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Portland Timbers

16 May 2:04 pm

The Fourth Round draw for the 2014 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup occurred Friday morning at Soccer House in downtown Chicago and with MLS teams entering at this stage, the process was much more elaborate than the straight forward flips from last week’s Third Round draw.

Before I lay out how it unfolded, a few bullets to keep in mind…

  • I was incorrect in my earlier tweets and statements that a USL PRO affiliate could not be matched with its partner MLS club. I’m a busy guy and sometimes you just have to admit you’re not perfect, sorry!
  • The only affiliate relationship that needed to be separated for this draw was that of the LA Galaxy and LA Galaxy II who are both owned by the same party.
  • USL PRO side Orlando City and their PDL side Orlando City U-23s, are both in the tournament but could not be matched up at this stage as MLS teams must be matched with a lower league pairing.
  • Chivas USA was the only MLS club to not apply to host a Fourth Round Open Cup match.

With those done, I will underscore that the most important principle to keep in mind for how pairings are determined comes from Page 7 of the 2014 U.S. Open Cup Handbook. It states:

“After each Third Round pairing has been determined, each Division I (MLS) team entering in the Fourth Round will be matched geographically to play the winner of a specific Third Round pairing. Instances where a logical geographic fit doesn’t exist will be resolved by random selection."

Jeff Crandall attends the fourth round draw for the 2014 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup at Soccer House on May 16, 2014
As all business as a selfie can be prior to walking into Soccer House...

Upon arrival to Soccer House, Competition Secretary Paul Marstaller handed me a sheet of paper with four geographic groupings, plus a wild card pool. The most straightforward grouping was the top table which featured eight Third Round matchups across from eight MLS teams that made “a logical geographic fit” with those lower league pairings.

The pairings with the result of the coin flip are below. Teams that are not bolded either did not have a suitable home venue or didn’t apply to host (U.S. Soccer did not distinguish the reason on this sheet).

FLIP HEADS FLIP TAILS
X Brooklyn Italians SC (NPSL)/New York Cosmos (NASL)   New York Red Bulls (MLS)
  Dayton Dutch Lions (USLP)/Indy Eleven (NASL) X Columbus Crew (MLS)
  RWB Adria (USASA)/Pittsburgh Riverhounds (USLP) X Chicago Fire (MLS)
  Minnesota United FC (NASL)/Des Moines Menace (USASA X Sporting Kansas City (MLS)
  Laredo Heat (PDL)/Ft. Lauderdale Strikers (NASL) X Houston Dynamo (MLS)
  NTX Rayados (USASA)/San Antonio Scorpions (NASL) X FC Dallas (MLS)
X Arizona United SC (USLP)/Oklahoma City Energy FC (USLP)   LA Galaxy (MLS)
  Fresno Fuego (PDL)/Sacramento Republic (USLP) X San Jose Earthquakes (MLS)

For the local Fire fans, I was able to take OFFICIAL VIDEO documenting the Fire's winning coin flip:

The second grouping of matchups pooled three Northeast MLS sides with three lower league pairings. Of note here, Marstaller said that because the Harrisburg City Islanders and Baltimore Bohemians are about equidistant to D.C. United and Philadelphia Union, a flip off between the two sides would be done to determine which club would host the winner of that Third Round Matchup.

Based on alphabet, D.C. United was assigned heads and Philadelphia tails, with the Union winning. Because neither Harrisburg or Baltimore applied to host, no flip was necessary as hosting rights defaulted to the Union. 

LOWER-LEAGUE MATCHUP MLS TEAMS FLIP ASSIGNMENT
Harrisburg City Islanders (USLP)/Baltimore Bohemians (PDL) D.C. United
Philadelphia Union
Heads
Tails

United's loss on their first flip resulted in them moving down to the next pairing of two lower league matchups where a similar flip had to occur between New York Greek American Atlas/Richmond Kickers and Reading United AC/Rochester Rhinos to determind who would be D.C.'s opponent.

FLIP ASSIGNMENT LOWER-LEAGUE MATCHUP MLS TEAM
Heads New York Greek American Atlas (USASA)/Richmond Kickers (USLP)
Reading United AC (PDL)/Rochester Rhinos (USLP)
D.C. United
Tails

Again, determined by alphabet, the New York/Richmond matchup was assigned heads while the other was assigned tails and the coin again flipped to tails matching D.C. United with Reading/Rochester.

