The Fire have had a pretty up-and-down campaign so far, and their most recent outing was the epitome of that. On the road against Atlanta United, Chicago went down early on. They grew into the contest as it went on, though, and they were ultimately able to tie things up with minutes to go, even if the goal came after a defensive miscue. However, they just couldn’t hold on, giving up a goal in the eighth minute of stoppage time to somehow still lose the match.
It’s not been all doom-and-gloom, and many Fire fans have genuine hopes for the rest of the year. That includes a potential cup run, which would all start on Wednesday.
A lot has been said about the House’s journey to get here, but it’s certainly worth repeating. They first had to win three qualifying matches just to make the tournament, with the final coming via a now-famous penalty shootout in the dark.
Their official Open Cup journey began with a matchup against fellow Midwest Premier League side Bavarian United. It wasn’t the prettiest game the world has ever seen, but that worked out well for Chicago, who secured a scrappy 1-0 victory at the end of the night.
That set up a meeting with Forward Madison of USL League One. The House went into that contest as heavy underdogs, and that label was looking very appropriate as they were down 2-0 early on in the second half. They stayed alive, though, pulling one back with 15 minutes to go. Then they tied things up in stoppage time. Then they took the lead themselves at the end of the first overtime period.
It was the most remarkable of comebacks, and Chicago held on for the final period of the game to pull off the shocking upset. To quote a text I sent to my group chat during the match, “This is the damndest thing I’ve ever seen.”
That brings them to this Wednesday. The amateur side will be underdogs once again, but if history is any indication, that’s exactly what they want to be.
It will be interesting to see what sort of lineup head coach Ezra Hendrickson names for the contest. He opted for a heavily rotated side last year in the Open Cup, and that led to his team’s early elimination from the tournament. Will he do the same this time around?
The House, on the other hand, should have almost everyone available for selection. "So far it looks like we should have the same lineup,” said head coach Matt Poland. “We're still working on one of our players who is out on trial, so we'll see if he's available or not. Right now, though, everyone's healthy and training for the game.”
Chicago Fire: Richey, Souquet, Burks, Omsberg, Ostrem, Casas, Oregel, Rodríguez, Monis, Koutsias, Przybyłko
Chicago House AC: Halterman, Kramer, Makoweicki, Kabbani, Ouaddour, Nguyen, Seymour, Smith, Avalos, Mann, Almazan
Ones to watch
This might be Missael Rodríguez’s only real chance to showcase himself with the first team this season.
The striker burst onto the scene in the summer of 2021 when he played a key role in the Fire U-19’s run to the MLS Next Championship title. He was the tournament’s top goalscorer, and he grabbed the winning goal in the final as well. Just like that he became a key talent for fans to keep an eye on.
It was no surprise to see Rodríguez officially sign with the club a few months later. However, things haven’t gone too well for him since then. He didn’t feature at all in MLS play the following season, and his only appearance with the senior side came in the Open Cup. He did get his chances in MLS Next Pro, and he ended that campaign with six goals in his final 11 games.
The youngster carried that momentum into the preseason, where he scored for Chicago in a friendly game. Since then there’s been nothing. All of his minutes this year have come with the reserve side. He’s been on the bench for the first team plenty of times, but he’s yet to get an opportunity.
That will almost certainly change on Wednesday. Sure, it’s the Open Cup, and it’ll be against amateur opposition, but that won’t matter to Rodríguez. It’ll be a chance for him to prove that he’s ready to make the jump up to the senior side.
He’s certainly got the talent. He’s a clinical forward, as he knows where to be and when to be there, and then if he gets the ball, he knows how to finish off the opportunity. The homegrown is also just 20-years-old, so he should only be getting better and better.
He can’t get better if he doesn’t get any gametime, though. Fortunately for Rodríguez, a couple of goals here should vault him right back into contention for the first team, or at least for a starting spot in the next Open Cup game if the Fire win this time around.
