Saturday’s match against the Charleston Battery not only brings to end the club’s involvement in their first Carolina Challenge Cup, but also completes what has been a pretty long preseason campaign.
Six weeks, nearly four of which have been spent on the road. Six opponents, some wins, some losses, some draws, and a few red cards thrown in for good measure.
The Fire wrap up the sometimes monotonous preseason time on the road Saturday night when they take on Challenge Cup hosts and USL-Pro side Charleston Battery in what will be another edition to a series duo of matches that bring interesting stories for both sides.
The two teams first encountered each other in the 2004 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinals, played August 25 at Cardinal Stadium in Naperville, IL. The match went scoreless into the half where the second interval was delayed for over two hours because of tornado and thunderstorm warnings in the western Chicago suburbs.
T teams waited and waited and as “series legend” has it, saw the Battery players eat Chicago-style pizza during the break. The match returned and eventually made its way to extra time where the Botswanan international striker Dipsy Selolwane nodded down a cross from the left from Orlando “head band” Perez, that beat one-time Fire goalkeeper Dusty Hudock to advance the club to its fourth Open Cup final in seven seasons.
Whether it was Lou Malnatti's, Giordano's or some other local deep dish favorite that doomed the Battery, we'll never know...
“You know it’s not your night when Brian McBride can’t convert a spot kick…”
The above was my line when speaking during the webcast for the Fire-Toronto FC match last Saturday to start the Carolina Challenge Cup, regarding the more recent meeting between the Fire and Battery.
On June 29 of last season, the Men in Red welcomed the storied lower division side to Toyota Park for a third round Open Cup clash.
You remember the game. The one where the visitors parked the bus in front of their own goal (admitted to me by Battery President Andrew Bell on the very same webcast last week) and Fire attempts to score over 120 minutes proved unsuccessful, taking the match to penalties…
Up stepped U.S. legend Brian McBride who powered his effort over the goal, while the Battery’s Lamar Neagle converted from the spot. Next for the Fire was Polish defender Krzysztof Krol who had his effort saved by Charleston keeper Tim Melia and the visitors went up 2-0 through Mike Zaher. Colombian defender Wilman Conde hit the cross bar leaving veteran midfielder Ian Fuller the chance to clinch the victory, which he did when he finished past Sean Johnson.
The game ended 0-0 and went down as a draw, but the team took one on the chin in a 3-0 loss on penalties.
“Honestly, the only thing you remember about games is whether you win or lose,” said Johnson about what was his competitive debut for the club. “It was one of my first matches with the team and definitely going out tomorrow, having lost against them last year on penalties, I definitely want to win it. Not more so than any other game, but from the standpoint of competition you want to win games to get good momentum going into the season. I think momentum is a big thing for us and we want to end preseason on the right note.”
Coming off a 1-0 loss to DC United on Wednesday night, a match that was not the best performance of the club’s 2011 preseason, the Fire still have a shot at winning the Challenge Cup but need Toronto FC to beat DC United in the first of the match of the evening.
If that happens, the Fire need a win by two goals or more in the tournament finale against Charleston (6:15pm CT, LIVE webcast on Chicago-Fire.com).
To add a little more intrigue to the final match of the club’s preseason, a familiar face has popped up with the Battery in the past week.
Goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra, who was waived earlier this year by the Fire has been in training camp with Charleston for about two weeks and earned his first appearance for the club in their 2-1 upset of Toronto FC in Wednesday’s second match.
Having served as an understudy to Dykstra to start the 2010 season, Johnson is looking forward to facing a player that he trained with in his first professional campaign.
“We had a chat and just caught up to seeing how things were going [when we first arrived here last week]. I was privileged to work with Andrew the whole year and also to get to know him. He’s a good guy. Knowing him, we’re both looking forward to winning the match, we’re both competitive, at the end of the day though it’s an important game for both of us to get an idea of where we are.”
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Saturday's finale will be the battle for the final three first team roster spots, with head coach Carlos de los Cobos and his staff using the Battery match as the final measuring stick to fill out the 28-man First Kick roster. Among the trialists that remain in camp are 2011 third round draft pick midfielder Davis Paul, a pair of former youth internationals: striker Gabriel Ferrari (US) and defender Michael Muniz, the club's 2011 Open Tryout winner Pari Pantazopoulos, 19-year old Colombian wing back and young Argentinian midfielder Martin Rivas.
A timetable on the final roster decisions was not available as of Saturday night.
The result of Saturday's match aside, the first team will return to Chicago Sunday morning, bringing to end nearly a month of time spent on the road in both Charleston and Ave Maria, FL. The team will attend Monday’s Season Kickoff Luncheon before training the rest of the week in preparation for their MLS First Kick match, Saturday, March 19 at Brimstone Cup rivals FC Dallas (LIVE on CSN Chicago at 7:30pm CT).
For Johnson, Saturday night’s match will bring to end what the second-year goalkeeper sees as a successful preseason for the team.
“I’m definitely ready for the season to start. It’s been a long time on the road but I think its been positive in terms of us getting to know each other and getting on the same page. I think right now we’re in a good spot, we’ve done a good job of gelling together and so we’re looking forward to getting through this last game so we can focus on FC Dallas.”
Jeff Crandall is the Team Writer for the Chicago Fire. Catch him with Charleston Battery President Andrew Bell on the webcast of Saturday night’s Carolina Challenge Cup finale beginning at 6:15pm CT.