This moved New York/Richmond down to a matchup with the New England Revolution and then flips were done to determine the hosting rights for those two matchups with both lower league matchups winning with heads. For the purpose of clarity, here is how that final grouping looked:

FLIP HEADS FLIP TAILS
  Harrisburg City Islanders (USLP)/Baltimore Bohemians (PDL) N/A Philadelphia Union
X Reading United AC (PDL)/Rochester Rhinos (USLP)   D.C. United
X New York Greek American Atlas (USASA)/Richmond Kickers (USLP)   New England Revolution

The third grouping was a product of Chivas USA being the only MLS club not to apply for hosting rights. Because of this, Marstaller needed to pair them with lower league matchups in which both clubs applied to host, of which there were two: Atlanta Silverbacks/Chattanooga FC (heads) and Charlotte Eagles/Carolina Railhawks (tails).

A coin flip was done to see who would host Chivas and landed tails giving Charlotte/Carolina the hosting rights. This pushed Atlanta/Chattanooga down to the very ending “Wild Card Pool”.

FLIP ASSIGNMENT LOWER-LEAGUE MATCHUP MLS TEAM
Heads Atlanta Silverbacks (NASL)/Chattanooga FC (NPSL)
Charlotte Eagles (USLP)/Carolina RailHawks (NASL)
Chivas USA
Tails

The fourth pool featured the PSA Elite/LA Galaxy II matchup paired against four MLS teams that were within geographical proximity. While both lower-league teams are based in Southern California, because PSA Elite also did not apply to host, Chivas USA could not be thrown into this group.

The most interesting part of the process Friday was the flip-off between four MLS clubs to determine who would play Galaxy II/PSA Elite.

Again determined by alphabet, Colorado/Portland and Real Salt Lake/Seattle Sounders did a preliminary flip. Both losers in that round (Portland & Real Salt Lake) were moved into the final Wild Card pairing, then Colorado and Seattle did a final flip, with Seattle winning again (which should keep Sigi Schmid somewhat happy) and Colorado also falling to the Wild Card group.

LOWER-LEAGUE MATCHUP MLS TEAMS
PSA Elite (USASA)/LA Galaxy II (USLP) Colorado Rapids
Portland Timbers
Heads
Tails
Heads
Real Salt Lake
Seattle Sounders
Heads
Tails
Tails

One final flip was done to determine the hosting rights for that match with Galaxy II/PSA Elite winning and presumably, since PSA Elite did not apply to host, Sigi will be their biggest fan.

FLIP HEADS FLIP TAILS
X PSA Elite (USASA)/LA Galaxy II (USLP)   Seattle Sounders

After all the flips above were done, the Wild Card pool looked like the below table, with MLS clubs placed on the right according to alphabetical order. Because of the odd number of matchups, coin flips could not be used to determine who would play each other so Marstaller placed three slips of paper marked “A”, “B” and “C” into plain envelopes. As the matchup moved down from the initial Chivas USA grouping, Atlanta/Chattanooga was assigned “C” while the other two lower-league pairings were assigned “A” and “B” based on alphabetic order.

WILD CARD POOL
Letter LOWER-LEAGUE MATCHUP MLS TEAMS
A
B
C
Orlando City U23s (PDL)/Charleston Battery (USLP)
Tampa Bay Rowdies (NASL)/Orlando City (USLP)
Atlanta Silverbacks (NASL)/Chattanooga FC (NPSL)
Colorado Rapids
Portland Timbers
Real Salt Lake

Marstaller then went down the alphabetic list of MLS sides and drew the slips of paper from the envelopes. When all three matchups had been finalized, final flips for hosting rights occurred, concluding the fourth round Open Cup draw. You can see how the envelopes were drawn and the winner of the flips below:

FLIP HEADS FLIP TAILS
  Tampa Bay Rowdies (NASL)/Orlando City (USLP) X Colorado Rapids
X Orlando City U23s (PDL)/Charleston Battery (USLP)   Portland Timbers
X Atlanta Silverbacks (NASL)/Chattanooga FC (NPSL)   Real Salt Lake

Following the draw, Marstaller said the published fourth round scenarios would not be accompanied Friday by match dates yet. This is because the Fourth Round has three possible match dates over an eight-day span. With USL PRO and the PDL, along with amateur sides having league games between the June 10-18 Fourth Round window, all clubs that have the potential to host a Fourth Round match will have the weekend to give their preferred hosting date before U.S. Soccer balances the already scheduled league games. Because of the logistical process, hosting dates are expected to be announced sometime next week. 

A comprehensive list of who won hosting coin flips can be found below.