As the kids say, “Let him cook.”
At the end of my match report of the House’s win against Forward Madison, I wrote that the club has to build a statue for AR Smith. When they do it, where they put it, or how they pay for it doesn’t matter to me or to anyone involved with the club. What does matter is that there’s something commemorating his time there when all is said and done.
He was already Chicago’s “captain, leader, legend” before the 2nd round tie against Madison, but Smith’s performance on that afternoon took his legacy to another level. He was kind of quiet in the earlier stages of the contest, staying in midfield and making smart decisions on the ball.
Then, when the House needed him the most, he burst into life. The midfielder started making more and more late runs into the area to devastating effect. He grabbed an equalizer at the very end of regulation, and then he scored what proved to be the winner midway through overtime. He had grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck, and it was enough to complete a historic comeback.
It wasn’t the first time he made a difference late on, as he scored the game-tying goal at the death against Brockton FC in qualifying. “The coaching staff and the players allow me to give what’s needed when it’s needed,” said Smith. “Early on when both teams have fresh legs it’s probably not as smart for me to use all my energy going forward. When subs come on and players get tired I have a little more energy to get into the box and make things happen.”
Those efforts have been rewarded on a national stage, as the House captain was named the player of the 2nd round by TheCup.us. “It’s good for the team, because if I’m getting recognition wearing this badge, they get recognition,” said Smith. “Without the wins, my performances don’t mean anything. It feels good to say thank you when I get the congratulations, but I know that if the standard at practice isn’t high then I can’t perform in games either. I say thank you on behalf of me and the team.”
Now Smith will look to produce some more magic on Wednesday night. He’ll obviously be facing his toughest test yet, but that might bring the best out of him.
If the game is close late on, pay extra attention to him. Just a fair warning.
Last time out
This will be the first time the two sides have ever faced off.
How to watch
The match kicks off at 7 pm central time, and it will be streamed live on the Chicago Fire’s website, chicagofirefc.com.
What it means
Alright there’s the formal match preview out of the way. This is no ordinary match, so it deserves much more than an ordinary preview.
It was September 24th, 2021. My dad and I were sitting at SeatGeek Stadium waiting for Chicago House’s game against the Michigan Stars to start. This wasn’t the club’s first home game, but it was the first one we were able to go to. As we killed time until kickoff, our minds began to wander.
“Oh man, just imagine one day we get to watch the House play the Fire here,” one of us said to the other before we both laughed a bit. Sure, the project seemed promising, but there was no way we’d see this NISA outfit take on an MLS side anytime soon. There was hope, but any potential meeting would likely be years and years and years away.
That dream seemed like an impossible one by the end of that year. Financial issues hit the House hard, and they were ultimately forced to leave NISA and become an amateur side. For a while that offseason it looked like the club was going to vanish completely.
However, they managed to stay afloat. They joined the Midwestern Premier League, they changed some things behind the scenes, and they’ve slowly gone through a roster overhaul. Chicago took things a week at a time, slowly hitting checkpoint after checkpoint.
Their Open Cup run is a perfect example of how patient they've had to be during this process. They first had to apply just to get into the tournament, and fortunately their application was approved. That put them into the qualifying rounds of the tournament, where they won one close game, then another, then another.
That got them into the official tournament. The House faced off against fellow amateur outfit Bavarian United, and they beat them. That set up a marquee matchup against professional side Forward Madison, and despite going down 2-0, they beat them too.
All of that has led to this Wednesday’s Chicago derby.
“It's gonna be emotional. This game is part of that rebuilding process,” said club managing partner, president, and CEO Peter Wilt. “You know, we took one huge step backwards after the 2021 season, and we could have given up, we could have folded up, we could have declared bankruptcy, and that would've been the easy thing to do. We've taken the hard route, though, and it's starting to see some fruition.”
For the future
It’s important to highlight how important this contest is for the House, even before it’s kicked off.
