Less than 72 hours after a bitter defeat in Nashville, one that ultimately cost Ezra Hendrickson his job, the Chicago Fire turn to their former home at SeatGeek Stadium to host St. Louis CITY SC in the U.S. Open Cup.
The match is the first chapter in what many fans of both clubs hope becomes an extension of one of the country’s best sports rivalries between two cities that share geography, history, a loving hatred for each other, and if Twitter is to be believed, precious little else.
With a repeat match scheduled just four days later at Soldier Field, both teams will want to set the tone for the rivalry in this win-or-go-home match as Frank Klopas begins his third stint at the helm of the Fire.
This is the first meeting between the two clubs.
St. Louis CITY FC
MLS Record: 6W-1D-3L (19pts)
St. Louis set an MLS record for an expansion franchise by starting their season 5-0, skyrocketing themselves to the top of the Western Conference and Supporter’s Shield race in the process.
Then April happened, and following a 1-0 defeat to Minnesota on April Fool’s Day, the team has had just one league victory, going 1-1-3 since, alongside a 5-0 win against Union Omaha in their opening U.S. Open Cup match. Their most recent game was suspended 50 minutes in due to lightning at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, TX.
MLS Record: 2W-5D-2L (11pts)
Ezra Hendrickson went to Nashville with and played a rotated squad and ended up losing the match 3-0 and his job as a result. The Fire at no point looked in control of that game, but the advantage is that many key starters are rested, though injury concerns mount.
If this season feels like déjà vu for the Fire, you’re not wrong, as the team has once again found itself on a month-long winless skid after a decent start. The team’s last victory was a 2-1 win on April 8 against the same Minnesota team that handed St. Louis its first defeat a week earlier.
Chicago and St. Louis: Two cities separated by 300 miles and a history including being both economic as well as sporting rivals, between baseball’s Cubs and Cardinals, hockey’s Blackhawks and Blues, and in a thousand other places – even the University of Chicago faces off against Washington University in St. Louis in the NCAA Division III University Athletic Association.
MLS seemed a natural place to extend this rivalry – though MLS’s conference alignment did no favors, with St. Louis playing in the Western Conference while Chicago remained in the East. Those hoping to stoke the flames between the two midwestern thought they’d have to content themselves with a single match between the two teams this year – until the U.S. Open Cup draw happened, and the soccer gods (or, at least, those shuffling the envelopes at US Soccer headquarters during the draw) smiled upon the teams and granted them a Round of 32 matchup to be played in Bridgeview, IL.
The tournament has historically been a good one for the Fire, winning the tournament four times, most recently in 2006, advancing to the final twice more, and making it to the semifinals four times.
Though this is City (ahem, CITY)’s first time season challenging for the cup, their MLS Next Pro team played in their stead last year, losing in the third round to Louisville City FC on penalties.
Past that, both cities have a rich history with the Cup: St. Louis-based teams hosted the Cup ten times in the amateur era, most recently in 1988, and Chicago-area teams have been winning nine times (including the Fire) and Illinois-based teams have been runners-up 12 additional times.
The history, competition, the story of one club fighting to prove that their strong start isn’t a fluke, and another trying to prove that they are better than their record – provides kindling for what will hopefully be a great rivalry and an engaging U.S. Open Cup match.
Tactics and Projected Starting Lineups
* – Availablity reports were last updated on May 4th
St. Louis CITY SC
Out: João Klauss, Joakim Nilsson
Questionable: Rasmus Alm, Njabulo Blom
For the third match in a row, the Fire are playing a team that plays a Red Bull-inspired high press. St. Louis City’s head coach Bradley Carnell was an assistant with the New York Red Bulls for four seasons and clearly drank the energy drink in his time with the club.
Like Nashville and the Red Bulls, that means the team will gladly cede possession hoping that they can create turnovers from opposition defense. More than Nashville, they’re playing the Red Bull-inspired system dogmatically and will look to quickly jump on defenders as soon as they have the ball.
It’s a simple tactic but requires players to run a lot more than many possession-based systems. It’s also been remarkably effective Carnell’s squad, who’ve scored a league-high 22 goals in MLS so far this season, and who also have a league-leading +10 goal differential in league play.
There’s an open question as to what kind of lineup the South African manager will play for the Open Cup game, particularly with a replay on the horizon just a few days later – so let’s assume he’ll meet the moment, realize the potential weight of the rivalry, and roll out a strong XI. (If he doesn’t, assuming no changes to player availability, don’t be surprised to see this graphic again later this week)).
Five of those goals, along with four assists, have come off the feet of João Klauss, their most effective attacker. He is, however, injured and although he is likely working his way back to match fitness, he’s simply too valuable to risk losing to reinjury.
St. Louis have been versatile with formations but have been lining up in a 4-4-2; even with replacing Klauss, St. Louis had been playing Eduard Löwen, but an injury to midfielder Rasmus Alm pulled him back to the midfield; given the short turnaround, Alm is likely still out today.
