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Fire Thu Aug 14 2014

Chicago Fire: A Study of Joy and Pain

Chicago Fire soccerIt has been a week of ups and downs for our fair city's professional soccer club. Last night the Fire traveled to Tukwila, Washington to take on the ascendant Sounders in the semifinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, a contest that has long been Chicago's specialty of winning. The club will unfortunately have to wait for next year's tournament, having been knocked out in stupefying fashion by the Sounders. Seattle need only capture the trophy once more to tie the Fire as the most dominant MLS team in the history of the Cup, having won it four times since 1998.

But before we get to the breakdown of that game, let us look back to Sunday night's home game, where the Fire took on the visiting Red Bulls of New York.

Toyota Park has never really held any certain aura in the time since its construction. It's not the fortress that is Rio Tinto in Sandy, Utah; nor is it the sleek, envious gem that is Sporting Park in Kansas City. It's one of the in-betweener grounds, built in the era after Crew Stadium, which heralded the period of early rush to soccer specific stadium-hood. Just like the rush to sign a designated player on par with Beckham that was seen after he joined the Galaxy. The teams in MLS can have a bit of a me-too complex.

For all her shortcomings, here she stands, a home of one's own for Fire since 2006. Perhaps the one aspect lacking in Toyota Park is an air of home field dominance. The humble Bridgeview stadium has seen its fair share of rotten results, last-gasp tying goals for the visiting side, and countless dreams spoiled. If there is one silver lining to be found though, it is that it has somehow acted as kryptonite for the visiting Red Bulls, who came into Sunday night's contest with a record of 0-7-4 when playing against the Fire in Toyota Park. luckily, New York would leave still searching their first ever win in Bridgeview, giving the Fire their fourth win in this still-kind-of-alive-somehow season (4-5-13, 25 pts).

It was a bit of a new-look lineup that head coach Frank Yallop trotted out on Sunday night, that began with Patrick Ianni being left out of the starting 11. In Ianni's stead team captain Jeff Larentowicz was pushed into the backline, with Razvan Cocis, earning his first full start, and Matt Watson covering the midfield. In all, it was a strong performance from the defense, protecting a clean sheet against Bradley Wright-Phillips, the league-leading goal-scorer of record. Heck, BWP even managed to score on World Cup-winning German keeper Manuel Neuer in last week's All-Star clash against Bayern Munich. That isn't to suggest that Phillips didn't have any good chances, more that the defensive play of Bakary Soumare was so solid that he was able to swallow up all of his attempts on goal before they were ever a real threat.

Less inspiring on the night was the play of the offense. For the second game in a row the Fire scored their lone goal off of a penalty kick and not from the run of play. In fact, to find the last time the Men in Red notched a goal in open play you'd have to go back to July 23, where Grant Ward scored the lone strike in an otherwise dismal drubbing at the feet of the San Jose Earthquakes.

Further illustrating their scoring inabilities, the Fire traveled to a packed house at Starfire Stadium in Tukwila, Washington to take on the Seattle Sounders and left rather embarrassed for their efforts.

Defensive frustrations, coupled with an anemic offense, were at the heart of the Fire's 6-0 loss to the Sounders Wednesday night in the semi-finals of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. Matched up against a team of such impressive depth, as the Sounders surely are, the weakly basted seams holding Chicago together became fairly evident. Though the Fire showed well in the first 30 minutes, few of their chances were well-placed, and their best looks came off set pieces.

Seattle scored early in the game, with Chad Barrett sneaking inside and banging in a Kenny Cooper cross in the sixth minute. To their credit, the Fire did not relax; appearing to be spurred on by Barrett's goal they sought to equalize and get back in the game. Much as it is in the boxing ring, adopting an aggressive stance on the field leaves one more open to counterattacks, and the Fire went down hard for their efforts. In the 33rd minute of the game an unmarked Andy Rose headed in the Sounders' second of the night, forcing the Fire to put a pin in their ambitions and defend for the remainder of the half.

Before we get into the real slaughter that came in the second half, it bears mention that the team fielded by Seattle was not entirely the same as their regular full-strength squad. Missing was Clint Dempsey, figurehead of the surging Sounders, and a number of the other players on the field have seen only limited minutes this season. Cooper, who has come in as a second half substitute in as many games as he has started, combined for two goals and two assists, one of which helped fellow perpetual sub Barrett score as well. Andy Rose, who scored a brace on the night, had tallied less that 120 minutes of play across the entire season. The Fire, meanwhile, fielded a squad of players that would not have looked out of place on any regular season match-day, with the lone scratch being Mike Magee who was suspended due to a red card in the previous game.

And now, the hard part. In the second half, the goals came in droves. Rose scored a second goal in the 58th minute, putting the Sounders up 3-0. Just a few moments later DeAndre Yedlin crossed a ball in to Cooper who put it on frame but the Milkman, Chicago keeper Sean Johnson, was there to make an excellent save, including the rebounded attempt just seconds later. In the 79th minute Obafemi Martins was fed a great ball, again by Cooper, which he hit home with such force that it apparently knocked all enthusiasm and belief out of the hearts of the Fire players. Cooper finally got one for himself just four minutes later in the 83rd minute, and not content to just score once he went ahead and did so again a minute later.

It was not entirely a shock of a game, given that the two teams' trajectories passed each other weeks ago, with the Sounders ascending the standings while the Fire slowly circled the drain. One can only hope now that the Sounders' opponent in the U.S. Open Cup Final, the Philadelphia Union, can do what the Fire couldn't, ensuring that Chicago remains 'Kings of the Cup' for at least one more year. Even if that title feels incredibly hollow at this point.

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David Shiner / August 14, 2014 4:51 PM

"Sadly, New York would leave with their first ever win in Chicago..."


Benjamin Cannon / August 14, 2014 8:58 PM

Whoops, thanks! Fixed.

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