You remember the Chicago Fire, right? Lots of ties. No offense to speak of. Mired in another lost season. Well, put all of that out of your mind, because the team standing in the Seattle Sounders' way of a third-straight U.S. Open Cup title is a lot different from that one.
Unless you follow the blow-by-blow of the Major League Soccer season, you could be excused for not realizing just how good the Fire have been playing over the course of the last couple months. But you really should know that they have morphed into a team that is capable of giving the Sounders one hell of a time.
Let's just take a quick look at their lineup when the Sounders played them on June 4 in Chicago, a game that ended in a rather listless 0-0 tie, by the way.
Goalkeeper: Sean Johnson; Defenders: Bratislav Ristic, Yamith Cuesta, Cory Gibbs, Gonzalo Segares; Midfielders: Dominic Oduro, Daniel Paladini, Logan Pause, Corben Bone (Gaston Puerari 67’); Forwards: Cristian Nazarit (Orr Barouch 67’), Diego Chaves (Patrick Nyarko 54’).
Even including the three players that came off the bench, just six of them are expected to play any kind of significant role in Tuesday's game. In fact, the projected lineup includes just three of those players starting in the same positions they started in that game.
Since that game, Frank Klopas has effectively transformed his team from a rather boring, defensive oriented side into one that is actually pretty fun to watch. He has moved players into positions in which they are far more comfortable, brought in some veterans to shore up what was a pretty ineffective midfield and has even managed to maintain a pretty solid defense around his young goalkeeper.
The most obvious changes Klopas has made are in the midfield where Logan Pause is the only likely hold over, and he's likely to be playing a different position. Pause is expected to start at right midfield after spending much of the year as more of a defense central midfielder.
His move out wide was predicated on the additions of Mexican international Pavel Pardo and Argentinian Sebastian Grazzini. While Pardo has taken up much of the defensive responsibilities, Grazzini has been the more attacking central midfielder as the Fire have moved from a flat 4-4-2 to a more dynamic 4-1-3-2.
The move also seems to have suited Marco Pappa well. Never much of a defender, he has been absolved of much of those responsibilities and is now allowed much more freedom. He's listed as a left midfielder, but in similar fashion to the Sounders' attack, you will find him attacking the goal from all over the field. His personal statistics have not necessarily blown up during that time, but his skill was on display when he took apart Real Salt Lake with a tidy hat trick less than a week ago.
The other major benefactor in all the moving around has been Oduro. When he first came to the Fire in an early-season trade, then coach Carlos de los Cobos tried shoehorning him into the midfield. The thinking was most likely that he had spent his entire MLS career at forward and had always underachieved. Klopas continued that experiment, but finally abandoned it just before the additions of Grazzini and Pardo.
Oduro's move to forward really started paying dividends, though, once he was joined by Nyarko up top. Since being paired with Nyarko, Oduro has scored eight goals in all competitions. Nyarko has thrived as well, picking up five assists and scoring a goal in those 11 games. With the speedy Ghanians as the forward tandem and the Latin Americans unlocking the midfield, the Fire have really started to thrive as well.
Helped in no small part by Oduro's 10 all-competition goals since that game against the Sounders, the Fire have gone 9-4-9 in all competitions since June 4. Since coming over from the Dynamo, in fact, Oduro is second in MLS with 14 all-competition goals (Fredy Montero leads with 15). Over the past two months -- basically around the time their roster really started changing -- they've been even better, going 6-1-3 since Aug. 7.
Over this roughly two-month span, the Fire have been scoring at a clip of 1.9 goals per game in all competitions and have outscored their opponents by eight goals. That run of form has allowed them to qualify for their MLS record sixth Open Cup final (of which they've won five) and climb to within three points of the final playoff spot. This all comes after a start to the MLS season in which the Fire were scoring 1.05 goals per game and had been outscored by seven, while sinking to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.
Of course, we would be remiss if we didn't note that the Fire's success has not exactly come against the same caliber of competition the Sounders faced in getting here. While the Sounders have had to play the Los Angeles Galaxy and FC Dallas in the Open Cup, as well as compete in CONCACAF Champions League play, over the past two months, the Fire have faced a considerably less arduous road.
Including Open Cup qualifying, the Fire have played a Colorado Rapids team that only brought 14 players, just one of whom was a regular; a San Jose Earthquakes team that is among the league's worst; two third-division teams; and a New York Red Bulls side that also only suited 14 players and sent neither their head coach nor his top assistant.
Their MLS competition hasn't been much better. During their post-Aug. 7 run of success, the only team they faced that is guaranteed of making the playoffs is Real Salt Lake (a 3-0 win). Aside from that, the best teams they've played are the Red Bulls (2-2 draw), DC United (1-1 Draw), Rapids (2-0 win) and the Dynamo (1-1 draw). Four of their six wins have come against a USL-Pro team (Richmond Kickers) and three of the worst teams in MLS (Toronto FC, Chivas USA and the Revolution). Their one loss came to a pretty awful Earthquakes team.
Almost across the board, the Sounders remain a better team. Sean Johnson may be Kasey Keller's physical equal in goal, but the Fire keeper has never played in a game with stakes anything like this. The Sounders defense is clearly superior. The Fire's strength is in their midfield, but any of their starters would be hard-pressed for minutes on the Sounders. As good as Oduro and Nyarko have been at forward, neither are no-brainer starters if put on the Sounders.
Still, this is a Fire team that can not be taken lightly. While the Sounders' focus is still being pulled in multiple directions, this game has been circled on the Fire's calendar as the biggest of the year for more than a month. But isn't that how we should want it? The Sounders will be going for a record-tying third straight title, but the Fire are trying to tie an even more significant record of five Open Cup titles. Buckle up, this one should be fun.