Fire Attack Out of Ideas, Out of Cup

The story that played out at PPL Park on Wednesday night was depressingly similar to the story that has been on display all season for the Chicago Fire. The Fire offense was missing a beginning, middle and end, so it was only a matter of time before the Philadelphia Union, no less feeble in attack than the Fire, would find the goal that would propel them to their second US Open Cup Final in as many years. Sebastian Le Toux did the honors in the 74th minute, but the game was lost long before then.
The Fire were pinning their hopes on reviving a disjointed season by winning their fifth Cup. Those hopes, however, were a long way from reality. Winning a soccer match requires scoring at least one goal and the Fire were far away from any sort of sustained or coordinated offensive effort.

The season has gone off the rails for the Fire and things unraveled early in this match. Coach Frank Yallop produced a lineup that featured the same solid foursome in front of netminder Sean Johnson: Lovell Palmer, Eric Gehrig, Jeff Larentowicz and Joevin Jones. This group had put together several creditable performances of late, and although the Union found spaces to exploit, Johnson did more than his fair share to clean up the mistakes. The Fire defense got bent up a lot, but looked like they might not break against Philadelphia.

They were fronted by the holding midfield duo of Razvan Cocis and Matt Polster. Both put in a solid shift on Wednesday, although it appeared Polster was laboring a bit before being subbed off in the 77th minute.

The attack featured David Accam, Sean Maloney and Harry Shipp in midfield, along with the debut of newly acquired Designated Player Gilberto at striker. We never got much of a chance to see whether Gilberto’s finishing ability would bring the Fire to life, as he picked up a thigh injury in the 21st minute and was replaced by Kennedy Igboananike. Just like that, the Fire offense was reduced to “same old, same old.”

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And they performed just like that. No cohesion, no patient build-up through the midfield; all we got were aimless passes to no one in particular. Or on occasion, someone would hoof the ball towards Accam or Igboananike, who almost always were outnumbered, and the inevitable turnover would send the ball the other way. This is what the Chicago offense has become. And the results are predictable.

The Union created several good scoring chances in the first half, en route to seven corner kicks. Johnson was on his game and dug deep to deny the Union at last twice on sure scoring situations

For their part, the Fire had just one instance where Philadelphia goalkeeper John McCarthy was put to the test. Just before the break, Accam raced in towards goal on the right side of the area and was denied by McCarthy’s sprawling block at the near post.

Neither team looked much like scoring in a second half that devolved into a taffy pull. The soccer on display was of the sort of quality to which the sport’s detractors point when they say soccer is as boring as watching grass grow. It quickly became clear that one goal would be enough to advance to the Final.

That goal came in the 74th minute, as Le Toux danced along the top of the 18, slipping around Polster, and turning square to the target just as Larentowicz stopped to try to get a foot in. Le Toux drilled a low shot that kissed the inside of Johnson’s left-hand post.

Yallop’s substitutions had little effect on changing the Fire’s fortunes. Accam made way in the 58th minute for Jason Johnson, whose effectiveness up front has been as rare as a meteor shower. The more we see of Johnson, the more it becomes clear why Houston considered him to be excess baggage.

Mike Magee came on for Polster with 13 minutes to go. It was both baffling and exasperating to see Magee come on so late. Unlike Jason Johnson, Magee has a scorer’s pedigree, and it would have made more sense to put Magee out there as early as possible to jump-start a Fire offense that looked like it had taken industrial-strength zombie pills. Perhaps Magee’s latest injury layoff prevented him from contributing more. But this is a win-or-go-home scenario. Nothing can be left in the cupboard.

In the end, it mattered little. Igboananike caused a stir in the 83rd minute, when McCarthy was forced to tip his bicycle kick over the bar, but that was the extent of the excitement in front of the Union goal.

The two sides will meet again on the same field on Sunday in league play. That match may resemble a reserve game. Philadelphia got what they wanted on Wednesday, and their starters will have merited a leisurely day. As for the Fire, they still have unlikely playoff hopes. Their first-line players also played in Portland last weekend, so will they have any gas left in the tank for a third contest in nine days? And if not, can the Fire’s bench players break a 20-match winless streak on the road and pick up the three points that will be necessary for the Fire to scrape their way out of the Eastern Conference’s cellar?

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