In the moments after being dealt a 1-0 defeat by the Portland Timbers last Friday, a contingent of Chicago Fire members were left to take a dim view of a sixth loss against a Western Conference opponent.
Head coach Frank Yallop, as well as goalkeeper Sean Johnson and defender Eric Gehrig, each hailed the defensive shape of the team despite being undone by a fortuitous bounce that led to an opportunistic goal, dispatched by Portland’s Fanendo Adi. But after addressing a stinging 12th defeat on the year, the tenor of the conversation changed course as the three were then instantaneously showered with questions surrounding their next match.
“[Wednesday] can’t come soon enough,” Gehrig said.
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Well, it’s here, and it’s the small matter of a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinal against the Philadelphia Union. With a berth in the final and the auspicious opportunity to host it at stake, the future is now for a club that has punched below its weight for the majority of the season.
The way things have shaped up thus far, fluctuating performances in league play have seen playoff hopes ebb and flow, with the club’s Open Cup fortunes giving the Fire more than enough hope to believe a first trophy since 2006 is within reach.
“First things first. We’ve got to get a result in Philadelphia,” Yallop said Monday via teleconference. “We’re primed and ready for that, but I think it’s massive for the club especially when the season hasn’t gone well in the league play. We’ve started to get our team looking like the team I envisioned and hopefully it’s enough to get past this game and go on and host [the Final] and do well. But I’m not getting ahead of myself. We have a tough, tough game in Philly that we’re getting ready for. We want to win that one and then look forward to the next one once that gets done.”
Since edging USL’s Louisville City FC, 1-0, in the fourth round on June 16, the Fire have gone from strength to strength in the competition. 3-1 victories over Charlotte Independence and Orlando City SC in the Round of 16 and quarterfinals, respectively, see the Men in Red on the cusp of surmounting the penultimate hurdle in hopes of challenging for a fifth Open Cup championship. That task, however, will present unique challenges against a Union team sitting one point above the Fire in the Eastern Conference table and with just as much to play for in hopes of salvaging a less-than-ideal year.
The Men in Red will square off against Jim Curtin’s side at PPL Park on Wednesday and again four days later in regular season play, capping off two matches that, by Sunday night, could reasonably be categorized as defining moments in determining what the Fire are truly made of.
Having not won away from Toyota Park in 19 attempts across all competitions, Wednesday’s 11th semifinal appearance in club history and Sunday’s third and final meeting between the two sides will both be given equal attention.
“I feel we’ve still got a chance of making the playoffs,” Yallop added. “We’ve got games in hand, [including on] Philadelphia. They’re obviously right down where we are. We’ve got to go on a run, but at some point, teams do. I feel that we’re still capable of doing that. It’s not just, ‘Let’s get to the Open Cup final and blow the league off.’ That’s not the game plan. We’re hoping to win on Wednesday and win on Sunday. I would think that Philadelphia are probably thinking, hoping the same.”
Philadelphia Union vs. Chicago Fire
Kickoff time: 6:30 p.m. CT
Where: PPL Park; Chester, Pa.