Granted, three more victories are still needed. Still, the Fire’s chances of winning the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup for the fifth time look promising.
The Fire advanced to the quarterfinals Thursday afternoon, beating the Columbus Crew 2-1 in a weather-delayed match at Toyota Park. The match was to be played Wednesday night, but severe weather – thunder, lots of lightning, heavy rain and tornado reports – forced a postponement to a noon start (a night kickoff was ruled out because the Bridgeview stadium had to be readied for a weekend concert).
Spectators didn’t have to pay for admission or parking and a sunny day was made even more pleasant for the spirited fans who turned out with little advance notice when the Fire got its act together in the second half.
The Fire, with its next MLS match not coming until next Wednesday, played its regulars. Columbus, hampered by injuries and national team callups and with an MLS match looming Saturday, didn’t.
Still, the Crew scored first and had the Fire reeling for awhile. Goals by Mike McGee – his fourth in four matches since coming over in a trade with the Los Angeles Galaxy – and Patrick Nyarko turned the game in the Fire’s favor.
If was the fourth time in as many meetings that the Fire handled the Crew in Open Cup competition and this win put the Fire in an enviable position. The next match, in the quarterfinals, is also in Bridgeview and against a minor league opponent. The Orlando City FC earned another crack at a big-league opponent by knocking off Sporting Kansas City 1-0 Wednesday night.
The Fire have reached the semifinals eight times in 15 seasons and the next pairing, as well as the home field advantage, strongly suggests they will get that far again. Coach Frank Klopas insists it isn’t an automatic thing.
"These games are never easy," said Klopas. "They are difficult matches. (Orlando City) is another team that has a lot of talent. You see they went into Kansas City and beat the Open Cup champs. It’s a difficult place to play in Kansas City. We feel good that we are home, but we know it is going to be a difficult match.’"
Beating the Crew certainly was, even though Columbus coach Robert Warzycha was looking ahead to Saturday’s home MLS match against Montreal. He didn’t start either Dominic Oduro or Federico Higuain, his two potent strikers. Both played, with Oduro entering in the ninth minute when Glauber went down with an injury. Still, Konrad Warzycha’s header goal gave Columbus the early lead.
Oduro, one the Fire’s best goal-scoring threat prior to a preseason trade to the Crew, gave his former team problems but a well-executed scoring play – finished by Magee in the 29th minute – and Nyarko’s header goal off a great pass from Chris Rolfe in the 77th decided this match.
"A great win," said Klopas. "The Open Cup is a special tournament, and these games are never easy, but we found a way to play good soccer."
The only downer came when right-side midfielder Dilly Duka, who came to the Fire in the Oduro trade, took a knock before halftime. Klopas replaced him with Maicon Santos at the start of the second half. Duka’s status for next Wednesday’s MLS meeting with the Colorado Rapids -- the last match in a four-game homestand -- is uncertain.
"He was dizzy, we have to see," said Klopas. "That was one of the issues. He came in and wasn’t feeling well. He wasn’t seeing clear. He was playing well."
On the health side, Klopas returned captain Logan Pause to the first 11 in place of Jeff Larentowicz. Pause had missed the last two matches with a hamstring problem. Daniel Paladini replaced him in the 59th minute and Larentowicz finished up for Alex after entering the match in the 81st.