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Never Tell Me The Odds: Atlanta United 0, Chicago Fire 1, USOC Round 5 Recap

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The Fire pull off an upset in Atlanta and advance to the USOC quarterfinals

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-Atlanta United FC vs Chicago Fire Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta United 0

Chicago Fire 1 Nikolic 54’

I really didn’t think we’d be here.

I love the Cup, and I always want the Fire to do well, and I’ll always back my team. But realistically speaking, Atlanta had the deck stacked. A stronger attacking line. Playing at home in front of a reportedly record-breaking crowd. A better overall record against us. It didn’t look promising.

But they did it. It took a bit of luck, and a less-than-100% lineup from the hosts, and a few generous calls from the referee. But they did it. We’re going through.

I had to do a double-take with the teamsheet. I was ok with the lineup for the most part, and glad they were setting out a mostly full-strength XI. But then I saw Diego Campos at right back.

Why, Pauno. Why do you keep doing this.

That and subsequent stream issues aside, it was nice seeing the fight in this Chicago team early on. Some solid defending against a strong Atlanta attack, plus a big scoring chance early, made the Fire considerably less despair-inducing through much of the first half. One might even say encouraging. Atlanta were still mostly in control of the game, but it wasn’t a dominant performance, and the Fire gave nearly as good as they got.

We might’ve gotten an early lead through Bastian Schweinsteiger’s hit on a corner kick. Former Fire goalkeeper Alec Kann was forced to save on the goalline; it’s unclear whether the ball actually crossed the line, and we’ll likely never know for sure, because they don’t bother with VAR for Open Cup games. So that’s neat.

While I’m generally down on Pyrrhic victories, heading into halftime with the score level, against this Atlanta team, in their house, felt very promising. With the 2018 Chicago Fire, you have to take your positives wherever you can.

The start to the second half was not quite as bright. Atlanta came out punchy, reasserting themselves and forcing Chicago into the kind of reactive scrambling soccer that so frequently leads them down dark paths. Richard Sanchez was forced into an early save, and all of a sudden visions of a heavy loss down south started to take place.

But the futures that Atlanta’s tens of thousands of fans in attendance that night were soon thrown into jeopardy.

In the 54th minute, Nemanja Nikolic finished off a low cross at the far post from Basti, poking it over the line with no resistance. 1-0 for the good guys.

If the Fire had any chance of getting through the tie, it suddenly and sharply came into focus. Unspeakable vistas of possibility unfolded. Maybe, you thought. Maybe they can really do this.

But ATL weren’t going down without a fight. The Fire had to dig deep to keep their hosts out of Sanchez’ net. Our boys forced to set up basecamp in their own defensive half. They just needed to hold on for 40 minutes. Then 30. Then 20. Just hold on.

(I’ll admit that I started feeling much less hopeful around the 79th minute, when Niko was taken off and replaced with Tony Tchani. If the Fire shipped a goal or two late, Tchani would almost surely play a part in the collapse.)

Ten minutes. Five. Three. One. Four minutes of stoppage time. Endless, globular, uncomfortably humid stoppage time.

And then three peeps on the whistle.

We did it.

Loving this team isn’t easy sometimes. But when you see them put up the kind of fight they did tonight, it almost— almost— makes you forget about the bad times.

The Fire will host Louisville City in the US Open Cup quarterfinals on July 18th.