FLIP HEADS FLIP TAILS
X Brooklyn Italians SC (NPSL)/New York Cosmos (NASL)   New York Red Bulls (MLS)
  Dayton Dutch Lions (USLP)/Indy Eleven (NASL) X Columbus Crew (MLS)
  RWB Adria (USASA)/Pittsburgh Riverhounds (USLP) X Chicago Fire (MLS)
  Minnesota United FC (NASL)/Des Moines Menace (USASA X Sporting Kansas City (MLS)
  Laredo Heat (PDL)/Ft. Lauderdale Strikers (NASL) X Houston Dynamo (MLS)
  NTX Rayados (USASA)/San Antonio Scorpions (NASL) X FC Dallas (MLS)
X Arizona United SC (USLP)/Oklahoma City Energy FC (USLP)   LA Galaxy (MLS)
  Fresno Fuego (PDL)/Sacramento Republic (USLP) X San Jose Earthquakes (MLS)
  Harrisburg City Islanders (USLP)/Baltimore Bohemians (PDL) N/A Philadelphia Union
X Reading United AC (PDL)/Rochester Rhinos (USLP)   D.C. United
X New York Greek American Atlas (USASA)/Richmond Kickers (USLP)   New England Revolution
N/A Charlotte Eagles (USLP)/Carolina RailHawks (NASL)   Chivas USA
X PSA Elite (USASA)/LA Galaxy II (USLP)   Seattle Sounders
  Tampa Bay Rowdies (NASL)/Orlando City (USLP) X Colorado Rapids
X Orlando City U23s (PDL)/Charleston Battery (USLP)   Portland Timbers
X Atlanta Silverbacks (NASL)/Chattanooga FC (NPSL)   Real Salt Lake

Thanks again to the U.S. Soccer staff for being great hosts once again!

23 April 10:13 am

Frank Yallop winless in seven games, unbeaten in six as head coach of Chicago Fire

What is it going to take for Frank Yallop to get his first regular season victory as head coach of the Chicago Fire?

Following Saturday’s dramatic 1-1 tie at home to the New England Revolution, the Fire are now without a win in seven MLS games after an opening day defeat at Chivas USA and six subsequent ties as their season has yet to fully take off.

However, four of those seven games were on the road, so if the Fire can pick up all three points at home to Real Salt Lake on Saturday, May 3 after a bye week, the complexion of the season, and more importantly the table, will suddenly look a whole lot better.

Thankfully for Yallop and his coaching staff, the Chicago fan-base have shown remarkable patience and understanding as he tries to impart his philosophies and footballing ideals on to this new group of players.

Yallop came to the Fire with a proven track record in the MLS following a lengthy professional career in England and on the international stage with Canada.

His vast experience in England and early MLS successes as a coach with San Jose Earthquakes has given Yallop, who recently celebrated his 50th birthday, the confidence to remain calm despite the relatively disappointing start to the campaign.

When speaking about the team, their attitude, their effort in training and their prospects for the season, Yallop hasn’t changed in his thinking since his arrival at Toyota Park last October. If anything, he is more optimistic now than before the season began.

He sees a group of players that have shown significant signs of progress in the short time he has been with them and he believes that their first win is about to come. Yes, he believed it would come at home to the Red Bulls. Away to DC.

His confidence in himself and his team still intact, he insisted the win would come with the visit of the Union to Toyota Park. And again, a week later, there was an assured statement that the win would arrive on the road in Montreal.

Looking back, it is possible to see where and how three points may have been won in any of these games, with a little luck or a hint of good fortune. Mike Magee’s late penalty miss against Philadelphia. Late saves by the Impact’s Troy Perkins from Patrick Nyarko and Magee that would have earned the Fire their first win.

Juan Luis Anangono’s penalty miss against New England last time out was another glaring example of a missed opportunity and another occasion where the Fire should have sealed the three points their efforts over the previous 90 minutes deserved.

The reason no one has pushed the panic button just yet, is largely down to the quality of play produced each week, the vast amount of chances being created and the overall level of entertainment served up by Yallop and his attack-minded tactics.

No other team has had more shots this campaign at 101, while only the Montreal Impact have hit the target more often, 38 times to the Fire’s 35 (which they tie with the Seattle Sounders, Vancouver Whitecaps and Sporting Kansas City).

They are the fourth highest scorers after seven games with 10 goals, while Quincy Amarikwa is tied for second on the goalscoring list with four.

There are significant signs of improvement since the side’s defeat at Chivas, with Yallop’s influence gaining momentum with each and every game.

