Being the favorite in a fight is much less enjoyable when you end the bout like Goliath.
That’s the way the Chicago Fire exited the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Tuesday night, falling on penalty kicks to the USL Second Division’s Charleston Battery after a scoreless 120 minutes at Toyota Park.
The loss, though technically a draw, knocked the club out in the early stages of the tournament for the fourth consecutive season. Having made the cup a club staple when they won the championship in their inaugural 1998 season, the Fire would go on to win three more Open Cup titles in 2000, 2003 and 2006.
More recently, the team has failed to taste the victory experience in the tournament over the first eight years, going 1-3-1 since hoisting the 2006 championship at Toyota Park. Tuesday night’s loss marks the second-straight year the Fire have exited in favor of USL-2 opposition at the tournament’s third round stage.
While failure is a reasonable word to describe Tuesday’s result, remembering circumstance is important.
The Fire returned to league play Sunday, following an 18-day World Cup break, downing the New England Revolution 1-0 in Foxborough, MA. The team added two players to it’s roster of injured players when Justin Mapp pulled up lame in warm ups and central midfielder Baggio Husidic needed to be substituted in the game’s first half.
Returning to the Toyota Park pitch 49 hours after the league match in Boston, Carlos de los Cobos’ was able to dress only 17 players for the Open Cup match as Husdic and Mapp joined Calen Carr, John Thorrington, Collins John and Tim Ward in the physio room. Julio Martinez who was officially released by the club Wednesday was unavailable for selection on Tuesday night.
“My intention Tuesday night was to use the opportunity to play other players,” said de los Cobos following Wednesday's training session. “We look at our team and our roster size in MLS is very limiting. Getting some of the players minutes was good for me because seeing the injury problems that have popped up recently, we may need them in upcoming matches.”
While the patchwork lineup may be perceived by fans as a new coach failing to understand the club’s storied history in the tournament, de los Cobos has a lot of respect for the competition.
“I know that the Open Cup is special to our fans and we went into last night’s match with all responsibility, but playing two matches in three days and having to plan for a third match at the end of the week -- it wears on players. We don’t have a big roster and we’re dealing with a number of injuries right now. A great performance in every tournament we have during our season is difficult.”
In regards to the performance, the game certainly wasn’t a
thriller, but it was a solid performance from a mixed team of regulars and reserves
that haven’t played very much competition together.
“I think the players made a big effort – they tried. We attacked almost the entire match but sometimes results like last night happen, especially in knockout competitions. Soccer is very special in that way – you can control the whole time but not score and lose in penalty kicks. We don’t want to lose any game but we move on now and our concentration is on this season’s most important tournament – the league. We have the time now to concentrate on MLS and also to work on getting players healthy. I’m satisfied with our players’ effort but it is a shame to lose a match like this.”
Playing a recently unfamiliar role, Patrick Nyarko was one of three regular starters that entered the match as a substitute. The Ghanaian winger came on at the start of the second half to give life to a game that had been less than thrilling.
“When I came on I tried to penetrate and create in the small openings they left,” said Nyarko after Wednesday’s training session. “It was tough because they were pretty clogged up the middle. I tried to do my best any time I got the ball to run at their defenders so that they would collapse and so I could pass to the open player. I got in a couple times but I just couldn’t pinpoint the easiest pass. I’m still working on my game and as much as it’s improved, I always think I can do a bit more.”
Charleston did their best to continually frustrate the Fire attack, jamming the middle of the field and taking their time on every restart in order to see precious seconds fall off the clock.
Other than the result, Wilman Conde’s second half insertion in the Fire midfield was perhaps the game’s most interesting story line. Thirty-seven year old striker Brian McBride entered the match at the beginning of extra time and looked to draw more than one penalty as Battery defenders acted as ornaments, hanging all over the veteran striker for the final 30 minutes.
Though when time for penalties came, McBride’s put his effort over the bar, left back Krzysztof Krol’s shot was saved by Battery keeper Tim Melia and the Fire’s third attempt from Conde went off the cross bar.
“Those games are always the hardest,” said Nyarko. “Teams come in here, pack it in and hope to frustrate you. They look to catch you on the counter or take it to penalties and sometimes it works. Credit to them, I think they did a great job. It wasn’t that we came in with a different attitude – we came in wanting to win and we didn’t get the result. I couldn’t sleep [Tuesday night] I was so disappointed with the result, but the day after a game like that we always try to move on quickly to the next match. We can’t afford to dwell on the game and I think we’ve already shaken that off and have begun to prepare for Saturday.”
Saturday’s match with the Crew will be the third for the Fire in the span of six days. After gaining three valuable road points returning from their World Cup respite, the team will look to start climbing up the Eastern Conference table in what may be the club’s most difficult match so far this season.
Nyarko’s confident of a result.
“They’ve been the strong team over the last few years. They’re always up there, always getting the results they need and are always scary to play against. I played for Robert Warzycha on the Generation adidas trip, so you know how well coached they are. Hopefully we’ll be the team to go in a shock them over there. Despite last night, we still feel pretty confident about ourselves and I’m expecting a good game.”