halftime leading by just the bare goal, but dominating.
After halftime came the turn: Despite their many chances to blow the game open, the Men in Red give up a tying goal. Orlando wingback Rafael Ramos finds Jones a bit upfield and streaks into the space, lofting a back-post cross for Cyle Larin to run onto - 1-1, in the 56th. The Fire's claim to the throne seemed shaky; in some alternate dimension, the Sun declared them "Pretender Kings." Would it all go sour? Would they capitulate?
They didn't. They didn't behave as if their reputations, their good names, rested upon the result here (as, surely, it did for some). Instead, Chicago continued about its business, pressing smartly, falling back into compact lines of four, moving in hard-to-mark curliques when the ball was on a teammate's feet. The Fire simply hammered away, and when that didn't avail, summoned a different hammer.
The introduction of David Accam in the 59th minute and Kennedy Igboananike in the 66th changed the approach for the Men in Red from keep-and-thrust to thrust-thrust-thrust. Accam, as usual, came on an wreaked havoc on a tiring Orlando defense, dribbling into dangerous areas repeatedly and ripping a couple of solid shots on goal. But it was Igboananike's presence that tipped the scales.
Who else on the Fire could've made up ground on Accam when he slithered through for a wicked shot on goal in the 87th? Having got in the area, he was awarded when Accam's screamer bounced off the foot of the near post, leaving the Nigerian the whole goal to tap the ball into: 2-1, Fire.
Who else could have ghosted behind the high-pressing Orlando City backline to collect Jones' long ball from left back three minutes later? Surely Accam would've attracted more attention. And who else could've both danced around Lions keeper Tally Hall and struck cleanly a difficult cross-body finish with his weak foot?
Igboananike's brace ended this round of examination of the claimant's case. The next test takes place in Philadelphia on August 11. Whatever comes in the league, the Fire have this to organize around.
How do pretender kings become kings? They win.
- This was easily the most impressive performance of the Frank Yallop Fire, for me. A comprehensive defeat of a good team in good form in an important competition, yes, absolutely - but also the manner of it: Controlled, intelligent, attacking but not naïve. The shape got good contributions from everyone, and snuffed out Kaká to an astonishing degree. If the Men in Red could play at this level consistently, they'd be a dark horse in the MLS playoffs, too.
- Accam is the fucking truth.
- The established wisdom is that Shipp and Maloney play the same position and can't really function together, but tonight put the lie to that idea. Putting smart footballers on the field together can sometimes have a multiplicative effect, rather than additive, and so it was tonight, as they seemed delighted to scheme together against Orlando's flat midfield.
- Polster at right back looked ridiculous in Game 1 and genius in Game 2. For about 10 minutes in the first half, Kaká decided there was all kinds of hay to be made on the Orlando left (Polster's side of the field). Instead, the Southern Illinois rookie dominated the former Ballon d'Or winner, stuffing him physically, beating him to the ball, and generally being a fucking boss. Incredible.
- The quartet of Adailton-Gehrig-Watson-Cocis kept a solid structure for the team to organize around. Cocis was described as more of an attacking midfielder when he came over, but if so his transition to a deeper role has been very smooth indeed. Watson played well, too, in a double pivot that freed Shipp, Maloney and Nyarko to swirl in unpredictable ways.
- Jason Johnson: Finishing practice. Dude had approximately 12 trillion looks at goal, but precious few went on goal.
- Please, please tell me this game is the precursor to an unbelievable 14-game win streak in all competitions. PLEASE. Allow us to write about something besides the blech.