The 2018 Chicago Fire campaign has been a mixed bag.
On the one hand you have a month like May, when the Fire posted two wins and four losses, including a shameful 3-1 defeat in Philadelphia.
Then you have the last three games; two wins and a draw, including a thrilling penalty shootout win— shoutout to Richard Sanchez and his beautiful mustache— against That Yellow Team in the US Open Cup.
Despite their middling record and some inconsistent performances, the Men In Red sit one point off a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The MLS Cup Playoffs are still a possibility— on paper, at least.
The Fire travel to Atlanta next week for the USOC Fifth Round. Veljko Paunovic’s teamsheet ahead of that game will give a clear indication on what the team’s priorities are for the rest of the season— try to claw their way back into playoff contention in the league, or go all-in on the Cup and make a run for their fifth USOC title.
I think the Fire should go for the Cup.
First, there’s the big prize at stake. And I’m not talking about the money. $300,000 for the winner is nothing to sneeze at— it would basically cover Luis Solignac’s salary for the year— but it’s not exactly Fuck You money for the club. No, the big prize is a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League. A return to the CCL would be a huge boost for Chicago— more national exposure and a chance to go far in the tournament.
Next, the USOC fits better with the Fire’s current capabilities. Through a combination of injuries, questionable lineup decisions, and an inability to perform consistently in spite of it all, Chicago’s league record has suffered for it. The MLS regular season can be forgiving, but you can only underperform for so long before you pay the price. The Open Cup offers much more leeway. Teams can survive ties while not playing their best. With a bit of luck, just about anyone can make it to the Final by playing solid but boring soccer. And while MLS seems to stretch on forever, the Fire only need to survive four more games to lift some silverware.
Finally, the Fire wouldn’t even need to give up on the league entirely. The upcoming summer transfer window, combined with a nice stack of unspent allocation money, presents an opportunity for Chicago to bring in reinforcements for the back half of the season. Some fresh blood and some tactical adjustments next month could give the Fire enough of a jolt to make a run at a playoff spot down the stretch. The Sounders were near the bottom of the Western Conference in July of the 2016 season and went on to lift the MLS Cup; if they can do it, so can we. And in the meantime, we’d also have a deep run in the USOC to energize the team and the fanbase.
It would not take much at all to redeem the 2018 season. That path to redemption lies in the USOC. It’s time to reclaim our place as Kings Of The Cup.