These are difficult times for the Fire.
Not only is the club struggling with a 2-7-1 record, it isn’t scoring and can’t even get relief playing on the more friendly atmosphere of Toyota Park. The last time the Fire played there was on April 20. The 2-0 win over the Columbus Crew on that date was not just the last time the Fire won; it was also the last time the club scored.
Since then the Fire lost 2-0 at Montreal and dropped back-to-back 1-0 matches with the Philadelphia Union, on May 11 in Bridgeview and last Saturday in Philadelphia. The Fire hasn’t scored in 277 minutes and has fallen 11 points out of the last playoff spot with 24 games left in its Major League Soccer season.
May figured to be a tough month anyway, with the Union’s visit the only time the Fire would have an MLS match at home. The club was hoping to start play in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup tournament in Bridgeview, but that won’t happen.
After visiting Real Salt Lake (6-5-2) on Saturday the Fire will travel to Rock Hill, S.C., to meet the Charlotte Eagles, a member of the United Soccer League’s Pro Division, next Wednesday (MAY 29) in Open Cup play.
Neither of those matches figure to be a tonic for the Fire. RSL climbed into second place in the Western Conference with a 4-1 road win over Chivas USA last Saturday and Ned Grabavoy, the former Chicago prep superstar, is on a hot streak for the host club. The Open Cup match won’t be easy, either. Charlotte hasn’t lost in 2013 (3-0-3) and posted the biggest blowout of the Open Cup’s second round with a 3-0 romp over the Seattle Sounders under-23 squad.
So, what does the Fire do now? The injury-riddled club hasn’t gotten any healthier since the last 1-0 loss to the Union and right back Wells Thompson will serve his second one-game suspension of the season in Salt Lake, having drawn two yellow cards last Saturday. The injury report isn’t out yet, but Arne Friedrich (hip) hasn’t played a match all season. Maicon Santos is limited by a shoulder injury and Daniel Paladini missed some training time this week after missing last Saturday’s match with a calf injury.
Waiting to pounce is an RSL club that has former Fire mainstay C.J. Brown as an assistant coach and Fire reject Kwame Watson-Siriboe now starting on its back line. Grabavoy, though, may be the biggest problem. He sparked Lincoln-Way Central to two Illinois prep titles and was the Gatorade National High School Player of the Year as a senior in 2000.
Grabavoy has come through the MLS ranks after playing for the Fire’s Premier Development League squad and was an unheralded member of RSL’s midfield, that includes Javier Morales, Kyle Beckerman and Luis Gil – until last Sunday. That’s when he produced a career highlight when he scored twice against Chivas USA.
The Fire at least has a little history going against RSL. The Fire is 6-3-6 in head-to-head meetings and 3-2-2 in those played in Salt Lake City.
As for the U.S. Open Cup trip to Charlotte, the Fire’s best news is that the match will be played on grass. Last year’s Open Cup match wasn’t, and the Fire lost 3-2 to the Michigan Bucks in a match played indoors in Pontiac, Mich. Fire coach Frank Klopas called the fact that such a much was even scheduled at such an un-soccer-like setting ``embarrassing.’’
Charlotte played its second-round Open Cup match on its usual turf field but opted for a grass field at Winthrop University 25 miles away once MLS teams entered the summer-long tournament. Last year the Eagles upset MLS foe FC Dallas in the third round and Charlotte will catch the Fire without goalkeeper Sean Johnson. He’ll be on national team duty.
Last year’s match aside, the Fire has been a power over the years in the Open Cup, and this is the tourney’s 100-year anniversary. A competition open to all clubs with membership in the Chicago-based U.S. Soccer Federation, this year’s Open Cup started with 68 teams – the most in the tourney’s modern era that began in 1995.
The Fire has reached the Open Cup semifinals eight times in its 15 seasons and the final six times. Sporting an overall 29-11-4 record in the Open Cup, the Fire won the tourney in 1998, 2000, 2003 and 2006.
One other piece of good news. If the Fire does beat Charlotte the fourth-round match will be at Toyota Park against the winner of Tuesday’s battle between MLS rival Columbus and the Dayton Dutch Lions, another United Soccer League Pro Division member