Fire

Fire lose Open Cup epic in Cincinnati after penalties

Fire lose Open Cup epic in Cincinnati after penalties

CINCINNATI — A few days ago Dax McCarty was talking about the Chicago Fire trying to win every trophy they were competing for this season. The hopes of winning one of those trophies ended Wednesday night.

The Fire lost in penalty kicks to USL team FC Cincinnati after 120 minutes of goalless soccer. A crowd of 32,287 in Cincinnati, the second biggest crowd in U.S. Open Cup history, waited and waited and waited some more, but finally got what they wanted.

It was all about the goalkeepers before penalty kicks with the Fire’s Matt Lampson and Cincinnati’s Mitch Hildebrandt combining for 17 saves. Hildebrandt improved on his crazy good night by denying Nemanja Nikolic, Arturo Alvarez and Juninho in penalty kicks. Bastian Schweinsteiger was the only Fire player to convert a penalty in four rounds. Cincinnati missed its first penalty, but converted the next three.

"We wanted this competition," Fire coach Veljko Paunovic said. "It is important for the club and it is important and a possibility for us to get trophies and win trophies for our team, for our club. But now we have to move forward and we have to think about playoffs. That’s all that is left and we have to now understand that this is something that we have to keep working hard. The team is doing well, but these kind of defeats are good red flags for the team to understand that we can not relax."

In regulation, the Fire huffed and puffed in the first half, but didn’t really create much danger in front of Cincinnati’s goal. At halftime, the Fire had 78 percent of the possession, but couldn’t manage a shot on target.

"First half we were a team that was dominating and having a lot of opportunities, but that’s what happens in these kind of games," Paunovic said.

Cincinnati’s game plan to defend deep and counter was stifling the Fire’s attack. The Fire only managed shots from outside the box that all missed the target in the first 45 minutes. Matt Polster had an open shot in the box following a corner kick, but it was deflected wide by a sliding defender.

"It’s very frustrating in a game like that to do everything I could for 120 minutes and play against a team that puts 11 guys behind the ball and then tries to counter," Lampson said. "They played it to perfection. Their goalkeeper stood on his head. He had an incredible game, but it’s just very frustrating that we couldn’t put one in."

The home crowd didn’t have much to cheer in the first half, but Lampson made the only save of the half when he came off his line to deny Danni Konig.

Both the atmosphere and the game livened up in the second half. Both teams had multiple quality chances and both keepers came up with big saves. Lampson saved the game to deny a breakaway for Jimmy McLaughlin in added time just before regulation ended.

In extra time, Cincinnati thought it had the go-ahead goal from Andrew Wiedeman in the 110th minute, but it was called back for a close offside call.

Hildebrandt and Lampson both came up with huge saves in the final minute of extra time to send the match to penalties. The two goalkeepers seemed to be dueling with crucial saves.

"I know Mitch, he’s a great guy," Lampson said. "It’s great to see him do well, but at the same time I want us to score. It’s not going to change how I do my job. I’m going to do it as best as I can and I had to do my job well tonight to keep us in the game so no real one-upmanship."

The Fire finished with 70 percent possession and 26 shots, 10 on target. Cincinnati had chances of its own with 20 shots and seven on target.

“We did a lot this game," Fire midfielder Juninho said. "We created a lot of chances. We didn’t put balls inside of the net on this night. This is one night to forget about it and focus on the next game.”

The Fire had been unbeaten in 10 straight games and had as much momentum as anyone in Major League Soccer. They ran into a minor league team that has aspirations of joining them in MLS in the near future and Wednesday night was a showcase for Cincinnati as an MLS market.

As for what's next for the Fire, the team returns to league play Saturday against Vancouver at Toyota Park. A dejected group will have to regroup in three days.

If the Fire stay on the trajectory they've been on, there will be more big games ahead. When asked if the team can learn anything about playing in a big game atmosphere, a devastated Paunovic couldn't muster much of a response.

“The experience of losing is hard," he said. "I’ll think about it and let you know."

Five things from Fire closing regular season and learning playoff fate

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USA TODAY

Five things from Fire closing regular season and learning playoff fate

For all the permutations and possibilities, nothing changed on the final day of the MLS regular season in the Eastern Conference.

The Fire closed the MLS regular season with an ugly loss in Houston, but can refocus on the team's first playoff game since 2012. The club will host the New York Red Bulls this week, likely on Wednesday, but possibly Thursday depending on what the TV partners select.

That playoff game will take place at home against the New York Red Bulls. With Atlanta failing to beat Toronto and Columbus failing to beat New York City FC on the road, the standings remained as they were heading into the final day of the regular season.

The Fire will enter the playoffs as the No. 3 seed and finish with the third best record in the league. Here are five things from the loss in Houston and looking ahead to the playoffs.

Fire lay an egg in the finale

Playing in Houston is always tough. The Dynamo lost just once at home all season. That said, the Fire fell behind less than two minutes in on a long throw and didn't create many dangerous chances when the game was still competitive.

Bastian Schweinsteiger didn't play, but this is still a concerning performance. The Fire entered with an eye on potentially earning a first-round bye with a win. This was not a desirable early start in a big game. It turned out the Fire got the help they needed to earn that second seed with a win (New York City FC drew 2-2 against Columbus), but didn't take care of business on their own.

The absense of Michael de Leeuw has affected both the team's attack and its depth. Arturo Alvarez can be dangerous as a starter, but Luis Solignac hasn't been as dangerous in de Leeuw's old role. It also has removed Alvarez as an attacking option off the bench.

