Chicago fans had not seen the Men in Red in action for two weeks but Fire supporters were treated to perhaps more soccer than they had hoped for on Wednesday.
It took more than 120 minutes of action for the Fire to put away NASL 2016 Spring Champions Indy Eleven at Toyota Park, eventually breaking the 1-1 draw with a 4-3 victory in the shootout. It was a game of missed opportunity after missed opportunity for Chicago who continued to struggle to find the finishing touch despite putting up 27 shots.
The game started slowly with neither team threatening much until Indy Eleven midfielder Nicki Paterson recovered a loose clearance about 20 yards out of the box and attempted a lofted shot that forced goalkeeper Matt Lampson to parry away the shot.
Action picked up in the 20th minute as the Fire duo of David Accam and Khaly Thiam started to connect. Thiam, who had a great first half, just missed a curling shot toward the far post. He followed it up immediately with a great pass to Accam who got in on net but hit the crossbar. The two kept it going with Thiam missing a header on an Accam free kick and Accam getting a shot on goal in the 39th minute.
The end of the half belonged to Indy Eleven as Justin Braun just barely missed the far post on a shot from the left side of the box and then found a breaking Dylan Mares for another near chance in the final moments.
Braun proved to be a handful for the Fire all night, forcing a difficult save from Lampson in the second half before opening the scoring in the 105th minute. Indy Eleven appeared to be on their way to victory after Braun received a pass at the top of the box from substitute Sinisa Ubiparipovic and made a textbook turn and shoot to beat Lampson to his left.
To that point, the Fire had squandered all their chances that included both Nick LaBrocca and Kennedy Igboananike missing point-blank, open net opportunities and Razvan Cocis being robbed by a tremendous kick save from Jon Busch.
Thankfully, Accam was up to the task in the 111th minute. Chicago's best playmaker had a great individual effort to run down the right side of the box, fake a shot that sent two Indy defenders sliding out of position, cut back inside and finish his shot in the upper 90.
With the game in penalties, Igboananike got the proceedings off to an inauspicious start for the Fire by yet again missing the frame. Though the Fire fell down to an early 1-0 hole in the shootout, Lampson made two consecutive saves and Thiam, LaBrocca and Brandon Vincent all converted before Accam struck with the game winner.
It was another grinder of a game for the Fire but an important win nonetheless. With success in the MLS season falling further out of reach, the U.S. Open Cup remains the Fire's best chance for a trophy. And taking on a Peter Wilt club in Indy Eleven meant even more bragging rights were on the line.
Despite the sparse crowd at Toyota Park, the fans from both sides embodied the elevated stakes of the match. Indy Eleven had a strong showing of traveling supporters, Section 8 rolled out the incredible "First Fan" Peter Wilt tifo and of course the Schlabst Cup was in the building. And, of course, beloved former Fire keeper Jon Busch was showered with love once again from Section 8.
Survive and advance is the mantra of the tournament and the Fire did just that on Wednesday, though they will need to be better to do so again. Still, there were some positive signs including the 27 shots generated, Thiam's first half and a 120-minute effort from Eric Gehrig after a grueling rehab.
Among all the bad moments -- mostly the sloppy finishing -- Matt Polster's injury is the most concerning. Near the end of the first half, Indy Eleven midfielder Brad Ring fired a point blank pass attempt off Polster's face, sending the defensive midfielder to the ground. Polster did not return in the second half and is strongly believed to have a concussion.
Polster will surely miss the Colorado match on Saturday and very likely the Philadelphia match on Wednesday. Concussions can be a pretty awful, lingering issue, but hopefully Polster's is not too serious. Even against an NASL team, it was pretty clear to see in the second half how much more space is given without Polster on the pitch.
The Fire will learn their Round of 16 opponent on Thursday.