There are times when we talk about football like it’s a great deal more abstract than it really is. We babble on (okay, I babble on, fuck off already) about space and tempo and touch, about group thought and moments of inspiration, about arrangements of players in space and the ways we can use their arrangement to control things, to make certain courses of action more or less preferable and thereby steer the whole thing to our liking.
But all that mighty thinkifying is really just the skin over the Great Beast Football, and what lies beneath is the common truth we usually leave unrecognized: That soccer can be stripped down to sinew and bone, made a contest more about wanting-to and will than any wil-o-the-wisp fantasy like spacing or movement. Most of us see this truth about football revealed in the tactics of a David vs Goliath cup match, where the stakes - binary outcome: winner take all! - are high and the inherent motivation levels are, shall we say, disparate - ‘this could make our season’ vs. ‘I really don’t want to get hurt before a conference game.’
Sometimes, though, all that motivation and scrapping, all the tenuous labor of that sinew and bone, can be undone by one subtle flicker of the skin, like a horse shrugging off a biting fly. When the Fire needed that flicker to defeat Saint Louis FC in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup tonight, Luchio Solignac was there with a single touch from that more-ethereal part of the game, glancing in a Brandon Vincent cross with the outside of his right foot to give Chicago the 1-0 road win.
The Men in Red rolled down I-55 ranked at second place in the overall MLS table with a bullet, a squad that has moved from ‘improved’ to ‘holy shit this is one of the best teams in the league’ over the course of a rapturously successful May. Their former USL affiliate were in a rather darker place, out of the playoff spots in the USL Eastern Conference. The Fire left their three designated players and a starting defender at home. Saint Louis rested starters in their last league match, further emphasizing the importance of this game to their players and supporters, then came out pressing hard, banging in crosses and challenging every half-mistake. The game arrived pre-flayed.
It nearly worked several times. St. Louis striker Jose Angulo, once the pride of the Metrostars youth system [sic], took advantage of a bit of a sleepy start by Johan Kappelhof to dispossess the Dutchman twice in the opening minutes, to no avail. His strike partner, Christian Volesky, smashed a shot off the crossbar in the 67th. Chicago’s Matt Lampson had to make a highlight-reel save in the 79th. But generally, the Men in Red looked more irritated than threatened by the hustle and thunder of the hosts, stepping around diving tackles fussily and maintaining a focus on keeping possession, revealing the gulf in motivation: My god, we’re trying to win without playing too hard.
It all worked because the Fire have the kind of depth they’ve not had in more than a decade. With MLS scoring leader Nemanja Nikolic given the night off, it was Solignac’s turn to lead the line, and the tireless Argentine didn’t disappoint. The goal came after a long spell of possession for la Maquina Roja, who’d probed and circled while the hosts defended aggressively despite falling deep into their zone.
Vincent’s cross was well-weighted, as usual, but seemed to catch Solignac - checking back toward the wing from in front of goal - at an awkward height, around waist-high and slightly to his right. He responded with an instinctive flick that would look at home in a hacky-sack circle, deflecting the descending cross into a shorter, higher parabola, over the head of St. Louis keeper Adam Grinwis and into the far side-netting for the only goal of the contest, 27 minutes in: 0-1, Fire.
Juninho had the best of the rest of the chances, crushing a 20-yard free kick off the upright in the early going and setting up Solignac for good look just a few minutes after the Argentine’s goal.
Chicago advances to the 5th round of the U.S. Open Cup (the round of 16). Drawings for the next round will take place Thursday, June 15. The Fire (8-3-4) return to MLS action Saturday, when they face New England in Foxboro with kickoff slated for 6:30 p.m.
- Welcome to the club, son!: Congratulations to Matej Dekovic, who made his competitive Fire debut this evening! Well done, fella.
- Pauno getting it done: Fantastic bit of half-rotation of the squad by Velko Paunovic this evening - leaving all the DPs out, getting Polster a little rest, giving Djordge Mihalovic and Daniel Johnson serious minutes.
- Better players matter, y’all: If you’re looking for a reason the Fire are better this year than years past, it’s hard to get past the idea that it’s down to buying better players (who are also, as it happens, more expensive). With all the DPs chilling, the Fire still started a striking pair that makes about $700k combined, still started a Dax/Juninho engine room. I mean, Arturo Alvarez would be MVP for St Louis. The disparity was noticeable. Remember when squad rotation meant minutes for Guly do Prado?
- Nothing to crow about: This was a professional outing for the Fire, but not a memorable one. Dax looked disinterested from the first whistle. It took Kappelhof 10 minutes and two ‘Whoops-I-crapped-my-pants’ moments to wake up. There’s many, many possible futures where, say, Angulo takes one of his chances and this game story is very different.