After an extended Copa America-induced hibernation, the Chicago Fire will set their sights once again on claiming the title of top team in ‘Murica. It seems like an impossible goal with the way the Fire have started the season, but all the earlier results can be thrown out the window because we’re talking about the return of the US Open Cup. After three rounds of the lower-division teams going at it, the Fire and the rest of the MLS sides begin their own quest to take the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup for pride - and a trip to the CONCACAF Champions League. Up first for the Chicago Fire is NASL side Indy Eleven, with the teams set to take the field at Toyota Park at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. The match, along with all other fourth round matches, are available to stream on Youtube on the U.S. Soccer’s channel
Return of the King?
It may be hard to believe for newer fans, but there was once a time when the U.S. Open Cup was like a birthright for the Fire. It was a simpler time, before the days of #Hashtags and smartphones. Back then being a soccer fan required real effort, there was no ‘live streaming’ choices or viewing options on a variety of network and cable channels. It was during these early days of the ‘golden era’ of American soccer that the Chicago Fire made the Open Cup a constant presence in their trophy room, as they hoisted the cup four times between 1998 and 2006. Despite a ten year period from their last win, the Fire have proven to still be competitive in their quest for the cup, having made it to the semi-finals three of the past four years. Perhaps this is the year they overcome the semis and finally return to the finals and bring the trophy back to its adoptive home in Chicago.
Is the Best of the NASL as good as the Worst of MLS?
The Fire have made history in the early MLS season, but for all the wrong reasons. Through ten matches, the team had just seven points - their worst 10-game start in club history. Though they finished with a win and a draw before the break, the Fire’s 11 points is still worst in the league.
Just three hours southeast of Chicago, Indy Eleven have cemented themselves as the pride of the NASL. In just its third season, Indy Eleven has completed its spring season without a defeat, winning four and drawing in six matches and clinching a berth in the NASL playoffs. Wednesday's match should be the good barometer to gauge just how closely the quality of the NASL has gained on the MLS. An NASL has never advanced past the quarter final, but Indy Eleven could not ask for a better match-up to make history. Can the Fire crush those dreams and avoid heartbreak? For the sake of their fans, they better hope they can.
Peter Wilt is likely to be beaming like a proud papa as the two sides face off on Wednesday. The man who led the Chicago Fire to three U.S. Open Cups, a Supporters’ Shield and an MLS title as its general manager, Wilt was also the main architect in the creation of Indy Eleven and its efforts to build a downtown stadium that would have helped placed Naptown at the table for future MLS expansion. Though set to depart Indy in an effort to create an NASL side in Chicago, Wilt’s presence cannot be ignored as his young up-and-comer child faces off against his oldest one trying to reclaim its past glory.
As stated before, Indy Eleven enter Wednesday’s match coming off an undefeated spring season. Unlike the Fire, the Eleven have been active in recent weeks, which includes an impressive 4-1 victory Saturday against the Carolina Rail Hawks. The star of the match was striker Eamon Zayed, whose hat trick earned him NASL player of the week honors for the second time this season. The Libyan International lead the NASL with six goals in ten matches, and showed himself during the Rail Hawks match as a capable target in the box who can score with any part of his body.
Even when Zayed is not on his game, the Eleven are well-served by their defensive combination of center backs Colin Falvey and Greg Janicki along with former Fire keeper Jon Busch in net. The three have helped Indy give up only eight goals in ten matches, good for second-fewest in the league.
Of courses, the stats sound better if you do not consider them coming against inferior opponents. The quality of play in the NASL has certainly improved in recent years, but the Fire are certain to be the best team the Eleven have faced off against this season. Watching a few matches on Youtube shows a squad that has some weakness that the Fire can truly take advantage of on Wednesday. While 24-year-olds Dylan Mares and Omar Gordon will use their speed on the outside to drive the ball into the opponent’s side, the rest of the midfield and defense often appears a step-behind and susceptible to speedy players (I’m looking at you Igbo and Accam).
And when Zayed or fellow forward Justin Braun (3 goals in ten matches) aren’t able to get service, the entire offense comes to a near Chicago Fire-like crashing halt as they already been held scoreless three different times. Defense has been a strength all season for the Fire, and it’s tough to see Indy Eleven running up the score on them.
Looking at each team’s early season records could give some Fire fans hesitation as they head into Wednesday’s match. There’s no denying Indy’s success so far this season, but they may find themselves out of their element against a Fire team with a stout defense and speed throughout the attack. History also points in the Fire’s favor as they hold a 26-1-1 home record in the Open Cup - combined with the NASL’s general poor showings in the later rounds of the Cup. Confidence is not something that typically comes to fans of the Fire, but it would be heartbreaking upset if the club does not find a way to put away the Eleven on their own home turf. For all the fans’ mental health, I’m going to go ahead and guess Chicago puts away Indy with a 2-1 victory to make the next step toward reclaiming the cup.
What are your thoughts and predictions? Leave a comment below?