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.
- DOWNLOAD: 2014 Home Regular Season Schedule (PDF)
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.
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:
|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.
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:
Select shots from the Fire's draw with the Portland Timbers
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.
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.
The potential quarterfinal pairings for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup set to be played Wednesday, June 26:
1) Chicago Fire/Columbus Crew winner hosts Sporting Kansas City/Orlando City winner
2) D.C. United/Philadelphia Union winner hosts New England Revolution/New York Red Bulls winner
3) FC Dallas/Houston Dynamo winner hosts Portland Timbers/Tampa Bay Rowdies winner
4) Real Salt Lake/Charleston Battery winner hosts Carolina RailHawks/Chivas USA winner
Click Here to buy tickets for the Fire's Fourth Round USOC match vs. the Columbus Crew (Wednesday June 12th, 7:30pm Toyota Park)
Should the Chicago Fire come away victorious over the Charlotte Eagles in the third round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup next Wednesday, the team is guaranteed to host its fourth round match against either the Columbus Crew or Dayton Dutch Lions on Wednesday, June 12 at Toyota Park.
I'll have a full play-by-play of the draw later today on Chicago-Fire but until then, see below all fourth round U.S. Open Cup matchups:
#1 – New England Revolution/Rochester Rhinos hosts Reading United AC/New York Red Bulls winner
#2 – D.C. United/Richmond Kickers winner hosts Ocean City Nor’easters/Philadelphia Union winner
#3 – Chicago Fire hosts Dayton Dutch Lions/Columbus Crew winner
-or- Columbus Crew host Charlotte Eagles
-or- Dayton Dutch Lions host Charlotte Eagles
#4 – Sporting KC host Colorado Rapids/Orlando City winner
-or- Colorado Rapids/Orlando City hosts Des Moines Menace
#5 – FC Dallas hosts FC Tucson/Houston Dynamo winner
-or- Houston Dynamo hosts Ft. Lauderdale Strikers
-or- Ft. Lauderdale Strikers vs. FC Tucson (Host TBD)
#6 – LA Galaxy/Carolina Railhawks winner hosts Chivas USA/LA Blues winner
#7 – Atlanta Silverbacks/Real Salt Lake winner hosts San Jose Earthquakes/Charleston Battery winner
#8 – Seattle Sounders will host Wilmington Hammerheads/Portland Timbers winner
-or- Portland Timbers will host Tampa Bay Rowdies
-or- Tampa Bay Rowdies vs. Wilmington Hammerheads (Host TBD)
In case you missed it, I had the opportunity to serve as a witness for today's Third Round U.S. Open Cup draw at Soccer House in Chicago.
I detailed the interesting tidbits of how the draw is done but in case you don't want to nerd out, just check out the potential third round matchups below...
HOME TEAMS LISTED FIRST
#1 Pittsburgh Riverhounds (USL-Pro) vs. Philadelphia Union -or- Philadelphia Union vs. Ocean City Nor'easters
#2 Richmond Kickers (USL-Pro) vs. D.C. United -or- D.C. United vs. Icon FC (USASA)
#3 Rochester Rhinos (USL-Pro) vs. New England Revolution -or- New England Revolution vs. GPS Portland Phoenix (USL PDL)
#4 Charlotte Eagles (USL-Pro) vs. Chicago Fire -or- Chicago Fire vs. Seattle Sounders U-23 (USL PDL)
#5 Orlando City Lions (USL-Pro) vs. Colorado Rapids -or- Colorado Rapids vs. Ocala Stampede (USL PDL)
#6 Ft. Lauderdale Strikers (NASL) / Laredo Heat (USL PDL) vs. FC Dallas
#7 Charleston Battery (USL-Pro) / Portland Timbers U-23 vs. San Jose Earthquakes
#8 Sporting KC vs. Minnesota United FC (NASL) - Des Moines Menace (USL PDL) / Madison 56ers (NPSL)
#9 Real Salt Lake vs. Atlanta Silverbacks (NASL) / Georgia Revolution (USASA)
#10 LA Blues (USL-Pro) / Ventura County Fusion (USL PDL) vs. Chivas USA
#11 Carolina Rail Hawks (NASL) / Carolina Dynamo (USL PDL) vs. LA Galaxy
#12 Columbus Crew vs. Dayton Dutch Lions (USL-Pro) / Dearborn SC (USASA) winner
#13 New York Red Bulls vs. Harrisburg City Islanders (USL-Pro) / Reading United (USL PDL) winner
#14 San Antonio Scorpions (NASL) / FC Tucson (USL PDL vs. Houston Dynamo
#15 Tampa Bay Rowdies (NASL) vs. Seattle Sounders FC -or- Seattle Sounders vs. VSI Tampa Bay (USL-Pro)
#16 Portland Timbers vs. Wilmington Hammerheads (USL-Pro) / Austin Aztex (USL PDL)
The 2013 MLS campaign kicks off today and the All-In Podcast crew has made their picks for the weekend matches... We'll tally these throughout the season and be sure to point out who does the worst every week on the Podcast...