Having struggled to assert themselves in the possession stakes in the opening three games, the Fire have enjoyed more of the ball than their opponents in their last three games.

This has translated itself into more goalscoring opportunities, with the Fire amassing an impressive 54 shots to their opponents’ 17 over the last three games.

Which suggests to me that they are doing well defensively, restricting other teams to an average of six shots per game, while also creating enough themselves to comfortably win games.

That has not happened thus far, but surely it is only a matter of time.

There have been several other positive features to Yallop’s tenure, most notably his willingness to give youth a chance. Earlier in the year, he insisted that he would select players on merit rather than reputation, and he has stood by that assertion with the likes of Harry Shipp, Benji Joya, Greg Cochrane and Victor Pineda all getting a chance to impress.

Add to that the blossoming central defensive partnership of Jhon Kennedy Hurtado and Bakary Soumare, which has impressed in recent games despite the concession of 11 goals, and it is clear to see that the Fire have a solid base upon which to build.

His faith in the wing play of Nyarko and Shipp has also reaped reward with both players contributing to the fluent, incisive build-up play down both flanks that has been a feature of the Fire’s games thus far.

And with reigning MLS MVP Magee improving with every game following his early season injury problems, and his effective link up play with Amarikwa showing real signs of promise, surely that first win will come sooner rather than later.

Stats at a glance (the Fire read first):

Opponent Shots Possession % Pass Accuracy Passes
Chivas USA 7/14 44.7% / 55.3% 77% 303/369
Portland Timbers 14/21 38.5% / 61.5% 64% 243/398
New York Red Bulls 13/10 42.6% / 57.4% 72% 340/449
D.C. United 13/17 49% / 51% 72% 372 / 383
Philadelphia Union 20/7 53.2% / 46.8% 74% 349/304
Montreal Impact 17/6 56.2% / 43.8% 79% 420/333
New England Revolution 17/4 51.9% / 48.1% 76% 338/321

 

16 March 6:28 pm
Chicago Fire Head Coach and Director of Soccer Frank Yallop
 
Overall thoughts on the match
 
“Well, good to get a point, our first point this season. I thought we played very well in the first half; could have maybe been two-up, but that’s soccer. You’ve got to take your chances, but, in the end, with what happened in the match, getting the red card and being under a lot of pressure at the end, I think we did well to hold onto the point. Had a couple chances real late to maybe win it, so all-in-all happy with the performance of the team and, obviously, not overly pleased we didn’t get three points, but it’s a start for us. We’re building for the future.”
 
On the four line-ups changes from last week’s match against Chivas USA:
 
“Just wanted to freshen it up. I thought it wasn’t good enough last week when we played at Chivas USA. I thought we performed very well today. Harry Shipp had his first game, was great. Benji Joya had a start as well. Matt Watson, who I picked up from Vancouver, had a tremendous game today. I had Quincy Amarikwa up top and I thought Quincy was a real handful all game. He’s doing well, he works hard at his game, and those guys did really well today and I was happy.”
 
On the team’s performance:
 
“The response today was excellent. I thought our character was strong, we didn’t buckle, we kept going. That’s the sign of a good team, so hopefully that’s the sign for us moving forward. We don’t really have any natural wingers and I think Portland’s strength is down the middle. Once they get themselves dipped inside they’re very good in those underneath positions, underneath the back four and [Darlington] Nagbe coming off the line and stuff like that. So tactically we plugged the middle and I think we did a great job of that. Nicking balls and then broke on them a few times. Maybe could have punished them a bit better in the first half, but still our game plan worked. I thought we nullified a lot of the play, especially the first 60 minutes. Again, it was a good performance by us and I’m proud of the guys and proud of the way they handled themselves today.”
 
Thoughts on the red card for Nyarko:
 
“To be honest, I’d have to look at it again. But you have to make sure that’s worthy of a second yellow. I thought the first one, Nagbe had already played it, why didn’t he just play on or give a foul and not a yellow? The second one, it was right in front us. Patrick [Nyarko] was on the other side, so I couldn’t really see, but again it’s got to be worthy of the foul. I can’t really comment until I see it.”
 
Fire midfielder Matt Watson
 
On his first start in his first game with the Fire:
 
“It’s obviously good to get into the team. Obviously, I’ve got a lot to learn about how [Chicago] play and things like that. All the guys have been really welcoming since I’ve been here. We’ve come to Portland and to get a hard-fought point is good, but it’s disappointing we couldn’t get three.”
 
