The Fire’s loss on Sunday night was a reminder of how fickle sports can be.
We longed for action for more than four months. We longed for competition. Now that it's back, it's here to remind you that it’s not all Mauricio Pineda game-winners and butterflies. The win against Seattle keeps you coming back and fuels the engine of hope, but finding the balance and truth in it all is the most difficult part as a fan and undoubtedly as a player.
The man in charge of Chicago Fire Football Club summarized it all so beautifully, and quickly pulled me out of my Sunday funk:
“It’s important to keep your heads up,” head coach Raphael Wicky said. “I mean, it’s a football game. We lost a football game today and we won one last time. You can’t be when you win on the top and when you lose on the bottom. You’ve got to keep steady motions. We’ve got to stand up again.”
So here we are -- with three points after two matches, 17 new signings, a new manager, a new technical staff, and the next step firmly within the Fire’s control. These aren't excuses for why the Fire didn't win against San Jose on Sunday, just the facts of the situation and a reminder that this team, like any, goes through moments of adversity.
With all of that in mind, let’s take a look at the final opponent of Group B -- the Vancouver Whitecaps -- as the Fire look to stand up again.
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
A point will get the Fire through as one of the top four third-place finishers from the group stage, given that there are two groups with teams that either cannot reach four points in their final match or have an insurmountable goal difference.
A win will get the Fire through via a second-place finish in the group.
The difference in finishing second or third could be drastic in terms of the potential caliber of opponent they’d face in the Round of 16. A second-place finish would mean a Knockout Round matchup against the runners-up of group F, which -- at this point -- looks to be either the Portland Timbers or LAFC.
Advancing as the third-place team would set up a Round of 16 match against either the winner of Group C or Group D. Group C is currently led by Toronto FC and the New England Revolution, who are tied on five points. Group C is currently led by Minnesota United and Real Salt Lake on four points apiece.
While there are “what ifs” as to who the Fire might play, the goal against Vancouver is clear -- a result of any kind and the Fire are through.
Lesson learned. pic.twitter.com/b1G7WS0nuT— Chicago Fire FC (@ChicagoFire) July 21, 2020
HANGING BY A THREAD
After Sunday night’s 3-0 loss to Seattle, Vancouver are on the brink of elimination. They could still qualify for the knockout round, but will need a win against Chicago, several goals to boost their overall differential, and some other results around the tournament to fall their way.
Head coach Marc Dos Santos’ group had a terrific start to group play, twice leading by two goals against San Jose before giving up three unanswered over the final 20 minutes and suffering a 4-3 defeat. They then followed up with a lackluster performance against the reigning MLS Cup Champions on Sunday night, a 3-0 loss.
Still, the Whitecaps are a young group that have shown they can compete, and they could prove to be a dangerous opponent in that regard.
Their task is made tougher, however, by five players missing due to either travel, medical or personal reasons. That list includes names like two-time MLS All-Star Freddy Montero, Designated Player Lucas Cavallini, and forward Tosaint Ricketts. Dos Santos has missed these players dearly, and whatever magic that Disney inherently presents has been lost on the Canadian side. They struggled in the final third despite out-playing Seattle from a possession standpoint throughout stretches of the match.
Ali Adnan, a left-back, seems to be their most consistent and dynamic attacking threat if that gives you an idea of how much they miss the three players mentioned above.
FORMATION & DEPTH ISSUES
Vancouver came out in a 4-1-4-1 against San Jose in the opening match of group stage. They then kept their personnel the same, but lined up in a 4-4-2 against Seattle perhaps to get more pressure on the Sounders’ backline.
After two games and two losses with the same starting XI, Marc Dos Santos may want to make a few changes. Missing three attacking players in Cavallini, Montero and Ricketts moves everyone up the totem pole in a squad currently struggling with depth.
Another big question mark for Vancouver is the goalkeeping position. Starter Maxime Crepeau left the Seattle game in the 54th minute with a hand injury, and was replaced by 21-year-old MLS debutante Thomas Hasal. Hasal did well - he made back-to-back saves moments after coming on - but this is one more problem that the Whitecaps do not need at this point. Also of note, veteran Aussie defender Andy Rose is missing from the squad, and the Vancouver defense has suffered as a result.
The Fire are going up against a Vancouver side that is short-handed and desperate for a result to bring back across the northern border. They had 3 points snatched from them in the most devastating fashion in their opening match, and were picked apart by an angry Seattle group in their second match.
However, no game in MLS is easy, and teams with their proverbial backs against the wall are dangerous. Unless they beat Chicago, there will be no more fun in the Orlando sun for Marc Dos Santos and company.
Wicky said at the beginning of the tournament, “Let’s control what we can control.”
Get a result and you get to play more football. It is that simple.
The Fire have a great opportunity to put themselves through to the Round of 16, and -- from there -- anything can happen. Only four games into a new era, this is a great test for Wicky’s young group.
Is it 8 am Thursday morning yet?