That leaves Célio Pompeu as the most likely candidate to play alongside Niko Gioacchini, tied for second in team scoring alongside midfielder Jared Stroud.
Miguel Pérez and Indiana Vassilev play in central midfield through a variety of formations for St. Louis.
Along the back line, John Nelson, Kylie Hiebrert, Tim Parker, and Jake Nerwinski have started every MLS match, though Watts, Yaro, Bartlett, and Pidro replaced them in their first U.S. Open Cup match against third division team Union Omaha.
Though Roman Bürki did not start that match in net for St. Louis, it’s safe to assume he will play against an MLS opponent.
Out: Carlos Terán
Questionable: Victor Bezerra, Rafael Czichos, Chris Mueller, Jairo Torres
Without intending to, Ezra Hendrickson did a solid for newly-(re)named interim head coach Frank Klopas by rotating the squad last Saturday in Nashville. As such, the majority of the Fire’s starting XI should be available, barring injuries.
And injuries are starting to mount for the Fire again, as Czichos left with an apparent injury in Nashville. He said he hoped to be ready for Tuesday, however, and a little optimism never hurt anyone, so we’ll assume he’s ready to play. (Expecting Carlos Terán to be ready likely goes straight from optimism into delusion.
The question, though, is whether Klopas will follow the game plan that Hendrickson was laying out – either literally, sticking with a familiar formation and tactics – or metaphorically, playing rested starters in the Open Cup, possibly at the expense of a chance at points on Saturday’s rematch in MLS league play.
Smart money says he will on both counts: In a press conference on Monday, he talked about evolving the team’s tactics, hinting that he wants to find a way to use both Shaqiri and Gutiérrez on the field at the same time – even discussing Shaqiri’s success playing out wide for the Swiss National team (which is basically fan service considering how often that’s been discussed amongst Fire faithful on social media over the past year), but he also cited the exceedingly short time before today’s match.
Klopas also knows the importance of the Cup, having won it as a player and coached the team to an Open Cup finals and a semi-final appearance in his first tenure as head coach. So, the likelihood is that we will see a strong lineup – good reasons that Klopas should start a strong – in a familiar formation, though this might be the swan song for Hendrickson’s 4-2-3-1.
Fire Keys to Victory
- Play direct: St. Louis presented an unsolvable problem in MLS until Adrian Heath remembered that the way to solve the Gordian knot is just to cut it in half. Like Alexander the Great and the Knot, the way to beat a high press is to play direct. Don’t give their players the time to surround defenders before they get the ball away. Giménez, Fede Navarro, and Guti are all capable of making a quick pass if necessary, but several of them, along with Mueller and Haile-Selassie are more than capable of playing direct. Minnesota beat St. Louis (with star striker Klauss), and the Fire beat Minnesota a week later.
- Shoot to score: It has long been rumored that scoring goals requires getting shots on target. Although Roman Bürki has a strong pedigree – and was arguably the most recognizable name on St. Louis’s roster before the season began – he’s far from infallible, and the Fire have often had pressure that didn’t result in a shot. Shooting is a critical step in scoring, and the Fire need to remember that.
- Don’t work for the weekend on Tuesday: The Fire played three days ago; they will play again – early in the day – four days from now. That’s a lot of minutes for players and staff to process, but the focus today has to be on today’s match. Put the Open Cup game front and center, work to get a result and that takes the pressure off for Tuesday. Although the Fire are in 14th place in the Eastern Conference of MLS with 11 points, NYCFC sits in 5th place with 15 points. There’s time to climb the standings, but the US Open Cup is win-or-stop.
Prediction: Fire 3-2 St. Louis
“It’s not to say that I’m unfortunate/Or that I haven’t been succeeding/But I’m a hushed and quiet resonance/When I wanted to be screaming” In Klopas’ long history as an interim, he knows how to create cathartic moments of magic. Fire win, but it might not be easy.
Prediction: Fire 4-2 St. Louis (AET)
The home crowd, fresh legs, and instructions from Jesse Marsch’s skybox will get the job done.
Prediction: Fire 2-1 St. Louis
Saint Louis now aren’t exactly sure of what to expect with the Fire, and that will work in the Fire’s favor. Hoping to see Shaqiri score his first goal of the season and probably last goal for the club.
Prediction: Fire 2-1 St. Louis
St. Louis will at some point realize that their carriage is a pumpkin increasingly past the expiration date. This is as good a time as any, and Klopas has a way working the Magic of the Cup.
Prediction: Fire 2-1 St. Louis
Prediction: Fire 2-0 St. Louis
Match Information and How to Watch
Date and Time: Tuesday, May 9, 2023, 7:00PM
Location: SeatGeek Stadium, Bridgeview, IL
Forecast: 64’ expected at kick off, with 43% humidity, winds ENE at 8mph, 42% cloud cover and a 0% chance of precipitation
TV: [Streaming – Bleacher Report YouTube or app][https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b8h64tmSMvg ]