The magic of the Cup is upon us, and the Fire are facing a local rival in their first Chicago Derby since beating the Chicago Sockers of the now-defunct Premier Development League in 2000 en route to their second U.S. Open Cup victory. In this edition, two Peter Wilt-founded teams will clash as the Fire take on Chicago House A.C. of the Midwest Premier League at SeatGeek Stadium, the Fire’s home from 2006-2019 and House’s home in their inaugural 2021 season in NISA.
Wednesday’s match continues a tradition of Chicago Derbies in Cup competition dating back to the Cup’s earliest days 110 years ago. The Windy City’s rich history with the Cup continued with the Fire, though last year’s outing was, as has been the case with so much around this club of late, a disappointment, losing in their first (and therefore only) game to third-division side Union Omaha.
The Fire go to SeatGeek looking to prove that the team is on a different course than they were last year, while the House look to keep the clock from striking midnight on their Cinderella story just a little longer.
This is the first meeting between the two clubs.
All-time Chicago Fire Open Cup Record: 49W-19L, including results from PKs
All-time Chicago House Open Cup Record: 2W-0L
Chicago House A.C.
The Midwest Premier League season has yet to start. The House are 2-0 in U.S. Open Cup competition this year, most recently back from a late two-goal deficit to defeat USL1 side Forward Madison 3-2. In their most recent outing, the House lost an Amateur Cup match 2-1 against United Serbs in Racine, WI on April 18. For a look at the House from someone who follows the team closely, be sure to check out Alex Calabrese’s interview with Adnan Bašić.
League play: 2W-4D-2L (10pts)
After scoring a late equalizer in Atlanta, the Fire conceded late, losing 2-1 to the hosts for their second loss of the MLS regular season, and their second straight loss on the road.
It’s been a fairytale Cup run for the House so far – sometimes of the Brothers Grimm variety, as they’ve had to endure struggles including several come-from-behind victories, stoppage time equalizers and a penalty shootout in a pitch-black stadium in Massachusetts after the hosts couldn’t find staff to turn the stadium lights on, just so that the House would qualify for the tournament proper.
The Fire haven’t won a U.S. Open Cup match since 2018, as a heavily-rotated squad (but one that did include several normal starters either on the bench or as subs) lost to Union Omaha in 2022 (the tournament was canceled in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-related challenges). In that game, the Fire had two one-goal leads evaporate before losing 4-5 on penalty kicks after extra time, and in 2019 the team lost their opening game to (pre-capitalized CITY) Saint Louis FC, then of the USL.
Nonetheless, this should be an easy victory for the Fire, even if Chicago Fire Head Coach Ezra Hendrickson rolls out a heavily rotated lineup – as we’d expect him to do given the relentless MLS schedule: Fire players – even those who spend most of their time with Fire II in MLS Next Pro – are professionals, whose job, day in, day out, is devoted to the game. House A.C., although the club has done an admirable job of developing players – no fewer than nine players from last year’s team were signed to pro contracts – are amateurs.
And yet, nothing is certain: Last year, the Fire fielded a team of mostly MLS Next Pro players – technically a third-division league – that lost to a third-division USL1 side in Union Omaha, incidentally the same league where Forward Madison plays. House beat Forward Madison to make it here, so the transitive property of football suggests that the Fire need to stay sharp.
All of the pressure is on the Fire – as a unit, working to get the expected result in a must-win game – and individually, as players try to make their case for more minutes or for a roster spot on the big club.
Tactics and Projected Starting Lineups
House A.C. coach Matt Poland rolled the team out in a 4-2-3-1 against Forward Madison, and the same formation seems a likely starting place for their lineup against the Fire. However, for the House to have a chance in this match (assuming things go at all according to the Fire’s plan), they’ll have to hustle – defending with all XI players, being quick on counters, and making the most of every chance they get offensively.
There are two ways that things could work out for the House: If things go according to their plan for the game or if luck and gumption create an unlikely hero. If it’s the former, then captain A.R. Smith Jr. is the most likely candidate.
Smith, who has been with the team since its inaugural season in NISA, plays in an attacking midfield role and scored both the stoppage time equalizer and extra time winner for the House in their last game. That performance netted him “Player of the Round” honors from TheCup.us, which covers the tournament. In front of him, striker Adam Mann scored House’s opening goal and played the full 120’ of that match.
Damon Almazan is worth noting as the other holdover from House’s days as a professional club.
Head Coach Matt Poland is very well-regarded and doubtless has prepared his team extensively for this match, but it’s likely that mental battles – a full-team commitment to defense, tenacity and never giving up – will be more important to House’s chances than tactics or formations.
