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."