On Chicago’s performance
 
“I think we just need to clean up on small things. You can see the fight is there, things like that. All the basic fundamental things are there, but we need to just maybe relax a little bit on the ball; just play. If we can just take a step back, relax, play, we’ll be great this year. We’ve got some great guys. [Quincy] Amarikwa was fighting for every ball. When you see that, it just inspires you to play and get behind him and push up, things like that. If we clean up on the small things we’ll be great.”
 
Fire midfielder Harry Shipp
 
On making his debut
 
“It was obviously exciting, especially playing here for 90 minutes in front of a great crowd. It’s definitely something I’ve been working towards my entire life and to finally make the debut is special. I wish, obviously, we would have gotten the three points. Thought we had it at the end in stoppage time, but overall not too bad of a way to start.”
 
On Chicago’s tactical approach to Portland
 
“We had a lot of changes from the lineup last week, so I think our first and foremost responsibility was getting those good spots defensively. I think Lovel [Palmer] on the right, Gonzalo [Segares] on the left really did a good job talking to the outside mids in terms of cutting off those interior passes because obviously that’s what Portland likes to do first is find those guys in the seams. So I think, kind of forcing them wide, we were able to do that and kept them from being extremely dangerous.”
 
On Chicago’s performance:
 
“Quincy did a great job drawing the penalty kick first. I think we came out confident. We didn’t want to be shy. We felt like we didn’t come out with as much energy as we would have liked to last week, so we really wanted to change that this week. Then giving up the goal wasn’t what we wanted, but I think we responded pretty well. We had a couple good chances after we gave up that goal to actually steal the game and win 2-1. So overall I think we responded pretty well to giving up the goal.”
14 March 8:32 am

After a lackluster performance last weekend out in LA, the Fire are in Portland for what should be a much sterner test against a Timbers team unbeaten in home regular season play for over a year (1:30pm CT on My50 / TWCWI). The Timbers will also be looking to avenge the 2-2 draw in the team's only meeting last season where a brilliant Fire comeback left Caleb Porter seething. Here are some things to look out for from a tactical perspective.

A tweak in formation option A: Packing the midfield

Against a Portland team playing their usual 4-3-3 formation, a safer option for the Fire, especially away from home, is to play another holding midfielder alongside Jeff Larentowicz in an attempt to pack the midfield. Portland rely on late runs from players like Will Johnson and another holding midfielder would ensure the Fire would be able to track these runs more effectively.

Logan Pause would be the prime candidate to partner Larentowicz in the engine room. Portland always look to get playmaker Diego Valeri on the ball and rely on his through balls to create many of the team's chances. Pause and Larentowicz read the game extremely well and are masters at intercepting the kind of balls Valeri will be looking to play.

This option requires that the Fire drop one of its attacking players, which in this case could be Chris Rolfe who is battling an injury. The approach could be seen as a negative one, but playing against a team unbeaten at home for over a year and one that scored the third highest amount of goals in the league last season, the Men in Red also need be realistic.  

A tweak in formation option B: Eliminating the target striker 

A more progressive option for the Fire this weekend would be eliminating the target striker completely in favor of a smaller and quicker attack. This move would see Juan Luis Anangono, a player isolated during large stretches of last weekend's match, drop to the bench in favor of a quicker, more dynamic player such as Quincy Amarikwa, a player on the cusp of a starting eleven place.

In last weekend's match against the Union, Portland were undone on more than a few occasions by some neat and quick interplay by the Philly midfielders and strikers.  With this smaller formation, the Fire will have more opportunities to play this type of game.

The interplay between players such as Duka, Rolfe, Joya, Amarikwa, Alex and Nyarko could certainly cause the Timbers problems with Benji Joya's goal last week serving as a classic example of this: Amarikwa playing a brilliant through ball to Alex who in turn found Joya at the back post for a tap in finish.

While this formation would certainly make the Fire quicker, it should also provide the Men in Red with an opportunity to have more possession and even slow the game down at times, especially if the away team manages to take the lead. With possession below 45% in last week's loss, an emphasis on keeping more of the ball is also necessary.  

Set pieces: a weakness for both teams

Both the Fire and Timbers have had problems defending set pieces in the past and that was apparent again during the first match of the season for both teams. Fire defender Bakary Soumare admitted fault after his mark was able to head home the winner for Chivas while Portland also gave up a goal from a corner against the Union.

The Fire's defensive play from crosses and set pieces was certainly suspect last weekend and coach Frank Yallop made no secret of his disappointment at how his team gave up goals in this manner.

