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Skin Of Our Teeth: Columbus Crew 2 (9), Chicago Fire 2 (10), USOC Round 4 Recap

The Fire survive an endurance trial through 120 minutes and 11 rounds of penalties to top Columbus and advance in the USOC

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-Columbus Crew SC vs Chicago Fire Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Columbus Crew 2 Jiménez 10’, Jahn 114’

Chicago Fire 2 Nikolic 45’ 109’

Penalties:

Columbus Crew: ☑⛔☑☑☑☑☑☑☑☑⛔

Chicago Fire: ⛔☑☑☑☑☑☑☑☑☑☑

The US Open Cup isn’t about playing well. It’s not about putting in consistently strong performances over 8-12 months. It’s about survival. You do what you have to do to survive against the team in front of you and move on to the next round. Then you do it again. And again. And you keep doing it until some jagoff in a suit hands you a trophy.

There was a real question heading into tonight over whether the Chicago Fire could hang on and survive against the Columbus Crew. Tired, banged up, still smarting from a 3-0 loss the last time they came to MAPFRE. This had all the fixings for another embarrassment in what has been a difficult season.

But the Fire stepped up. Through 120 minutes and 11 rounds of penalties, these beautiful bastards did it.

For the first time in a while, I liked the lineup. Niko up top, Ramos finally given another chance, Bronico keeping his spot. It gave some key people a rest while still sending out a strong squad. Matched up against Columbus’ lineup, all of a sudden this looked like a winnable game.

The enthusiasm didn’t last long.

Thanks to some persistent problems with the stream, I couldn’t get the game going on my laptop until the 9th minute. Just in time for Tony Tchani to pass directly to the opposition and set up Hector Jiménez to bag the first goal for the home team.

More disheartening after the goal was the way the Fire let themselves get muscled off the ball so often as they tried to get back into the game. Columbus took a wrecking ball to this team in the first half and Chicago were too slow in fighting back.

There were moments to point to if you wanted some cause for optimism. Luis Solignac’s near-miss. Grant Lillard making big leaps in keeping the ball under pressure. Nemanja Nikolic piling on the pressure.

And just before halftime, it paid off. Nikolic bagged himself a nice poacher’s goal, redirecting a low cross from Rafael Ramos at close range to level the score right before both teams went into the tunnel.

The second half started off dicey for the Fire. Jiménez and Adam Jahn seemed to light in torching our backline, forcing Richard Sanchez to scramble to keep the score level. Daniel Johnson showed that for all his work rate and his desire to be better, he’s still all too easy to push aside en route to goal. Things started to settle down midway through the half when Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty (returning from injury) came on. But keeping the ball and maintaining possession remained challenges through the back 45.

As the game ticked over the 80th minute it was clear that the Fire were in Hold On For Dear Life mode. They couldn’t manage any sustained pressure but they found ways to keep Columbus out of Richard Sanchez’ net, by hook or by crook. It’s possible the Fire were aiming to do to Columbus what FC Cincinnati did to us last year— keep things level through 90, then through extra time, and hope penalties go our way.

(That plan almost went out the window when Basti nearly headed home off of a free kick in the 86th.)

Indeed, 90 minutes wasn’t enough. Good thing for squad rotation, eh?

I’m not going to go over the free soccer blow-by-blow. You’ve seen what extra time soccer looks like. It’s slow. It’s ugly. It makes you wish they’d just flip a coin or something.

The only bit that really matters is Niko’s second goal, in the 109th minute. A spat of sustained pressure and a well-timed turnover set up Aleksandar Katai to make a run in from the flank and shoot from a tight angle; the shot was blocked by Niko was well placed to smash home the rebound.

With that goal, Fire fans were allowed to dream. For five whole minutes. Until Jahn leveled for the hosts.

There was nothing for it. Penalties.

Having lived through a few marathon penalty shootouts now I can conclusively say that I don’t like them. They can be thrilling, especially once the goalkeepers have to line up a shot, but I think I can live without them if it means keeping a few years of my life.

You could almost hear the collective gulp among Fire fans when Nikolic hit the crossbar in the first round. Columbus would bury theirs and take an early advantage.

But fortunes were reversed in the second frame, with Sanchez saving to level things.

And then the long slog. Each side found the back of the net through five regulation rounds and then through five more in sudden death.

Finally, all the outfield players had a turn. It was down to the goalkeepers.

Sanchez teed up first and buried his shot.

Logan Ketterer then squared himself to take his, after a delicious bit of gamesmanship from Sanchez.

Katterer made his shot low and to the left.

Sanchez was waiting for it.

Do we deserve to advance? I’d say no one deserves anything in this sport. You grab what you want and you fight anyone who tries to take it from you.

The Fire wanted to move on in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, and we fought Columbus about it until they went away. Simple as.

We’ll find out who our opponent in Round 5 will be tomorrow. In the meantime: get some rest. We all need it.