When the Chicago Fire welcome Orlando City SC to Toyota Park on Wednesday night, they’ll hope to conjure up memories from their 5-1 home victory against the USL version of the Lions two years ago. The Fire were the only MLS team to meet a club from Division III in the Quarterfinals that year, albeit one that downed the Colorado Rapids and Sporting KC in back-to-back rounds to get to that point.
And though the score line did end up lopsided, the reigning USL champs stood even with the Fire as late as the 59th minute of the match when Patrick Nyarko scored what stood as the game-winner.
“I clearly remember that game,” Nyarko told ussoccer.com. “They came out firing. We scored first, but they equalized. I wasn’t surprised they scored with the way they were playing, but it woke us up. We knew this team was not to be played or toyed with and we needed to buckle it up and go from there.”
Four minutes after Nyarko scored, Fire forward Chris Rolfe made it 3-1 and soon after, Orlando saw defender Yann Songo’o sent off, allowing the flood gates to open. Mike Magee tallied in the 83rd minute before City’s Adama Mbengue also saw red. Joel Lindpere finished off the scoring late to end the route.
Still, Orlando City head coach Adrian Heath said he and his then lower-league side did take pride in the way they played their MLS opponent.
“My memory is that we were excellent on the night,” Heath told ussoccer.com “I think [then Chicago Fire head coach] Frank Klopas at the time said the score line didn’t reflect anywhere near what the game was. At one point, Dom Dwyer had a great chance to make it 2-1, then we get a man sent off and kind of fall off. It was a terrific performance by the group on the night, as much as the performance looks like we took a pounding, it wasn’t like that.”
Both teams have changed dramatically since then, with Orlando City upgrading its roster with the likes of Kaka, Brek Shea and Carlos Rivas for their move to MLS this season, while the Fire have undergone a two-season makeover – Nyarko is one of just five players left on the roster from the end of the 2013 season.
Brazilian striker Kaka has helped guide Orlando City SC to an auspicious start in its first season as an MLS club.
With the changes, the more immediate history went in Orlando’s favor, as the Lions used two goals inside the final eight minutes to earn an impressive 3-2 comeback victory on June 6 at Toyota Park. The match was one of a few stinging home results that have contributed to the Fire’s bottom position in the MLS Eastern Conference and head coach Frank Yallop admitted he’ll use the memory of that result as motivation for Wednesday contest.
“It’s a motivating factor,” Yallop told reporters this week. “Obviously it’s a game I feel we should have gotten more out of. They scored two late goals to win and we had a great chance at 2-1 to win and we didn’t. I think we played well enough to win that match, but that’s gone now. For us, it’s a big tournament we want to win. I know the tradition here at this club, get a good result on Wednesday and a good result on the weekend. It’s a massive game for us, I want to win it badly and we make sure the players know how important it is.”
Indeed, the Fire were one of the first MLS clubs to truly embrace the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, winning their first of an MLS record four Open Cups five days after lifting the MLS Cup in their inaugural 1998 season. More recently Seattle Sounders FC carried the banner of MLS expansion club that saw the value early Open Cup success could bring and now new MLS side Orlando is following the example both clubs set in their first year in the American topflight.
“One of the things we spoke about before – we had a good chat with the staff and ownership group – we wanted to make the Open Cup something we took seriously from the very beginning,” Heath continued. “We had some difficulty in the first round at the Charleston Battery. We played a lot of the younger guys and it was difficult all around but it was still a team I thought was going to win the game. It didn’t always go according to plan, but obviously we tied 4-4 and got through on penalties. The second game with Columbus Crew we scored a couple of really good goals at important times and sort of cruised to the win to get here.”
One of those well-timed goals came from Kaka, who Heath says refused to take a day off when the side hosted Crew SC in the Round of 16 on June 30.
“Leading up to that, he’d played virtually every minute of every game and I asked him if he needed a rest. He said, ‘No, no. I want to play.’ Barring any mishaps this weekend, he will probably play on Wednesday evening. He knows what the goal is here – it’s five wins and you can lift a trophy. Five games and you can be in the CONCACAF Champions League. As a new club we’re trying to grow and make sure people are aware of who we are and that’s one of the things the Open Cup can give you. From Kaka on down, we’re on the same page about what we want to accomplish.”
While a look at the league table might give a slight edge to Orlando, the Fire’s 23-1-1 all-time U.S. Open Cup record when playing in Illinois will certainly be daunting. As well the fact that Nyarko, who was in the final stages of recovery from ACL surgery, missed the June 6 loss to Orlando City.
Chicago Fire forward Mike Magee hoists teammate Patrick Nyarko over his shoulder to celebrate scoring against the Charlotte Independence in the Round of 16.
The tricky Ghanaian attacker’s return to the field came in the team’s Round of 16 match against the Charlotte Independence on June 30. Entering the 77th minute, Nyarko made an immediate impact with one of his first touches, splitting two Charlotte defenders to gain entry to the box before centering for Magee who buried his second of the night in the 82nd minute.
“Personally, I’ve never been more nervous as I was in that situation in the days leading up to the game and when I was coming on,” Nyarko said. “When you get that kind of injury, you really question yourself: Can I get back? Can I be myself once I’m back? If nothing else, it settled me down, made me realize I could still play and do the things I used to be able to. More than anything, I was excited to be back playing the game again.”
Nyarko replicated his form in his first MLS match back, scoring a 72nd minute equalizer to help the Fire to a 1-1 draw at the Houston Dynamo on July 3. The Ghanaian’s return to the lineup, combined with Designated Players David Accam and Shaun Maloney looking likely to play a part Wednesday vs. Orlando, should make the match a competitive one. After two straight league losses, Nyarko, who’s currently the longest serving player on the Fire roster, hopes a win and a trip to the U.S. Open Cup Semifinals next month can help spark the season like it has in the recent past.
“I keep mentioning to the guys – this isn’t unusual for us to have a slow start and a subpar first half of the season,” Nyarko said. “Right around when the Open Cup starts, it’s when we start picking it up. It’s almost like a tradition for the Fire faithful. We don’t want it to be that way, but it’s a part of us. An Open Cup wins reinvigorates the guys and the team and hopefully kicks off a run to the playoffs. I’m glad we’re in it, it’s something to really play for, something that matters to all of us.”