Though Portland are not a very big team, players like Diego Valeri and Gaston Fernandez are some of the best set piece takers in the league and a more cohesive performance by the Fire back four is needed on Sunday afternoon.  On the other side of the ball, with the Timbers also looking frail on set pieces, I expect the Fire to load the box when the dead ball opportunities arise. 

Prediction: 1-1 with the Fire goal coming from Alex

Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @irish_steve 

WATCH: Clint Mathis on what it will take to earn a result in Portland

25 November 3:04 pm

One of my favorite days of the year is the day the MLS schedule is released.

For many fans, this announcement means compiling a list of blackout days where the Fire are playing at Toyota Park. For Fire fans not residing in the Chicagoland area, it means finding out when the Men in Red will be visiting your nearest MLS team. But for someone like me who has been on quite a few road trips (over 50 but not as many as this guy), the schedule release day means not only looking at the home fixtures but also the away ones.

Questions I asked myself earlier today: Does Toronto away fall on weekend instead of a Wednesday night? How much does it cost to fly to Portland in March? These important questions get answered on this special day.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at five exciting dates in the 2014 Fire calendar:

Week 2 – Portland away – Saturday, March 15 

Ever since Portland came into the league in 2011, the Fire supporters umbrella, Section 8 Chicago, has had a very good relationship with the Timbers Army, Portland’s main supporters group. The relationship is based on mutual respect and a shared “dislike” of all things Seattle.

Fire fans are always treated well in Portland and it’s not uncommon for Fire and Timbers fans to hang out before and after the games, something you would never see Fire fans doing in Columbus or Kansas City.

The atmosphere at JELD-Wen Field is also second to none. Though is certainly isn’t going to be the easiest away trip on the field or the lightest on the wallet, I think we will see quite a few Fire fans making the trip to Portland in Week 2 instead of traveling to LA to watch the Fire face Chivas in the season opener.

Week 6 & 22 – Montreal away – Saturday, April 12 and Sunday, August 16

The Fire were the Montreal Impact’s opponents in the Canadian club’s first home MLS back in 2012 and I was lucky enough to be at the game and had a great time.

That game was played indoors at the Olympic Stadium with a less than favorable playing surface – something many of the Fire fans observed firsthand the day before the game when we were invited to watch the team train (see photo above).

Now the Impact have Saputo Stadium refurbished, which provides another incentive for traveling Fire fans who may not have gotten there earlier this year.

Montreal is also a unique MLS city for a number of reasons. I can’t think of another MLS city where fans can brush up on their French by talking to the locals or take in the spectacular Notre-Dame basilica while eating some amazing poutine!

Montreal can be quite cold in April, but luckily for Fire fans, the April date is only the first time the Men in Red visit The City of Saints. I hear the weather is a lot nicer in mid-August, when the Fire visit for the second time.

Week 11 – Columbus away – Saturday, May 24

Columbus or Fire House East as many Fire fans call it is the closest away trip of the season distance wise. Due to this fact, the number of Fire fans attending this match is exponentially bigger than most other away games.

In 2001, Fire fans went to Crew Stadium in their hundreds, even when the Fire was not playing! The Fire had been knocked out in the Conference Semifinals by the Los Angeles Galaxy and many fans turned up to cheer against LA (and for the then Frank Yallop-led San Jose Earthquakes) at MLS Cup.

There have been many highs experienced in Columbus, such as Paulo Wanchope’s winning goal in a 2007 match after the game was delayed due to a torrential downpour. Fire fans were also 45 minutes away from MLS Cup in 2008 but for a Crew comeback in the second half which left Fire fans, including myself, devastated. There’s also the 2012 invasion which saw 600 Fire supporters make the trek.

The Fire only play once at Fire House East this season and I expect to see a lot of red behind the goal on May 24.

Week 16 & 32 Kansas City away –Sunday, July 6 &  Friday, October 10

Kansas City is another road trip that fans have attended in large numbers throughout the years. My first trip to Kansas City was a disappointing one, with the Fire losing to the Kansas City Wizards in the final of the U.S. Open Cup in 2004.

Since then, the Kansas franchise has a new name and a soccer specific stadium. You can no longer play the count the crowd game that we often did when the Wizards played at Arrowhead Stadium.

Most fans travel to this game by bus thus skipping the “delights” of downtown Kansas City and the bus ride does offer one cool treat – a visit to the world’s largest truck stop in Iowa.

Though SKC are not really a Fire rival (despite efforts made by the KC front office to make it into something bigger) there is certainly a dislike between the players and fans on both sides.

