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Victory or the Abyss: Philadelphia Union v Chicago Fire, US Open Cup semifinal, preview

Two of MLS' worst in 2015 meet tonight with a chance to snatch a berth in the finals; Fire are healthy and motivated but have been terrible away from home

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
The situation

Is there anyone, anywhere, checking this game out who doesn't know what's at stake here? Perhaps somewhere in Hong Kong, a young futbolista is yawning and rising, drowsily booting her laptop and finding the most interesting football match happening: A semifinal of a domestic cup competition, the cup from the most famous nation of them all - the United States of America, the Great Satan, instigator of the Energy Age, home of Madonna and Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan and Microsoft.

This preview, then, is for that football fan, or any like her. This game will not draw millions of eyeballs, but those who do watch tonight's US Open Cup semifinal from Philadelphia will overwhelmingly know that the stakes are quite simply Victory or the Abyss.

The Lamar Hunt US Open Cup (to give the tournament its full nomenclature) is open to every football club in the U.S. of A. - if you've got 15 likely lads, and a few thousand to blow in registration fees and whatnot, you can get involved for 2016. This year's separation of wheat from chaff has left four teams still extant: Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City in the west, Chicago Fire and Philadelphia Union in the East. Perversely, the tournament's format - which seems custom-made for American sensibilities, with the promise of overtime and a final result - hasn't swayed the needle in terms of domestic attention. A match that would, in many countries, engender cunning ticket-fabrication scams will in the USA have resellers hawking cut-rate wares 30 minutes before kickoff.

Our concern here today, at least in this section, are the Chicago Fire, until lately acclaimed as Kings of the Cup for their four wins in the tournament. 1998. {Ninety-eight.} 2000. {Two thousand.} 2003. {Two thousand three.} 2006. {Two thousand six.} Four domestic cups in nine years, starting with a year-one MLS Cup/Open Cup double? Yes, you'd better believe we called ourselves Kings of the Cup. Lately, though ... since that last Open Cup, nothin'.

A major subplot in the Fire's decline has been the usurpation of their status as Bestest Expansion Club, like, EVURR by the Seattle Sounders. It was bad enough when Seattle became the second MLS expansion club to win the Open Cup in 2009. After that, it got personal: The Fire lost in the 2011 final to Seattle, which was nothing compared to a brutal 6-0 loss at this stage in last year's tournament. That loss set the stage for the Rave Green to draw level with Chicago as the only teams to claim four Open Cup trophies in the modern era.

This year the Sounders are no more, felled by those lumberjacks in Portland, to our temporary gratitude. Tonight's foe is a more prosaic one - the Philadelphia Union, last year's beaten finalists, detailed below. The Fire have a winnable road game against a foe whose flaws beg exploiting, with only-every-shred-of-a-sense-that-2015-was-anything-but-another-step-downward in the balance.

Let us be clear: This talk of MLS playoffs is glorious madness. As much as I love the idea of Major League 12: Chicago Fire Win The Whole F--kin' Thing, it's not going to happen. Did you see Red Bulls against NYCFC this weekend? The Galaxy? Vancouver? Kansas City? The Fire are going to need to go something like 7-2-3 to hit 46 points; Montreal needs only 5-3-5. Then an endless climb in the playoffs - a long slog of must-win road games - seems a big ask for a team which has yet to win a road game in MLS this calendar year.

Add to that calculation the fact that la Maquina Roja won the right to host the Open Cup final; should they somehow win through, they'll collapse a whole skein of probability fields. If the Fire win, the season continues; every ball is still in the air; resurrection, so long derided, is still a technical possibility. Maybe there's a future where YALLOP 2029 is a board on the Ring of Fire. Lose, and the long slog to 2016 begins, while supporters watch the official utterances from the club go through the stages of grief: denial ...

The shape

The Fire have settled into a 4-4-1-1 groove in the last few games, not that the formation ever seemed far from Frank Yallop's mind - but, differently, it's basically a 4-4-2, with a forward in the drop-off spot behind the point of the spear. Chicago have the bones of a solid squad but they've staggered about like a newborn calf in 2015.

The shape is based around the positional and physical excellence of an interesting pair of central midfielders, Romanian international Razvan Cocis and the kid from the downstate university, Matt Polster. Polster's emergence as a truly persuasive possession midfielder has put the cunning, two-thoughts-ahead work of Cocis in the shade a bit, but it shouldn't. Together, they swing wide to cover the flanks well, erase ghosting runners, and make the traditional playmaking zone just above the penalty area a muddy no-man's-land of blood and bone. Kindly.

