Bum Fights at the Blackjack Table: Chicago Plays Philly in Back-to-Back Shrug Off
In case you haven’t successfully sifted through U.S. Open Cup game date information (info which Major League Soccer has little incentive to promote), the Chicago Fire are meeting fellow cellar dwelling Philadelphia Union in a semi-final match tomorrow, Wednesday 8/12. The two teams also meet again, in The Bum Fight Double, for an MLS league match this weekend.
As it goes with teams that have little to play for (and less to cheer about), narrative has taken over. As a side note, what is equally sobering is that I wrote nearly this exact same article a year ago today. I wish I was kidding.
Much like Bum Fights, viewers will not be tuning in to watch quality. They will be tuning in to watch two entities fight with all-or-nothing scrap to retain whatever dignity they have left. It may not be pretty, it may actually be a little embarrassing, but it will make for good television (read: internet television).
While relegation doesn’t exist in MLS, “not being the worst” is still a major organizational motivator… not just for athletes who care very much, or front office staff that want to keep their jobs, but for marketing and media purposes. The Kiss-Of-Death for attracting new fans (read: wallets), is having to watch or report on a loser. Americans aren’t into losing. They may not think watching “beautiful soccer” is gratifying, but they do understand the scoreboard after 90 minutes, or when they hear WGN Morning News begrudgingly delivering the game outcome after noting it was a “slow news day”.
Beyond winning for winning’s sake, winning tomorrow’s USOC game means the Men In Red will host the Open Cup Final (revenue, yay!), which also means the organization has a fighting chance to win the first hardware they’ve ever won during the Hauptmann era. A US Open Cup championship will also solidify the organization’s on-the-shoulder-of-giants claim that Chicago are “Kings of the Cup” — a title they currently share with Seattle. 
The most intriguing thing about this back-to-back match up is that Philadelphia and Chicago are definitely the MLS’ two most disappointing teams — institutionally. Both teams operate in major markets and wallow at the bottom of the standings. Both sides play about 25 minutes outside of their downtown area with a “bridge-view” (oooof, stretching it there), and most importantly: both teams drastically underspend on talent based on dollar-per-TV-household numbers.
Imagine an expanded blackjack table with 20 seats — one for each of the MLS franchise owners. Each team faces the dealer (Don Garber, obviously), whose stacked deck is sure to favor those with real cache, a pile of chips on the table, and a billfold that says “ambition”; namely Orlando, Toronto, Seattle, and L.A.
In this stretch of a metaphor, Philadelphia and Chicago are the two dudes at the table in rental suits; betting the minimum every hand dealt in the hopes of getting comped some watered-down manhattans and a strip steak. If they win a hand they win a hand, but don’t expect The House to throw them a bone anytime soon. (Hey Drogba, Jones).
If MLS had any say in the matter, neither of these teams would make it to the USOC final, but hey guess what: MLS doesn’t have control over the US Open Cup, so here goes nothing. A Fire win legitimizes an off-putting season. An Open Cup loss, on the other hand, will be devastating, and not just for reputation.
About a year ago this week (again, coinciding with the Fire’s annual White Party), the Fire had very little to celebrate on the field. Last year’s White Party sat between the Jermaine Jones blind draw saga, and their pride-swallowing 6-0 U.S. Open Cup semi loss to Seattle. This year’s White Party (TIX AVAIL NOW!!!) will occur the day after the Fire vs Union game that will more or less define both their season and potentially the Fires’ off-season.
With some global transfer windows still open (the MLS one closed last week), these two back-to-back losses against perhaps the only MLS team that could be worse than the Fire acts as a litmus test of sorts. Two wins = things are okay, Fire have a chance. Two losses = call Wigan and see if they still want our DP.
As I mentioned in a tweet last week. This game isn’t so much a “Win or Go Home” match for some Chicago Fire personnel as it is a “Win or Find Another Home.”