As mentioned prior, Chicago has been slowly rebuilding themselves after what happened at the end of 2021. It’s been a process, with the club trying to improve a little bit every single day. They’ve still got a ways to go, but this Open Cup run has been absolutely massive for them and their development.
“It's been a roller coaster for two years, but this has certainly been the roller coaster going up, and we're doing nice right now,” said Wilt. “I think it ultimately is gonna help us with ticket sales, sponsor generation, media attention, and investors. We're still looking for investors and, you know, every bit helps. It's important that we convert some of this attention into real revenue. That's kind of the practical side of it, but in terms of the bigger picture, we're building the brand.”
There’s already been substantial growth off the field. Recently the House announced the creation of two new teams, an academy side and a women’s team. The fact that the club has been able to expand is a very promising sign, and it might just be the beginning for the organization as a whole.
“We're building a community and we’re building awareness. It's about getting more people involved and having them see what we're about,” said Wilt. “I think when they see the mission of the team and the hard work that the front office staff is doing on a volunteer basis, the beauty of an amateur team and the players and the coaches and the work that they've put in, I think that's attractive to people and it helps build that community.”
Things have kicked into a higher gear already thanks to their upcoming game against the Fire. There’s been a lot more media attention on the House going into the game, and that will only increase once the contest begins.
“Obviously on Wednesday there’s going to be a spotlight on the team. We have an opportunity to show more people who we are and what we're about,” said Wilt. “We've made such progress on this trip. I'm proud of this group no matter how it goes.”
“We’re all excited. I think it's a great opportunity for our club to showcase ourselves on a bigger stage,” said Poland. “It will be a great moment for Chicago to celebrate soccer.”
Another reason why this contest will be so emotional for the House? It’ll be a homecoming for them.
Back when the club was in NISA, they played all of their home games at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview. It took them some time to get going, but there was a stretch where Chicago made that stadium a real fortress.
They obviously had to leave SeatGeek when they became an amateur side, but they’ll get to return to their former home on Wednesday.
“It'll feel weird walking down and taking a left instead of a right to the home bench, but I think it's exciting,” said Poland. “It will be an awesome experience for some of the fans to have that moment back at SeatGeek, and I know for myself and AR Smith and Damon Almazan that returning after playing there two years ago will be special.”
“SeatGeek Stadium is a gorgeous soccer venue. The sight-lines are great, the amenities are fantastic. It feels like a soccer stadium. I'm really proud of what I helped accomplish in helping design the stadium and getting it built,” said Wilt. “I feel bad that things didn't work out for the House at Bridgeview. And you know, what we're doing now is slowly working our way back financially to try and make things right there.”
It’s a stark difference to how the Fire views the venue. They paid over $60 million just to leave Bridgeview back in 2020. The club tried to blame the stadium for their poor attendance figures in recent seasons, but a move to Soldier Field hasn’t really changed things.
What’s ironic is that they’ve been forced to return to SeatGeek multiple times over the course of the last few years due to scheduling issues with the Chicago Bears. It’s led to some awkward situations, and the team hasn’t felt completely at home when they’ve had to play there instead of Soldier Field.
This occasion will be different, to be fair. Many MLS sides will use smaller venues for the Open Cup in this round, and it just makes more sense to play this week’s game at SeatGeek instead of Soldier.
As fate would have it, though, that choice of venue only adds to the narrative surrounding the contest.
Blessing in disguise
What’s interesting is that the House really should be going into Wednesday’s match on a lengthy unbeaten run.
Even before their Open Cup run, they had a pretty successful campaign in the Midwest Premier League. After tasting defeat in the season opener, they didn’t lose for the rest of the year.
So, what happened? Well, following their win in Madison, the House had a National Amateur Cup contest against United Serbian. They went into this matchup as considerable favorites thanks to their recent results, and things were going smoothly as they took an early lead on the night.