Creating a starting XI is always a guessing game – a mix of trying to get into the mind of the coaches, guess their vision for the game, and understanding how constraints like player availability and recent performances might color the coach’s choices, but creating an XI for this game is particularly fraught: On one hand, Hendrickson needs his starters to be ready for RBNY on Saturday, just 6 days after the Fire’s last MLS match – on the other, even though he’s said he’s focused on the MLS regular season, the Fire really need to win this game.
Expect mostly a Fire II roster, along with players from the main team who either haven’t been starting or who haven’t been integrated with the team.
Starting in goal, Spencer Richey will likely get the start – he’s a competent goalie and deserves playing time when he can get it. The Fire’s other option, Jeff Gal, has been getting regular starts with Fire II, so this match should allow Richey a chance to get game time.
In front of him, this would seem like a good chance to give Alonso Aceves minutes and let the Fire coaching staff evaluate his in-game performance. More centrally, Wyatt Omsberg deserves minutes – he was establishing himself as a starter before getting injured last season, and Terán’s improved play since has relegated Omsberg to the bench during MLS matches. Kendall Burks, who’s seen time off the bench for the Fire, should get a look alongside him. At the outside back spot, there’s a good chance we’ll see Jonathan Dean playing on his preferred right side after starting at the left in Atlanta.
Javier Casas Jr. will likely be one of the starting defensive midfielders, but the other spot is more open – Mauricio Pineda is a good choice. After leading the team in minutes in 2021, he’s largely fallen out of favor as a starter, and this match gives him a good opportunity for minutes. Although he’s largely played in defensive roles of late, Pineda has shown an ability to be a creative playmaker in the past, including in call-ups with the US youth national team system. Combined, Pineda, Omsberg and Dean will bring a wealth of professional experience to the Fire’s defensive corps.
In the attacking midfield, this match presents a golden opportunity to give Georgios Koutsias minutes as a starter. He’s capable of playing either as a winger or striker, but putting him on the wing – where he’d be expected to come back and help out defensively if needed – makes sense. That leaves Missael Rodríguez as the most likely option at striker.
Behind him, Sergio Oregel Jr. has experience playing at the 10, and Alex Monis is a good option on the right wing. Rodríguez, Oregel, Monis, and Casas are all talented players with a lot of upside but who haven’t been able to establish themselves on the first team, and this match gives Fire fans (who don’t watch Fire II matches) a great opportunity to see them for an extended period of play, rather than late substitutes off the bench.
But, of course, Ezra Hendrickson has a host of other options that Fire fans are more familiar with. It wouldn’t be shocking to see a regular starter in the XI for this match, particularly on the defensive line (Last year against Omaha, a freak injury in warmups made Rafael Czichos a last-minute choice to start, where he went the full 120’ and scored 2 goals off penalties to give the Fire both leads they held in the game), nor would it be shocking to see more regular starters on the bench and get minutes if the Fire need them.
Fire Keys to Victory
- Make Chances Count: If things go remotely according to plan, the Fire will have the better opportunities. For each one that doesn’t end up in the net, the House’s confidence – and chance for an upset – grows. The Fire need to convert on the opportunities they generate, particularly early on
- Trust the System: Whatever XI Ezra chooses, it will likely be a mix of Fire II players and Fire players who see limited minutes, especially recent additions to the team who might not be fully integrated to the system. That means the players won’t have had a lot of time playing together, which makes sticking to the system on both defense and offense essential
- Use the Bench Wisely: Just as with the Atlanta game but for very different reasons, Hendrickson needs to use his bench if the need arises. If the offense isn’t sparking or if young players are having an off night, Hendrickson needs to go to use his substitutes, even if it comes at the cost of rested legs the match this upcoming Saturday. After an unceremonious exit last year, this truly is a must-win game against an amateur side.
Even a heavily rotated Fire team will just have too much for House in the end. It should be a great spectacle, but there will be no giant-killing.
Prediction: Fire 3-1 House
“Drove to Chicago/All things know, all things know/We sold our clothes to the state/I don’t mind, I don’t mind” Chicago wins. And that is all.
Prediction: Chicago wins.
The Fire will show the difference between MLS and amateur soccer in this match. A rotated lineup will get the job done, but it most certainly isn’t a game the Fire should take lightly.
Prediction: Fire 3-1 House
The Fire are looking to break their recent history of losing out to lower league sides here against the House. The lineup should be rotated, but plenty of Fire players have not seen the minutes they’ve liked this season and should get good game time. Don’t be surprised if Koutsias gets his first goal.
Prediction: Fire 3-0 House
A rotated Fire team may take a while to get going, but in the end, get the result they need.
Prediction: Fire 3-0 House
This isn’t Union Omaha.
Prediction: Fire 5-0 House
Match Information and How to Watch
Date and Time: Wednesday, April 26, 2023, 7:00 PM CT
Location: SeatGeek Stadium, Bridgeview, IL
Forecast: 45’ expected at kick off, with 47% humidity, winds E at 10-17mph and 10% cloud cover, and no chance of precipitation