Frank Klopas

Double Knockout

Both the Chicago Fire and Richmond Kickers both are likely to play the biggest match of their seasons to date when they meet in the semifinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup on Tuesday at Toyota Park. Both sides though have important league fixtures to attend to Saturday night (kicking off just an hour apart), begging the question of how managers Frank Klopas and Leigh Cowlishaw  will manage the two-games in four-days scenario.

“Our main focus is on Colorado on Saturday,” said Klopas. “That’s the game in front of us, we’re going to put the best group available to us out there to win that and we have more than enough time to recover. Playing both games at home, we don’t have to travel and will be ready for Tuesday vs. Richmond.”

Believe it or not, managing this situation hasn’t been the top of Cowlishaw’s (pictured right) priorities as a few unmanageable things have hit central Virginia this week.

“I’m more concerned about natural disasters right now with the earthquake and the hurricane headed our way,” joked earlier this week. “Those things aren’t making logistics very interesting right now.”

Short turnaround time is something the Kickers head man, now in his 11th season at the helm of the side, is used to as he leads his club into the USL Pro playoff semifinals Saturday night at Orlando City.

“For our league this is a normal day at the office. It’s more of a situation where its going to be quite easy for us to handle.

Playing in USL-Pro, teams jam a 26-game season into the span of five months. Necessitated by travel expense, clubs will often play each other twice or two different teams over the course of two-four days. Add a deep Open Cup run, and your already thin squad is stretched even more – in June Richmond played six matches in the span of 16 days (three league, three in the Open Cup).

When the third division side takes to the field at Toyota Park for Tuesday’s semifinal, it will mark their sixth match in 20 days, with coastal travel to boot.

“We’re just coming off four games in 10 days, playing Wilmington on the Wednesday before going to LA for a Friday/Sunday adventure and then came back again last Friday to play Wilmington in the playoffs,” said Cowlishaw. “To get through that stretch with all away travel was a tough one. The guys had three days off this week and now were focusing in on trying to make it an historic week with two semifinals and hopefully a USL championship appearance. Playing Saturday/Tuesday hopefully will not be a problem for us.”

With the compacted season though, USL clubs are allowed five substitutions in league games, compared to three in the Open Cup, where teams are also limited to dressing only five international players.

“That makes it a little trickier to handle but I’m sure it does for Chicago as well,” the manager confidently proclaimed.

A long-time servant of the club, Cowlishaw has been in Richmond since 1993, first as a player, then player manager, before becoming full-time head coach in 2009. A USL Hall of Fame inductee, the Englishman was a member of the Kickers side that won the 1995 U.S. Open Cup title (the last tournament before MLS teams began competing) and has helped the club to three league championships (1995, 2006, 2009) as well as four regular season titles (1998, 2001, 2006-07) in that time.

Though on the roster, the current Kickers head man didn’t find himself in the only other meeting with Chicago, a 1-0 Fire win at Richmond in the 2004 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals. Then in his second season current Fire captain Logan Pause played and went the full 90 minutes in the win while current Kickers goalkeeper Ronnie Pascale (pictured right) and striker Matthew Delicate played a part in the match.

Importance

No stranger to success in either competition, given the ironic set of circumstances having to play two knockout games in four days, the questions of ‘which is more important, which competition gives you the best opportunity to win hardware,’ comes into play.

“They’re both equally important,” said Cowlishaw. “This is where we want to be. It’s the sign of a good season to be in this position but if we don’t win either of these matches then no one’s going to remember much of this year. We’ve had a good season so far but this isn’t a special occasion for us by any means, its just another match and the ability to show against another quality opponent.”

The Fire, who sit eight points back of a playoff spot heading into their match with defending MLS Cup champions Colorado Saturday night will certainly be disappointed if they come away without a win Tuesday but taking their third division opponents lightly would be a mistake.

After negotiating through two easy wins against fellow USL-Pro opposition, the Kickers dispatched the Columbus 2-1 in the Round of 16 on June 28 before downing Sporting KC 2-0 on July 12. Both wins came away from the Virginia capital, marking the first lower-league side to defeat MLS clubs back-to-back on the road.

“We obviously don’t have a huge squad like in MLS but we have 20 dedicated professionals that can pretty much interchange positions, that’s how you have to build a team in this league.”

Getting set for just the club’s second Open Cup semifinal appearance (and first since 1995), the question that remained to be asked, “Where does this season rank among Cowlishaw’s years with the Kickers?”

“Right now it ranks nowhere. Hopefully in a couple weeks if we’re able to perform to our ability then maybe it can rank up there as one of our best seasons. Right now it could easily rank outside the top 10 because we haven’t won anything yet. The most important thing is picking up a trophy, at this stage if we don’t it’ll be a major disappointment for the whole squad.”

As for Saturday night, Fire fans should keep a watchful eye on the happenings at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, FL where Cowlishaw’s side will visit 2011 USL-Pro regular season champions Orlando City Lions (USLlive.com at 6:30pm CT) in the league’s second semifinal. The winner will advance to take on the Harrisburg City Islanders in the league championship match next weekend.

Jeff Crandall is the Team Writer for the Chicago Fire. Follow him on Twitter @JefeCrandall.

Tickets are still available for Tuesday's USOC semifinal. Visit Ticketmaster or call 888.MLS.FIRE for more information.