With the October 11 game coming so late in the season, it may be a pivotal one in terms of Playoff positioning.

Week 23 – Toronto away – Saturday, August 23

By far my favorite MLS city to travel to is Toronto. It's roughly the same distance from Chicago as Kansas City and again many fans travel to Canada on supporter’s buses.

Each visit, Fire fans shack up at a great hostel where we run into soccer fans from all over the world. Toronto itself is a great city aside from the prohibitive drinking laws on weekends (who doesn’t want to have a pint at 10am while watching the Premier League the next morning?).

BMO Field is located right on the shores of Lake Ontario and is thus left exposed and is often windy and chilly but the warm pies served at some of the concessions stands are an excellent halftime treat.

On the field, the Fire have had some good success against a TFC team that has languished near the bottom of the MLS table since starting in 2007. Thankfully, this match is on a Saturday in August so I expect a much larger contingent of Fire fans to attend.

Stephen Piggott is a contributor to Chicago-Fire.com. Follow him on Twitter @Irish_Steve.

20 June 10:39 am

Earlier Thursday morning I was once again invited back to U.S. Soccer Federation headquarters in downtown Chicago to witness the semifinal round Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup coin flips.

Let me be honest, unlike the previous three rounds, Thursday's process was the simplest I've witnessed.

That's because even before showing up at Soccer House on Thursday morning, U.S. Soccer had already confirmed what the potential semifinal pairings would be earlier this week based on geography.

Combine that with all eight quarterfinal teams applying to host the semifinals, literally all that was needed was to flip the famous bicentennial silver dollar twice.

Still, Competition Secretary Paul Marstaller kept things official, handing out the same formatted paper which clearly listed the matchups and assigned heads and tails.

That sheet looked like this:

Heads Tails
D.C. United/New England Revolution Chicago Fire/Orlando City*
Real Salt Lake/Carolina RailHawks* Portland Timbers/FC Dallas

If I can be bold enough to say, every time the Fire have come up in a coin flip, I honestly get this strange excitement in my stomach. The feeling of a simple coin going a long way to deciding your team's tournament fate is a thrilling, if not brief emotion.

TICKETS: Chicago Fire vs. Orlando City Quarterfinal on June 26

Luckily for the Fire, the first coin flip landed tails, meaning the winner of next Wednesday's game vs. Orlando City will host the winnder of D.C. United/New England on August 7. This is the third straight flip the Fire have won after losing the initial third round flip to the Charlotte Eagles.

In the second flip, the coin came up heads, meaning the winner of Real Salt Lake/Carolina RailHawks will host the winner of Portland/FC Dallas. The flip was the fourth consecutive win for RSL in the 2013 U.S. Open Cup.

And that was it.

Only one coin flip remains and that's for the final which will be played in early October. I'm told that will go down at some point in July.

All intentions to host the final were due along with intentions for the semifinal on Wednesday, though U.S. Soccer will likely not make that list public until the final coin flips occur.

I can confirm the Chicago Fire have applied to host the 2013 U.S. Open Cup final.

Earlier 2013 Open Cup Coin Flips:

- Quarterfinals
- Fourth Round
- Third Round

07 June 11:55 am

Much like the shirt exchange post-match, the scarf exchange between supporters of opposing clubs is held as a sacred tradition.

Seeing as almost all of the live soccer I take in these days comes from a press box view, the scarf exchange is one thing I haven’t had the opportunity to carry out of late.

Take a trip back a few weeks ago when I set off for Philadelphia to cover the Fire’s match against the Union. Sitting near (but not in) the desired exit row on my Southwest Airlines flight, I was diligently working on an article for the next day when I looked up to see one of the flight attendants wearing an apron decked out in Timbers Army patches.

I meandered through how Alaska Airlines might feel about this whole situation before asking the Southwest attendant how much of a Timbers fan he was.

Jason or “A-B” as he’s know in the Southwest world was quick to tell me he was a member of Timbers Army and went to as many matches as his work schedule would allow.

I then went ahead and told him what I did for a living working with the Chicago Fire at which point he got out his phone (on airplane mode of course) and showed me a number of photos from the two side’s previous encounter last May in Portland.

Speaking of the Section 8 Chicago/Timbers Army friendly alliance, he even took some photos with Fire supporters, many of which are friends of mine.

He then had to go back to his duties, serving drinks to the many passengers behind me.

Remembering that I always travel with a Fire scarf, I dug through my carry-on bag and pulled out the very famous Tetris scarf produced last season by Section 8 and as he passed through the cabin again, I stopped and gave it to him, to his great surprise.

