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It's Just A Question Of Whose Story We're In: FC Cincinnati 0 (3), Chicago Fire 0 (1) A.E.T., U.S. Open Cup recap

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Buoyed by massive home crowd, Cincinnati grows into the game while Men in Red stymied by a red-hot keeper

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-Chicago Fire at FC Cincinnati
So, yeah, that didn’t work out.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

FC Cincinnati 0

Chicago Fire 0

FC Cincinnati advance on penalties after extra time, 3-1

So much of what we think is part of ‘what is’ is just a story we’re telling ourselves about what is. It’s just part of the whole memory/cognition/personality package - we make what sense we can out of the world around us, and string those lessons together on a timeline like popcorn on a Christmas garland, pretending (mostly) that the truth is both the things we remember (mmmmmmaybe) and the story we told ourselves about the spaces between (heh seriously? no).

Put simply, reality is a consensual illusion, subject to constant revision, with the entire world weighing in. Small wonder, then, the attraction of sporting contests, which offer something that our underlying reality seldom seems to make available: Some finite measurement. Some real outcome. At long last, a winner.

So think of Wednesday night’s U.S. Open Cup round-of-16 matchup between our Chicago Fire and FC Cincinnati as a world of conflicting narratives - but realize only one set was there to be resolved: Those of the hosts, the state-fair finalist pumpkin of US lower-league soccer, FC Cincinnati. The crowd (32 thousand plus) was the second-largest to ever watch a US Open Cup game. The team has drawn and drawn but not won and won, at least not until very lately. Contrast that to the potential impact to the Fire XI that started the game, in terms of career arc - minimal, and only then if Jonathan Campbell managed an autogol hat-trick or something. Any bad outcome here for the the vastly more-attested Fire would be shrugged off like a horse flicking away a biting fly.

On the other side stood FC Cincinnati, one of an increasing number of lower-league passion-farms in the USA, one so new the factory paint still is sticky. They’d managed to get huge numbers of folks to show up to watch football - which seems more novel than it should - but the rest of their story seems still to be written. And Wednesday, powered by the will of that massive crowd, Cincinnati wrote another of what will doubtless be their prehistory, squelching the Fire sufficiently to leave the game down to a matter of close referee decisions, massive goalkeeping saves and penalty kicks en route to a 0-0 … win.

So let’s take a moment to put aside the stories of our Fire’s failures. A cavalcade of near-misses and a steady erosion of once-complete dominance set them up as the foil in this passion play - the big team from the big city, full of swagger and quality. Sure, we were starting to sketch a dominant three-trophy season in our imaginations, but it’s the kind of early-summer fancy that’s easy to let go. Let all the strands of this story show the Men in Red never played the villain, instead earnestly seeking a breakthrough that wouldn’t come over an eight-shot, 85-percent possession opening 20 minutes.

The hosts visibly grew into the game as halftime grew closer, stabbing forward in fitful bursts to test Chicago’s defenders. And when it all broke down - when their increasingly-confident motions found them arrayed more like a football team and less like a really badass game of ‘Red Rover’ - they had, behind them, a guy named Mitch Hildebrandt.

We were in Mitch Hildebrandt’s story, as it turns out. We just didn’t know it yet.

So we didn’t know, for example, that Bastian Schweinsteiger’s 47th-minute end-to-end sally was merely included to show an unruffled Hildebrandt cleaning up with Nemanja Nikolic hanging nearby. Or when Nikolic finally got a clean look in the 64th, it was easy to assume that his bottom-left shot laser was about to break the tie - but it’s Hildebrandt’s story, fools, so of course he’s there with a strong right hand, steering it past the post.

It’s not hard to imagine the movie shifting to an avant-garde bit with 30 minutes left, like that Zidane documentary, the camera following Hildebrandt as the game burbles on in the background, out of depth of focus unless the ball is in the attacking zone. The game lapses into extra time - time itself starts to seem elastic - this may never end. Some substitutes come on, and one of them - Andrew Weideman - is seen stroking the ball past the opposing keeper - our Chicago Fire keeper, Matt Lampson. The flag is up; the crowd roars rage and disapproval. Hildebrandt stands, arms raised in protest, in sharp focus but on the edge of the frame.

Once the game was reduced to penalty kicks, Hildebrandt’s control over the narrative became an overwhelming advantage: Facing four penalties, the Michigan native guessed right and saved three of them, propelling the USL side to an unlikely quarterfinal matchup with NASL Miami FC.

Notes

  • Arturo Alvarez was outstanding tonight, and increasingly so as the game wore on. His dribbling got him through some kinda crazy 1-on-2 decisions where I was going “no, no - ok!” again and again
  • Michael de Leeuw is fucking snakebit. I don’t care, I don’t want him dropped. His decision-making in the defensive phase is perfect, work rate insane, makes great runs and sees the space; he’s our Dirk Kuyt at the moment.
  • Niko seems to live very much inside the myth of himself; here’s hoping tonight doesn’t start that myth onto some kinda second-half-of-the-season-funk narrative
  • If you didn’t miss Joao Meira before, maybe you do now? Gotta feel like Meira’s passing punishes some of the more-naive pressing moments more than Jonathan Campbell managed. Although Campbell did have one really lovely diagonal ball into the right wing late in the game that had me feelin’ nice.
  • I’m sure he was exhausted, but did Basti shrink from this as the game wore on? And does that have anything to do with the narrative strand that says ‘he wins the league but not cups?’