The attack is a fluid affair, with players hewing to type to try to affect play. Shaun Maloney and Fire homegrown Harry Shipp have lately featured on the wings; both are scheming playmakers who spend a great deal of time in possession pushing infield. David Accam (when played out wide) and Patrick Nyarko are a matched set of Ghanaian wingers, with Nyarko the traditional right-sider and Accam more a left-sided wing forward playing outside-in. Any one of these players could also appear as the first ‘1' in the formation, playing beneath the striker, with varied intentions.

The occasionally-brilliant set-up work of the creative crew has generally been squandered by the Fire's forwards. Kennedy Igboananike has been particularly culpable here, but the names of (since-traded) Quincy Amarikwa and Jason Johnson should also get a shout-out. The good news is that the Men in Red could see both the return of Mike Magee (recently sidelined with a knee bruise and an extreme case of son-being-born) and the debut of Gilberto in this must-win game. Either seems a fantastic fit as a deep-lying forward in a Chicago attack that has created a lot of chances for little reward.

The defense begins with the abbatoir central midfield described previously, and has seemed to solidify recently. Captain Jeff Larentowicz took a month to sit on the couch while a spinal disc deflated to a normal size; apparently, he spent that month watching Paolo Maldini videos and dreaming of catenaccio. Since Big Red's return, the Fire have made glimpses of their goal difficult to come by, allowing something like 10 shots on goal in the last four games combined. Eric Gehrig is a willing foil to Larentowicz's aggressiveness. Lovel Palmer and (especially) Joevin Jones are dynamic threats on the overlap, while being athletic enough to run down occasional positioning errors.

The Fire have one of the elite shot-stoppers in MLS in goal in Sean Johnson. The Georgia native has been stalled just around the outskirts of the national-team picture for a few years now, victim of a few crucial gaffes at important junctures. His backup, Jon Busch, was once Best XI material but now is maybe two years removed from writing ‘player-coach' on his resume.

The opposition

The Union are a sort of alt-universe Fire, albeit from an extremely cruel universe - how would you feel about the Men in Red if their history began when Blanco arrived? Bereft of all history of success, Philadelphia grinds on in the lower reaches of MLS, its grifter executive suite skimming a living off the passion of the Sons of Ben.

To be clear, there's nothing untoward about Jim Curtin's leadership of the Union; far from it. Curtin has fashioned a bizarre crazy-quilt of a roster (who can forget the short and terrible reign of Rais M'Bohli?) into a functional unit that can occasionally inspire.

That said, the Union are the only team in MLS with a lower points-per-game average than the Fire. Talismanic centerback/midfielder Maurice Edu is doubtful, as is French midfielder Vincent Noguiera (whose dummy and run were featured in that goal video above). Powerful wing forward Andrew Wenger and depth defender Raymond Lee are out, as is target man Conor Casey. And keeper Brian Sylvestre, who had lately made some claim to the starting spot, is cup-tied to Carolina Railhawks. Unlike Chicago, Philadelphia won't be at full strength.

Most of the special sequences for the Union find playmaker Cristian Maidana involved in the buildup, if not the finish. Maidana is another in a recent flood of Argentinian cutpurses and space-folders to enter MLS - Higuain, Valeri, Diaz come to mind - and is perhaps the most subtle of the lot, a jazz musician in a league filled with blatting Sousa marching bands. His positioning and touch will present a special sort of challenge to the Cocis/Polster Thresher of Dreams.

Around him he'll have power and pace (CJ Sapong), and possibly some cleverness (Fernando Aristeguieta), but little star power. The Union have focused their spending further back on the field - Edu, of course, is a defensive designated player, and recent addition Tranquillo Barnetta plays deeper in midfield as well. Old hand Brian Carroll has gotten some minutes in the engine room. If Philadelphia can keep the ball and play simply, they can starve the Fire of the ball.

They'll need to, because their defense is truly awful. Curtin, a no-nonsense defender in his playing days, has struggled to fashion an approach that works. Keeper has been a special problem, with M'Bohli a disaster and former No. 1 pick Andre Blake unable to beat out a succession of loanees for the starting spot. As truly awful as the Fire's defense has occasionally been in 2015 - and it has been - consider that they've surrendered 31 goals in MLS play compared to 40 for the Union. This game could be a shootout.