He walked to the back of the plane and soon enough, returned with his own Timbers Army scarf, complete with many of the same patches that adorned his apron. I was completely surprised by this gesture as you could see that this scarf had been worn through many a match and held great importance.

I asked him if he was really alright with parting with such an important piece of his Timbers memories and he didn't even think twice. 

And thus, soccer diplomacy occurred once again. Those Timbers Army folk (of which there will be 175 at Toyota Park Saturday night), aren't so bad.

07 June 8:40 am

After a week of very positive results on the field, the Fire team will be full of confidence as they welcome the Portland Timbers to Toyota Park on Saturday night (LIVE 7pm CT on My50/La Ley 107.9FM) .

Portland are not short of confidence themselves, riding into town on an 11 game unbeaten streak. Both teams are missing players due to international duty. Here are some tactical things to keep an eye on...

The 4-4-2 diamond formation option #1 – keep the diamond for the Portland game

In the Fire’s most recent MLS game against D.C. United, the team tweaked the formation and started with a 4-4-2 with a diamond in midfield. Jeff Larentowicz played just in front of the back four while Alex got the start at the point of the diamond.

Against D.C., this tactic worked very well as Alex was given license to stay forward and almost act as a third forward at times while helping Mike Magee and Chris Rolfe put pressure on the United back four.

Frank Klopas echoed this in a recent interview, stating “He’s had two good games, he brings that ability onto the field – when he gets the ball he can make good passes and connect plays together, another guy that supports the forwards.”

Like Magee and Rolfe, Alex is just as good without the ball at his feet, constantly making runs wide and connecting with Patrick Nyarko and Joel Lindpere on the wings. Though the Fire didn’t have as much possession as D.C., Alex was involved in a number of counter attacks which caught United off guard.

Every fan wants to see attacking soccer from their team, especially at home, and starting Alex at the top of the diamond would certainly signal that the Fire don’t intend to sit back and allow Portland to come at them, but rather the opposite.

The 4-4-2 diamond formation option #2 – revert to two more defensive minded players in the middle

Even without starting striker Ryan Johnson (gone for international duty), Portland boasts one of the most potent attacks in MLS. To date, the team has scored 22 goals, only 12 away from what they put up the entirety of last season.

Frenchman Frédéric Piquionne will start as the lone striker in place of Johnson but it is the support behind him that the Fire must be wary of. With players like Diego Valeri (who I will talk about more later) Darlington Nagbe and Will Johnson, the team from the Rose City have a wealth of attacking options.

Because Portland plays with a 5 man midfield, a lone holding midfielder might not be enough for the Fire on Saturday night. Jeff Larentowicz did a fantastic job of stifling the D.C. attack last weekend but against a team not afraid to push men forward, a two-man combination of Pause/Paladini/Larentowicz makes more sense tactically.

Two holding midfielders would also put less pressure on wingers Patrick Nyarko and Dilly Duka to drop back and help out defensively. Coach Klopas also called for the team to dominate more in possession against the Timbers and playing the two central midfielders close to one another would suit this strategy.

What will be interesting is which option the Fire start the game with, knowing that the team can revert to either option simply by making a substitution and either bringing Alex on the field or off.

Stopping Diego Valeri – taking a physical approach

Over the past two seasons teams have used a number of strategies to stop Fire playmakers such as Patrick Nyarko, Chris Rolfe and Sebastian Grazzini. One tactic that is used very often is to be physical (and in some cases overly physical) in an attempt to keep the player from making an impact. One way to try and contain Timbers creative midfielder Diego Valeri is to take this very approach.

Back in 2011, Paladini employed this tactic against RSL’s Kyle Beckerman and after 11 minutes, Beckerman snapped, head-butting Paladini and getting sent off with the Fire ending the game as 3-0 winners.

There is certainly a fine line between kicking lumps out of a player and just being physical with him. Thankfully, the Men in Red are blessed with veteran players such as Pause and Larentowicz and players like Paladini who are well versed in the “dark arts.” 

Because Valeri is so mobile, another option would be to man-mark him but that essentially eliminates one of the Fire players’ ability to contribute to the attack. The physical approach is certainly a more practical tactic than the man marking one and if the Fire can contain Valeri and prevent him from pulling the strings in midfield, it will be very detrimental to a Portland team who rely heavily on his creativity.

Prediction: The Fire will continue to turn the corner and hand the Timbers their first defeat in 11 games. 1-0 Fire with a goal from Chris Rolfe.