Having secured three points in their first match of the new month on Saturday, the Men In Red can fully focus on a date that's always circled on the June calendar: the club's entry into the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup's Fourth Round (WATCH LIVE ONLINE).
In this the 105th edition of the historic tournament, the four-time champion Chicago Fire begin their latest quest for a fifth trophy with a different challenge than many of their recent forays into the competition. Rather than facing a lower-division opponent in their Fourth Round contest, the Fire jump straight to MLS competition when they travel to take on Columbus Crew SC Wednesday (June 6) at MAPFRE Stadium.
The game is one of four all-MLS matchups scheduled for the Fourth Round, along with Real Salt Lake-Sporting KC, Portland Timbers-San Jose Earthquakes and a New York Derby at Red Bull Arena.
Chicago and Columbus already have split their two MLS regular season meetings on the young season, each winning on their home turf. The Fire's trip to Ohio on May 12 ended in 3-0 defeat, but the U.S. Open Cup's added elements of a winner-take-all scenario and roster requirements limiting teams to a maximum of five foreign players in their matchday 18 mean Wednesday could look rather different than either of their first two meetings.
"We have a very important competition starting now for the club and for every one of us," said head coach Veljko Paunović, who owns a 3-1-2 record coaching in the Open Cup after last year's penalty kick shootout loss at FC Cincinnati. "We believe that the Open Cup is a very challenging and a very difficult competition, but at the same time it's also very motivating. I think in the past our club was very successful and we want to repeat obviously the sooner the better."
Columbus has the distinction of being the Fire's most frequent U.S. Open Cup opponent over the years, with Wednesday's fixture marking the seventh in the teams' all-time tournament series -- a series that has been decidedly one-sided, with the Fire a perfect 6-0-0 against Columbus in Open Cup play. But Wednesday also will be only the second of those games to be played in Columbus, with the only other occasion coming in a 2-1 Fire victory on July 20, 2004.
More pertinent to the here-and-now, however, is that the Fire seem to be adapting well to a congested match schedule, winning two of their last three and beginning to transition some key names back into full training and match action. Luis Solignac contributed an assist Saturday in his first start in more than two months, and Pauno on Monday indicated more progress is being made among those still injured.
"We are working on recovering the guys from Saturday's game and we are expecting also (Jon) Bakero, Elliot (Collier) to be back in training this week, Dax (McCarty), and all that is helpful," he said. "We are starting to bring back and recover the players who we've lost during the season. But it's a tough opponent, it's always difficult to play against Columbus, especially on their soil, but we're confident that we can finally get a good result there and in this case we can pass this round."
Of course, there was one significant injury on Saturday as goalkeeper Patrick McLain exited just before halftime after a fine run of form over the previous week. Richard Sánchez stepped in to close out the victory over the Earthquakes and is ready to help the Fire take the first step toward adding a fifth U.S. Open Cup trophy to their trophycase.
"It's a great matchup, we're aware of what this tournament means for the club," Sánchez said, "and I think it's a great opportunity for us to play against a great team like Columbus and give it all we've got."
Below is the complete schedule of this week's U.S. Open Cup Fourth Round matches (all times Eastern). Click here to look back at a complete list of match results so far in the 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.