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With this fading majesty in mind, the team – who last won an MLS Cup in their inaugural year of 1998 – also finds itself on a six-game losing streak in the league. So it’s no wonder you’re hearing the word opportunity a lot around the camp ahead of a trip to Philadelphia and the 2018 Open Cup Semifinals on Wednesday.
“This is a big opportunity. It’s one of the most important games of the season for us,” said Nemanja Nikolic, whose four goals (at least one in each game so far) have been instrumental in seeing the Fire one step from what would be their seventh Open Cup Final. “We need to go in with the mindset that we will win, because this is what will bring us to a Final. We need to stick together, to be positive and to be really strong and to leave nothing at the end of the game. We can’t hold back.
(Jim Curtin - top - won a pair of Open Cups with Chicago Fire and now coaches Philadelphia)
The Mental Game
“You need to win these kind of games mentally first,” added the 30-year-old Nikolic, who was last year’s Golden Boot winner in Major League Soccer and a player who’s won domestic Cups overseas – twice in Hungary and once in Poland with Legia Warsaw. “We’re 180 [or more in the case of extra-time] minutes from a Championship – the first half is on Wednesday in Philly, the second will be back in our city [Chicago has hosting priority should they win in the Semis] and that’s the kind of confidence we need to maintain.”
Chicago have met the Philadelphia Union twice so far this year. Both times they came out on the losing end and that fact’s not lost on the Fire’s players. They head into the Semifinals with a chance for redemption as well as a spot in a Final. “Obviously if you lose to a team twice, you really want to beat them that third time,” said former World Cup winner and seven-time German Cup (DFB-Pokal) champion Bastian Schweinsteiger, who’s lined up in all three of Chicago’s 2018 Open Cup wins – road victories over Columbus Crew SC and Atlanta United FC as well as a Quarterfinal rout at home against USL’s Louisville City.
(Bastian Schweinsteiger, 34, won seven German Cups during his Bayern Munich days)
And again, that word pops up. Opportunity. “This is a big chance, a big opportunity for us to get to a Final,” added Schweinsteiger who scored a wonder-goal from distance at the weekend in a road-loss to Real Salt Lake. “We need to keep from making the small mistakes that we still sometimes make, and we need to know we have the ability to beat Philadelphia. We’re looking forward to our chance and we should take full advantage of it. We should use it.”
It’s not just the European delegation in the Fire camp that sees what’s at stake on the day at Talen Energy Stadium in Chester, PA. Young defender Brandon Vincent knows what’s on the line and is eager not to let the opportunity slip through his fingers. “We have to just realize what a massive opportunity this is for us,” said the youngster from SoCal, who earned his first cap for the U.S. Men’s National Team in 2016. “ We win this game and we’re into a Final and playing for a trophy. That alone is a huge motivator for the group. It will come down to grit and execution. We have to make sure that we want it more and we show it on the day.”
Paunovic Pulls the Strings
Head coach Veljko Paunovic, known as a clever Cup tactician with a taste for those all-or-nothing nights, is pulling the strings. If there’s a puppet-master whispering what it all means, those five syllables of opp-or-too-nit-tee it’s him. And it sounds like his players have fully taken on board the importance of the task before them. “We’re excited like the fans are, like everyone at the club is, because this is a very important competition for us,” said the former journeyman midfielder whose playing career took him to Germany, Spain, Portugal and beyond. “This is a Cup and in the later rounds every game is a Final. So we’re playing a Final before a Final. You have to win if you want to achieve something historic for out club, which is to get to another final. Definitely, winning the Open Cup for the fifth time is something that really motivates us as a team and as a club.
(Nemanja Nikolic is the reigning 2017 MLS top-scorer & he has four goals so far in the 2018 Open Cup)
“Philly [Union – coached by Jim Curtin who won two Open Cups as a player with Chicago] are seeing the same thing we’re seeing, the same opportunity to go to a Final,” added Paunovic, still just 40 years old. “We’re going to collide Wednesday against each other and we’ll see who’s the best in that moment. We’ll all fight and play to win. We have to be at our best in order to give our best.”
The Semifinal is likely to be a tense affair. Chicago Fire, second-from-bottom in MLS’ Eastern Conference with just 23 points from 24 games, see the opportunity before them for what it is: a chance to rescue a season that hasn’t gone according to plan. For Philly, it’s an opportunity too – to banish the ghosts of the past and get back to a third Final in the space of three years [they lost two in a row at home in 2014 and 2015]. The question remains, as it always does in those days and hours and minutes before a game that needs a winner and promises passage to a Final: Who wants it more?