The Chicago Fire were outclassed from whistle to whistle Tuesday and fell 3-1 to the New England Revolution in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals. It is the fourth consecutive year the Fire have exited the tournament in the semifinal round.
There is no way around this one folks. This loss is going to have an impact.
Fans were rightfully upset after the lackluster performance, threatening to cancel season tickets, stop watching, stop purchasing merchandise etc. I cannot blame them one bit.
This was a game the entire club talked about being extremely important and it got off to a poor start before it even started. For some unknown reason, coach Veljko Paunovic opted to start Khaly Thiam instead of Matt Polster and Matt Lampson instead of Sean Johnson.
The latter decision especially is an inexcusable gaffe at this point in the season. This is not me being an armchair analyst and claiming Johnson would have been the better selection after watching Lampson have a bad game. Johnson has proven to be the superior keeper and that decision was clear to everyone before the game ever started. Johnson has a national team pedigree for a reason.
Instead, Lampson was deployed and to put it nicely, he struggled badly.
Thiam had one of his worst performances and while he showed enough in previous games to perhaps warrant a look, no one in the world would argue he is a better defensive midfielder than Matt Polster. It’s just not true on any level. So from the get go, the team was off to a rough start just with the starting XI selection.
Things did not get better.
Right away, New England, specifically Kei Kamara, showed they came to play. Kamara looked dangerous in the sixth minute but was called offside and then pressured Lampson two minutes later, almost causing the shaky goalkeeper to give up an early goal.
The Fire responded with one of their better looks in the first half in the 12th minute as Arturo Alvarez played a cheeky pass to Rodrigo Ramos who sent in a perfect pass to John Goossens breaking into the box but Goossens first touch let him down and he never got a clean shot off.
Despite the nice pass from Ramos, the young right back would commit a costly penalty on Kelyn Rowe in the box in the 16th minute. New England was awarded a penalty and Kamara converted.
Goossens would get a good shot off in the 24th minute but it was saved and Kamara would then take over even more. Lampson attempted a clearance that went right to Kamara who almost scored on the mistake. He followed that up in the 32nd minute by sauntering unpressured in the middle of the field and finding an open Teal Bunbury who missed just wide.
In the 37th minute, Diego Fagundez could have had a second goal after making Jonathan Campbell miss badly on a sliding tackle in the box but Ramos recovered to break up the would-be goal.
Despite the Revolution pressure, the Fire leveled the game in the 40th minute thanks to the tremendous play of David Accam – the only player who showed a sense of urgency through the full contest before getting sent off late.
The Fire goal started with a Razvan Cocis pass to Michael de Leeuw at the top of the box. De Leeuw had trouble handling the pass but did enough to toe-poke the ball into the box where Accam worked his magic. Accam put the sauce on Je-Vaughn Watson and cut back to put in a brilliant right footed shot pass a diving Brad Knighton.
At 1-1, there was a true sense of hope. It lasted less than 90 seconds.
New England immediately responded. In the 42nd minute, New England took advantage of a corner kick, sending a ball into Kamara who headed the ball off Cocis, The Fire were slow to react and Watson jumped over the loose deflection in the six-yard box and headed home the goal for a 2-1 lead. They almost scored off a set piece again in the 44th minute when Rowe lobbed a ball into the six-yard box that just missed a diving Bunbury and Kamara.
For the first 10 minutes of the second half, it looked the Fire might play with urgency and get an equalizer. But unfortunately it only lasted about 10 minutes with an Alvarez cross to de Leeuw in the 55th minute being the best chance as the Dutch striker sent a sliding touch just over the crossbar.
From that point on it was a pretty comfortable half for New England who controlled possession and managed to pepper the Fire with a few chances. The Revolution broke through for the third goal in the 85th minute when Bunbury easily ran around Johan Kappelhof near the center of the box and slotted a shot past a questionably positioned Lampson.
With the game essentially over at 3-1, Accam showed his frustration with a hard foul on Rowe and a short scuffle after that led to Accam’s ejection. I can’t blame Accam. He played hard and didn’t get the support he needed. He had every right to be frustrated.
It’s hard to find words about just how bad things are going. Paunovic, even in his first year, has no excuses for the extremely questionable lineup choices and head scratching subs. The Fire were down 2-1 all half and he waited until the team was down 3-1 in the 90th minute to bring on a striker for Michael Harrington! Polster didn’t come on until the 65th minute! None of it makes any sense at all.
Too many of the players had a lack of urgency. For a game that was talked about as the most important match of the season, it sure reminded me of all the other lackluster outings we’ve seen.
A number of fans are very likely going to start tuning out for the rest of the season and this club deserves it. Sports are a two-way street. Clubs need to be supported but they also need to produce SOMETHING to believe in. The Fire have not held up their end of the bargain and they can no longer expect fans to hold up their end.