However, Chicago let their foot off the gas pedal, and they paid for it. They gave up two goals before the end of the first half, and they were never able to tie things back up. Just like that they had been upset themselves in a cup competition.
“We didn’t mentally prepare for that game the way we had prepared for previous games, and the outcome showed,” said club captain Smith. “It was a humbling result for the guys. Just because you beat a pro team doesn’t mean that you are a pro. A pro comes in and does the right things day in and day out. An amateur picks and chooses.”
So, the loss was obviously a bad thing, right? On one hand it absolutely was, as that’s the game the House has to be winning at this stage. However, there is a silver lining to the result.
That defeat may have given the House a much-needed reality check. They had been living on cloud nine beforehand, but losing to a fellow amateur side brought them right back down to Earth. It served as a reminder that their work is far from over, and that they have to be at their best at all times if they want to continue to grow.
“I think it was good for us as a club. It's easy to let the ego start to get in the way and tell you that you can take opponents lightly or not come out with the same mentality,” said head coach Poland. “It was a good test for our younger guys, in terms of learning to be a professional and finding ways to be focused and engaged in every single game. Obviously you don't want to lose, but I think it should serve as a good lesson for these guys. And I think the response was right. They came out early to practice to put in more work and stayed after to do more work. That's all you can do at this stage, focus on the things you can control.”
It was clear to see that the mood was different at practice. The players knew that they had messed up, and now they wanted to ensure that they never let an opportunity like that slip away again. It’s hard to imagine them having any more motivation for a matchup as big as Wednesday’s Open Cup contest, but they’ve managed a way to find some.
Everything else aside, there’s still a game of soccer to be played.
Don’t get it twisted, this is still an absolute must-win for the Fire. They are a club that values the Open Cup, and that’s especially true for the fanbase. They are historically one of the tournament’s best teams, and the lack of success in recent years has put an increased importance on doing well in the competition. They can’t afford a repeat of what happened last season when they lost to lower-league outfit Union Omaha.
The cup is also their best chance of picking up some long-awaited silverware. Chicago has had an alright start to their MLS campaign, but everyone knows that they won’t come close to Supporter’s Shield contention. They’ll be happy to make the playoffs, and although anything can happen at that stage, it’d be unrealistic to think that they could win MLS Cup.
The Open Cup is different. It’s all single-elimination. The Fire have shown that they can compete with the rest of the league on their day, and if they put enough of those good days together, then they could piece together a run to the trophy. Sacramento Republic made the final last year for crying out loud.
Any potential run starts on Wednesday, and the club might really need to go on a run this year.
For the House, they are playing with house money, pun completely intended. They’re under no pressure at all, and just getting to this stage is a momentous achievement for them.
However, imagine the utter chaos that would unfold if they managed to pull off another upset. Beating Bavarian United was a big deal, and beating Forward Madison was an even bigger deal. Beating the Fire, however, would be infinitely bigger than both of those results combined and then some.
It would be an amateur side beating an MLS outfit, which is a massive story on its own. Then there’s the whole Chicago connection. A win would give the House bragging rights for the foreseeable future, even if the difference in leagues still exists. For a relatively new team to beat the established Fire franchise would send shockwaves across the city, and across the country as well. It would be the biggest win in the House’s history, and it’d almost certainly be the most shocking loss in the Fire's history.
It’s not mission impossible, either. I didn’t think the House would get by the Bavarians, and I certainly thought they had no chance against Madison. I, like many others, was wrong on both occasions. Soccer is a funny sport sometimes, and you’re never quite sure what can happen on any given day.
The House’s style of play helps their chances. They know how to make a game ugly, staying solid defensively while looking to capitalize on the chances they create on the other side of the field. If they can frustrate the Fire frontline, which isn’t the most consistent attacking unit, then they could drag this game into the deep waters. The longer the contest stays close, the odds of an upset happening grows larger and larger.
Long story short, there might just be some magic in the air on Wednesday night.