Fire Look to USOC After Disappointment in Portland

Shaun Maloney clashes with the lone goal-scorer Fanendo Adi – Scott Olmos USA TODAY Sports

Shaun Maloney clashes with the lone goal-scorer Fanendo Adi – Scott Olmos USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Fire has yet to win on the road in 2015, and that trend continued Friday night, as the Fire lost a sloppy 1-0 contest away to the Portland Timbers.

Manager Frank Yallop and his side were unable to carry the momentum of last week’s impressive 2-0 victory over FC Dallas, the western conference leaders at the time. Despite rolling out the same lineup in the same 4-4-2 formation, the attacking players didn’t show the same level of sharpness, control or finishing they did Sunday.

The best chance of the night for Chicago came in the 33rd minute when Portland goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey gift wrapped a botched clearance to Fire striker Jason Johnson, who did well to pressure the back line, but wasn’t quite ready for the freebie and basically passed it right back to the opposing keeper. The sequence all but summarized the night for Chicago. And as August rolls on, it feels like that play with Johnson could symbolize the entire season for the Fire: Flirting with success, but mostly finding disappointment and frustration.

It was also disappointing to see the Fire defense give up such a sloppy goal to forward Fanendo Adi of Portland just minutes into the second half. If there’s a positive to take away from the road trip, it’s that the defense held its own, mostly. The players at the back worked so diligently to protect Sean Johnson’s first half clean sheet, but the defensive effort on the goal allowed was softer than moisturized tissues. Remove said play, and the Fire escape Portland with a draw and a point.

Another source of frustration reared itself near the end of the first half when Chicago forward David Accam left with a knee strain. The Ghanaian signaled for the sideline as soon as he tweaked his knee by awkwardly pivoting his foot on the plastic turf surface. I immediately surrendered any hope for a positive result against Portland in that moment. In my humble opinion, Accam is easily Chicago’s most dangerous player right now, and I don’t see the Fire having much success without him, especially with forward Mike Magee back on the injury sheet.

It’s nice to have a solid guy like Patrick Nyarko come off the bench to replace Accam, as he did Friday. But Accam is currently irreplaceable. He’s not only Chicago’s best attacking option, but the young player has a high ceiling and a bright future in MLS.

The Ghanaian international was taken off as a precaution and he should be OK going forward. The club has yet to comment on his official status, but hopefully he’ll be ready for the upcoming USOC semi-final in Philadelphia. Barring injury, Accam’s speed will be dangerous in one-on-one situations against Philly’s mediocre defense, but the midfielders and defensive players need to play more balls on the ground and through the middle. Too often Friday did the Fire resort to long balls played over the top, which is poor execution given Accam’s size stacked up against MLS center backs.

The Philadephia Union currently sits at the bottom of the table with 13 losses and 28 goals allowed this year. But Chicago is essentially on par with the bottom-dwellers boasting a record of 6-12-4 after Friday’s loss to Portland.

Wednesday’s semifinal represents a chance to salvage an otherwise forgettable 2015 for Chicago. The playoffs are still a ways off, and Chicago can mathematically still make it in this November, but post-season aspirations are growing dimmer every week. Maybe this year’s team will follow in the footsteps of the 2013 Wigan Athletic club in England.

Wigan became the first ever club in English Football to win the FA Cup, (English equivalent of the US Open Cup) but also suffer relegation in the same year. Unlike MLS clubs who finish last or near last in the league table, the three last place teams in the English premier league suffer relegation to the lower division. It would be like forcing an MLB team to play AAA ball next year because they finished in last place. Lucky for Chicago, the MLS has yet to become a relegation league, as most US markets aren’t ready for that level of soccer commitment.

The Fire won’t be facing relegation, but the team should pretend that it is. So much is riding on the upcoming semifinal. It will be pure doom and gloom from the supporters if Chicago can’t find a result in Philly, and for good reason.

I’m interested to see if newcomer and forward Gilberto, or perhaps Kennedy Igboananike make it into Frank Yallop’s starting 11 instead of Jason Johnson, who has started the last couple of matches, but struggled to find a rhythm against Portland Friday night. If Chicago can pull off the unthinkable and make it to an open cup final in the midst of a dreadful season, the club will have the privilege of hosting the final at Toyota Park against the winner of Salt Lake and Sporting KC. But first, the Men In Red will need to secure a win on the road, something they’ve yet to do this year.

The U.S. Open Cup semifinal is Wednesday, August 12, and will be live streamed at Chicago-Fire.com. (6:30 p.m. CDT)