I don’t know if new interim Head Coach Frank Klopas or anyone else on the Fire coaching staff has a copy of Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, the seminal work by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern which laid out an approach for the rigorous study of zero-sum situations by rational agents, most commonly known as Game Theory.
I doubt it, but man, could it be useful right now. The Fire host St. Louis CITY SC twice this week: Tuesday in U.S. Open Cup play, followed by an MLS match Saturday. The Fire have been in this situation before – most recently in 2015, where they played the Philadelphia Union in an Open Cup game mid-week before taking them on in an MLS regular season game that weekend, but this match takes on added significance: It’s the first matchup between the two clubs which come from cities that have an intense rivalry shaped by geography and history, both civic and sporting.
Playing in multiple competitions always presents a challenge to the coaching staff:
How much do you rotate your lineup to keep legs fresh? How important is it to have your starting fullback in a mid-week match? How do you balance the challenges of playing in a knockout tournament with the grind of a long regular season – particularly when points have not been forthcoming, and you find yourself on the outside of the playoff picture looking in?
In truth, there’s only one correct answer: The Fire have to put their best XI on the pitch for Tuesday’s Open Cup game.
It’s the right choice for narrative reasons: The first match – even if played at SeatGeek in front of a sparser crowd – will set the tone for the second, and potentially for the series for a team that seems to be the most natural rival for the Fire (pending a possible future conference realignment).
It’s the right choice for competitive reasons: With the expanded playoff format, even a team at the bottom of the standings in May is still very much in the hunt, but every game in the US Open Cup is a must-win.
The team has a lengthy history of success in the Cup, and it frankly represents the team’s best chance of any kind of memorable run this season.
It’s also the right choice for sporting reasons: The only win St. Louis have had since DP striker João Klauss was injured came against third-division Union Omaha in the US Open Cup, and they haven’t been playing the same way without him.
He may be nearing readiness for some match time, but is less likely to be available on Tuesday than he is on Saturday – and St. Louis head coach Bradley Carnell is not likely to risk rushing his most potent attacker back and losing him re-injury for an extended period of time. This presents a golden opportunity for the Fire to strike against an opponent missing its most dangerous player.
There are ways that the matchup looks good for the Fire: There is no doubt that St. Louis has been playing well as a team, greatly exceeding expectations, but despite their strong play, the fundamental issues identified by commentators around the league in the pre-season remain: Their roster is short on game changers and short on depth in general.
With five substitutions available to Klopas, he can afford to play the team’s strongest XI on Tuesday while also ensuring that many of those players get minutes on Saturday. And to his credit, Ezra Hendrickson rolled out a rotated lineup last Saturday, in what turned out to be his last match as manager. The Fire’s most gifted attackers – Kei Kamara, Brian Gutiérrez, Maren Haile-Selassie, and Chris Mueller – played limited or no minutes against Nashville.
They should be rested. They should be ready, and Klopas owes it to himself, to his squad, and to the fans to put his best XI on the pitch Tuesday.