Fire should be rested for the playoffs

Once the Fire were trailing by two goals, coach Veljko Paunovic subbed out David Accam and Dax McCarty. Those are moves to keep both fresh ahead of the playoff game that will be just a few days away. Matt Polster was also subbed out in the second half when it was still 1-0 Houston.

In addition, Richard Sanchez played in goal in place of Matt Lampson. Sanchez starred in the Fire's win in San Jose just under a month ago, but was at least partially at fault for the second goal. Lampson will enter with a bit of extra rest for the playoffs.

Schweinsteiger's health with remain in question, but him sitting out the last two games was done in an effort to keep him fresh for the playoffs.

Joao Meira picked up an injury in the win against Philadelphia and was limping heavily in the locker room after the game. He didn't start in Houston, but did repace Polster in the 66th minute.

Juninho, also on his way back from injury, replaced Accam in the 71st minute. Juninho had missed the previous five matches due to a knee injury.

Depending on lineup selection and fitness, the Fire could start as many as seven players against the Red Bulls (Lampson, Meira, Polster, Juninho, Schweinsteiger, Accam, McCarty) that will not be coming off full 90-minute performances. This is important because the Red Bulls weren't playing for anything on Sunday and rested all their key players (goalkeeper Luis Robles excepted), knowing they would be the No. 6 seed.

Plenty of storylines for first-round games in East

There was plenty of drama around the league regarding the battle for seeds. The final playoff berth in the Western Conference was decided on a 93rd-minute goal by San Jose.

All the jockeying has resulted in some juicy matchups, especially in the Eastern Conference. McCarty, a Red Bulls star for years, will take on his former team in the playoffs. That storyline will take center stage when the team play.

Elsewhere, Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium will surely be packed with fans against Columbus. Columbus enters the playoffs with a 10-match unbeaten streak, but word of the team's possible move to Austin will remain the focus for Crew fans.

Previous meetings with Red Bulls

The Fire played the Red Bulls twice in the regular season and failed to win both times.

On the road, in McCarty's return to Red Bull Arena, the Fire lost 2-1 on April 29. McCarty assisted Nemanja Nikolic for a second-half equalizer, but Kemar Lawrence scored a game-winner in the 71st minute.

More recently, the Fire hosted the Red Bulls on Sept. 9 and drew 1-1. The Red Bulls led early and took that led past the hour mark until de Leeuw pulled off a crazy volley flick assist to Nikolic. The Red Bulls pushed for the winning goal despite being on the road, but the Fire held on for a draw.

Nikolic wins the Golden Boot

Playoffs aside, this was a big day for Nikolic. He didn't score, although he did have two big chances in the final 10 minutes, including one that hit the crossbar.

Nikolic's 24 goals stood up as good enough to win the MLS Golden Boot. David Villa scored both of NYCFC's goals to finish with 22 and Diego Valeri (21) didn't score in Portland's 2-1 win against Vancouver to win the top seed in the Western Conference.

Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

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Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

The Fire will have to keep the travel itinerary open.

Heading into the final day of the regular season on Sunday, the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference. As it stands, the Fire sit third and would host a first-game playoff game, but could also head on the road to New York in the first round or even earn a bye.

Depending on what the Fire do in Houston in the regular season finale and what happens elsewhere there are six possible scenarios for the Fire. The Fire could hold onto the No. 3 seed and host the New York Red Bulls, drop to fourth and host either Columbus, Atlanta or New York City FC, fall all the way to the No. 5 seed and travel to New York City or move up to the No. 2 seed and earn a bye into the conference semifinals.

In order to get the bye, the Fire must win and have NYCFC fail to beat Columbus. A draw in Houston would result in a home game in the first round, regardless of other results.

“Definitely things can happen,” defender Matt Polster said. “We’ve looked at it obviously. Columbus can do something and then we do something obviously things happen. It’s not that we don’t look at it as players, but at the end of the day we just want to win.”

Winning in Houston won’t be easy considering the team has an 11-1-4 record at home this season. On top of that, Houston is also fighting for playoff positioning. The Dynamo clinched a playoff berth last weekend and could move into a top four spot with a win and some help.

Expect the Fire to control the possession. Houston likes to play on the counter to utilize speedy attackers Alberth Elis (10 goals, 4 assists), Mauro Manotas (9 goals, 5 assists) and Erick Torres (14 goals, 3 assists).

“We know they’re fast up top so I think for myself, especially being very attacking-minded I definitely have to play a little bit more defensive and wait for the right opportunities to go forward,” Polster said. “Maybe more something like Montreal with (Ignacio) Piatti.”

The Fire’s midfield will still be shorthanded with Bastian Schweinsteiger expected to sit out to continue to rest his calf injury. Juninho returned to training this week after missing the past five games and could play next to Dax McCarty. The Brazilian described the injury as chronic with a bone bruise and some cartilage issues, but he said he feels 100 percent now.

All 11 MLS games on Sunday will start at 3 p.m. The Fire will be on NBC Sports Chicago with coverage starting with Fire Pregame Live at 2:30 p.m.

The other games of importance to the Fire are Columbus at NYCFC and Atlanta hosting Supporters’ Shield-winning Toronto. Coach Veljko Paunovic said he will be drawing on his experience coaching the Serbian Under-20s for how to handle the scoreboard watching aspect of the day.

“Obviously you cannot ignore what’s going on in the other games,” Paunovic said. “We know what we have to say or not say and when to say and all these things so it’s a craft that this job is.

“It’s good to know the information. Then you can manage it.”