There were two disturbing things about the Fires match in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup on Tuesday, and neither involved the fact that the Major League Soccer franchise was eliminated by a team of kids from the Premier Development League.
No, the fact that the Fire got knocked out of the 99-year old summer-long tournament so early isnt that big a deal. Though the Fire takes the Open Cup competition more seriously than most MLS clubs and has won the Dewar Cup four times in 15 years, an early exit isnt that unusual.
The Fire is 5-5-1 in third-round matches (thats when the top eight MLS clubs begin in the competition each year). In 1999 the Fire coming off its sweep of the MLS and U.S. Open Cups in its rousing inaugural season was put out of the Open Cup by the Rochester Rhinos 1-0. In 2002, the Fire was knocked out by the Milwaukee Rampage, also by a 1-0 margin, and in 2007 the Carolina RailHawks put the Fire out by the same score. Those three losses came on the road.
In 2010 the early knockout came at home, with the Charleston Battery doing the honors at Toyota Park.
So Tuesdays 2-1 setback at the hands of the Michigan Bucks shouldnt be disturbing. The Fire was playing its fourth match in 10 nights, and coach Frank Klopas started only two players who were in his first 11 in Saturdays 2-1 MLS loss at Columbus. Captain Logan Pause, Sebastian Grazzini and Pavel Pardo didnt even make the trip. Neither did Marco Pappa, who was on national team duty for Guatemala.
Usual starters Sean Johnson, Gonzalo Segares and Patrick Nyarko made the trip but didnt play. Dominic Oduro didnt take the field until the 84th minute. At least the reserves received some much-needed playing time.
What is disturbing, though, is that Fire surrendered the first goal still again. The club has made that mistake nine times already in the MLS season. The teams 5-4-3 record shows the team has the gumption to battle back, but consistently falling behind never is a good thing.
Neither is the U.S. Soccer Federations policy for scheduling U.S. Open Cup matches. Theres no problem with coin tosses determining the home team, but never should a match be played indoors. Thats what the Fire had to do during its loss to the Michigan Bucks. Soccer, the 11-a-side version, is an outdoor sport. The Fire doesnt play indoors. In my book, the games shouldnt be played on artificial surfaces, though that was the case when the Fire used North Central College in Naperville as its home field a few years back when Soldier Field was undergoing a renovation and Toyota Park was still in the planning stages.
Having MLS teams play on the road against opponents in lower leagues is, in general, a good thing. It promotes the sport beyond MLS cities. The Fire-Bucks match was played at Ultimate Sports Arenas in the Detroit suburb of Pontiac and drew an estimated crowd of 2,000. Detroit doesnt have a professional soccer team, but surely there must have been an outdoor field suitable for such a significant match.
The Fire wasnt the only MLS team to be eliminated from the Open Cup by lower level opponents on Tuesday. If the Fire had won it would have faced the Columbus Crew at Toyota Park in its next match but the Crew lost, too. The Dayton Dutch Lions ousted the Crew.
Also bowing out of the Open Cup was the struggling Los Angeles Galaxy, the defending MLS champion. The Carolina RailHawks, winless in North American Soccer League Division II play this season, beat the Galaxy 2-1.
The Fire goes back to MLS play on Saturday with a road match against the New England Revolution, and the Revs were also knocked out of the Open Cup on Tuesday. They blew a 3-0 lead and lost in a shootout to the Harrisburg City Islanders of the United Soccer League Pro League Division III.
Other MLS losers on Tuesday were the Houston Dynamo (to the San Antonio Scorpions), FC Dallas (to the Charlotte Eagles), and Real Salt Lake (to the Minnesota Stars). Sporting Kansas City, D.C. United, the San Jose Earthquakes, Philadelphia Union, New York Red Bulls, Chivas USA and the Colorado Rapids won to give MLS a presence in the fourth round and the last two third-round matches are Wednesday night.
The Seattle Sounders, who beat the Fire in last years Open Cup final, are seeking a four-peat in the competition with the NASLs Atlanta Silverbacks the first opponent. The Portland Timbers are also in action, against California FC, an amateur club.
As for the Fire, the club can use a break. The Fire doesnt play at Toyota Park until June 17, when the Red Bulls visit. Therell be a big match in the Chicago area before that, however, and its sure to draw a big crowd to Soldier Field. The national teams of Mexico and Bosnia-Herzegovina collide there in an international friendly on Thursday.