Philadelphia vs. Sporting KC
(3/2 4pm CT; MLS Live)
Vancouver vs. Toronto FC
(3/2 5:30pm CT; MLS Live)
Houston vs. D.C. United
(3/2 7:00pm CT; NBCSN)
FC Dallas vs. Colorado
(3/2 7:30pm CT; MLS Live)
Seattle vs. Montreal
(3/2 9:30pm CT; MLS Live)
Chivas USA vs. Columbus
(3/2 9:30pm CT; MLS Live)
LA Galaxy vs. Chicago
(3/3 4pm CT; UniMas)
Portland vs. New York
(3/3 6:30pm CT; ESPN2)
San Jose vs. Real Salt Lake
(3/3 9:00pm CT; MLS Live)
Ahead of the opening of the 2013 Combine on Friday, the SuperDraft “Big Boards” have begun to make their appearances.
MLSsoccer.com’s Simon Borg, Matt Doyle and Jason Saghini ran through their initial thoughts on the first 19 selections for Thursday’s SuperDraft.
Simon and Matt both agreed on the Fire’s choice at 11th overall, saying they thought Frank Klopas and Co. would select Generation adidas signing, Gambian forward Kekuta Manneh, while Saghini differed with his pick of midfielder Erik Hurtado from Santa Clara.
Having just turned 18, Manneh seems to be a wild card in this draft. During the 2010-11 U.S. Soccer Development Academy campaign, the 5-9 forward tallied 35 goals for the Texas Rush.
The closest teammate to him goals scored was Marco Molina at seven.
Manneh didn’t play in the Academy league this past year but the then 17-year-old did suit up for the USL Premier Development League’s Austin Aztex, tying for the team lead in goals with 10 in 12 games before adding three more in two playoff matches.
Hurtado is a bit more of a known quantity. The Beaverton, Ore. product was a four-year stand-out at Santa Clara where he was actually teammates with current Fire defender Jalil Anibaba in 2009.
The attacking midfielder led the Broncos in goals all four seasons, tallying 33 to go along with 20 assists over 76 matches.
The last two summers, he’s suited up for the Portland Timbers U-23 PDL side, tallying an impressive 14 goals in 18 matches.
Elsewhere over at TopDrawerSoccer.com, J.R. Eskilson and Travis Clark projected the Fire to select Maryland midfielder John Stertzer 11th overall.
A product of Oakton, Va., Stertzer tallied 25 goals and 14 assists over 79 matches between 2009-12.
Stertzer came into his own offensively over the last two seasons, bagging 21 goals and 11 assists and helped the Terrapins in their return to the NCAA College Cup this past December but is expected to take on more of a holding role in MLS.
What do you think of the three projected players? Certainly with two offseason additions in attack, none of the three may stick out to Fire fans on paper and all would seem to be sort of project players. Of course these are just initial lists and the Combine has a lot to do with the reshuffling of the draft order.
We’ll be sure to keep up with the combine this weekend and the newest Mock Drafts to come out from it…