Yes, the Chicago Fire are in a crucial point in its season with two road games coming up against clubs in Major League Soccer’s playoff picture and an exciting new player on the roster.
And, yes, the Red Stars – on a four-game unbeaten streak with a two-game west coast trip coming up – are closing in on a playoff berth in the National Women’s Soccer League.
This week isn’t about the local teams, though. The most important soccer match of the season in Chicago will be played Sunday at Soldier Field when the U.S. national team takes on Panama in the final of the CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament.
The Gold Cup is a month-long competition with no focal point. Matches involving 12 nations have been played across the United States, and only the final is in Chicago. The semifinals were Wednesday night in Irving, Tex., where the U.S. eliminated Honduras 3-1 and Panama stunned Mexico 2-1.
Mexico’s loss was the biggest soccer development of the month. The Gold Cup started in 1991 and Mexico has won it a record six times, including the last two staging. Panama had never beaten Mexico until this Gold Cup, when Panama knocked off Mexicoin the first match of pool play and again in the semifinal.
Panama has never won the Gold Cup – the only teams to do that were Mexico, the U.S. and Canada – but did reach the final in 2005. The U.S. won one of its four titles that year on penalty kicks. Panama has played well throughout this Gold Cup and has one of the tourney’s most impressive players in Gabriel Torres. He’s reportedly on his way to MLS’ Colorado Rapids after the Gold Cup is over.
One thing to note about the Gold Cup: it doesn’t necessarily have the best rosters of any of the participating nations like World Cup qualifying does. The U.S., for instance, didn’t use many of the stars inits player pool who are playing in Europe. Thatincludes the top two goalkeepers – Tim Howard and Chicago-bred Brad Guzan, striker Clint Dempsey or midfielder Michael Bradley.
Still, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann guided his team to a record 10th straight victory against Honduras. The U.S. is 11-2-2 in 2013 and a win on Sunday would also tie the national team record for wins in a row at home (10). Sunday’s champion also earns a berth opposite the 2014 winner in a match to determine the CONCACAF entry in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup in Russia. In short – strong rosters or not – a lot is on the line on Sunday.
The U.S. won the Gold Cup in 1991, 2002, 2005 and 2007 and has been the runner-up four times. With Mexico ousted the U.S. is a heavy favorite against Panama but might have to win the match without Klinsmann. He was dismissed in the 88thminute of the semifinal against Honduras for a display of anger after an apparent foul on U.S. captain DaMarcus Beasley wasn’t called. The CONCACAF Disciplinary Committee will decide Klinsmann’s fate before Sunday’s match.
Beasley, who started his professional career with the Fire, will earn his 108th nationalteam cap against Panama. Sean Johnson, the Fire goalkeeper, figures to be Nick Rimando’s backup though Johnson played wellin his lone Gold Cup appearance against Costa Rica.
The top star for the U.S. squad in this Gold Cup has been midfielder Landon Donovan. Coming off a self-imposed 11-month break from soccer he is the only U.S. player to start all five matches in the Gold Cup.
As for the Fire, the importance of the next two matches is clearly evident in the MLS Eastern Conference standings. The Fire (7-9-3) is in seventh place with 24 points in 19 matches. The top five teams make the playoffs. The Fire plays at fifth place Houston on Saturday, and the Dynamo has 29 points in 19 matches. Then, on Aug. 3, the Fire visits the fourth-place Philadelphia Union, which has 31 points in 21 matches.
Obviously wins in both would greatly enhance the Fire’s chances of returning to postseason play and losses in both would likely doom the team to an early end to the season.
Juan Luis Anangono, a 24-year old striker from Ecuador, checked in at Fire training this week. He’ll have Designated Player status but won’t play until clearing visa requirements. That means his debut will probably come at Philadelphia. Then it becomes a question of how coach Frank Klopas will fit him into the team. Chris Rolfe, who scored two goals inlast Saturday’s 4-1 win overD.C. United and earned MLS player-of-the-week honors, could become a bench player or move to the midfield. Time will tell.
The 6-1 Anangono will be a rare Ecuadorian player in MLS, the others being Oswaldo Minda of Chivas USA and Joao Plata of Real Salt Lake.
Anangono arrived at Fire training a month to the day of his last match. He went all 90 minutes for Argentinos Juniors in a 1-0 win over Newell’s Old Boys to help his team avoid demotion from Argentina’s first division.
Ten days before that match Anangono earned his first cap with Ecuador’s nationalteam, coming on as an 88th minute sub in a 1-1 draw against Argentinain a World Cup qualifying match. Anangono hopes his play in MLS will lead to a regular spot on his nationalteam’s roster.
With or without Anangono the Fire should be ready for the Dynamo. Patrick Nyarko has recovered from a mild case of strep throat that kept him out of the D.C. United match. Joel Lindpere (one goal, two assists) played great in his place, and now they could be in the first XI together. Dilly Duka, the left side starter in the midfield against D.C. United, had a groin problem that forced an early departure inthat match but he’s recovering, and Daniel Paladini is back after serving a two-game suspension for an incident in the loss to Sporting Kansas Cityon July7.
The Red Stars (6-6-4) are in the same precarious position as the Fire playoff-wise. The Red Stars are fifth in the new National Women’s Soccer League and four teams qualify for the August playoffs. The Red Stars have been improving as the season goes along and the west coast swing – Thursday against the SeattleReign (4-10-3) and Saturday against the Portland Thorns (9-4-3) – will have a big impact on playoff positioning.