Accam’s Double Leads Fire to Open Cup QFs
The Chicago Fire jumped out to a 2:0 lead on the Columbus Crew on Tuesday in their US Open Cup encounter, and it was enough to propel the Fire to the tournament’s quarterfinal stage. David Accam paced the Fire with a pair of goals and the Fire bunkered for the last half hour to hang on to a 2:1 victory. They will face the winner of Orlando City v Ft Lauderdale Strikers on July 20.
Tactically, the Fire played two completely different games against Columbus. They started out with what, on paper, was an empty-bucket 4-4-2. In reality, the midfield quartet of Razvan Cocis, Michael Stephens, Nick LaBrocca and John Goosens aligned themselves to plug the middle of the field, while Brandon Vincent and Rodrigo Ramos provided the width from their fullback positions. Goosens was the most active as an attacker among the midfielders. Cocis played deep to provide cover, while Stephens and LaBrocca were the harriers doing the running up and down the field.
Coach Veljko Paunovic then turned the focus to defense in the second half. He subbed out Goosens, Accam, and Kennedy Igboananike, and replaced them with two defense-minded players and an attacker. The bus was parked early, and the strategy almost backfired when the Crew earned a penalty kick in the 79th minute to make things uncomfortable for the Fire in the endgame.
The Fire prevailed nonetheless, and much of it fell on the Crew’s inability to penetrate the Fire defense. They created 16 shots on the night, but only two found the target. Crew fans might claim that they were an offside call away from an equalizer, but the reality is that they rarely bothered the Fire defense and they failed defensively in crucial moments in the contest. Full credit to the Fire for finishing off their chances, a talent that they have displayed only occasionally this season.
Accam was ruthless in this regard and he gave his team the lead in the seventh minute. Goosens played a simple ball to Accam on the left flank and Accam danced past one defender at the corner of the penalty area. No one from the Crew closed him down and Accam fired a low, hard shot just inside goalkeeper Brad Stuver’s left-hand post.
The Fire doubled their lead just before the half hour. Ramos played a ball to no one behind the Crew defense and LaBrocca hustled to keep the ball from crossing the goal line in the right-wing channel. He dropped it back for Ramos, who showed genuine quality in the delicious cross that he served to the top of the six-yard box. Accam flashed past his marker and side-footed a volley past Stuver. The Fire were on cruise control and a third goal would have put the result beyond any doubt.
It’s clear that the Crew were there for the taking. Having played a league match on Saturday, coach Gregg Berhalter rotated six bench players into his starting lineup. Their drop-off in quality from the normal starters was evident. Justin Meram did start the match and was the Crew’s top attacking threat. But the 2:0 deficit forced Berhalter to bring on regulars Ethan Finlay and Wil Trapp at halftime, when he might have preferred to get away with using these players sparingly or not at all. Compounding the problems for Columbus was the absence of the injured Federico Higuain. The midfielder is a genuine difference maker who elevates the standard of everyone on the Crew roster.
The Fire came out in the second half intent on not giving up what they had gained. When Goosens and Accam departed for Eric Gehrig and Joao Meira, Paunovic’s plan was clear.
Despite taking a defensive stance for the last 30 minutes, the Fire defended with purpose and cohesion, aspects that were lacking in their match versus the Union last week. Rather than drop off into their own penalty area and give the Crew free reign in the middle of the field, the Fire cut off any paths to open space and defended with a decided level of aggression.
The ball was in the Fire end of the field for long stretches in the second half, but the Crew rarely created any danger. Their shots and crosses were badly off the mark, and it only emboldened the Fire to maintain defensive discipline.
The Fire blocked three shots for the game, but one block became decisive when a Fire player apparently handled the ball, leading to a penalty for the visitors in the 79th minute. Finlay buried the spot kick and the Crew were one lucky bounce away from leveling the score.
They never really got close after the penalty, however. Joey Calistri came on in the 80th minute and provided some much-needed hold-up play when the Fire were clearing the ball from their own end. Coupled with cohesive defensive work, the Fire shut things down to wrap up the victory.
Bagging a third goal proved elusive for the Fire, but would have made the game that much easier to manage. Paunovic was obviously trying to balance winning this game and looking ahead to Friday’s match versus San Jose. He got Accam and Goosens out early, but those substitutions essentially shut down the Fire’s attacking ambition. The result was all that mattered in the end, however, as victories around here have been scarce this season.