Chicago Fire FC have finally put the demons to rest. After crashing out of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup last year at the hands of third-tier Union Omaha, they made no mistake in the third round this time around. A comprehensive attacking performance saw the Fire ease to a 3-0 victory over local opposition Chicago House AC in front of some 7,000 fans at SeatGeek Stadium. The defeat ended the House’s magnificent run, with the amateur side having recorded five consecutive victories to reach the third round. We take a look back at a historic Chicago Derby.
Taking Care of Business: Chicago Fire Defeat Amateurs and End Cinderella Run
— Chicago Fire FC (@ChicagoFire) April 27, 2023
The Fire entered this clash the heavy favorites, despite their topsy-turvy form in the league. A disappointing loss at the death against Atlanta United over the weekend lingered on the minds of the team as they opened their 2023 cup campaign. Head coach Ezra Hendrickson opted for a rotated lineup, although several big names did appear on the team sheet. The remainder of the Starting 11 was composed mostly of youth players who sought to make the most of a rare opportunity to impress.
The House, once a professional team, could never have dreamed of facing the Fire. An amateur organization since early 2022, CHAC are led by the distinguished soccer magnate Peter Wilt, who served as the Fire’s general manager during their early glory days. After placing 4th in the 12-team Midwest Premier League (a fifth-tier league) in 2022, the club entered the USOC Open Division Qualifiers. They seemed to be destined for elimination, falling behind in two of their first three matches. In both instances, a last-gasp equalizer preceded a victory on penalties. After qualifying for the competition proper, House knocked off National Amateur Cup champions Bavarian United SC 1-0, before stunning professional side Forward Madison FC 3-2 in the second round. What made the victory even more impressive was Chicago’s initial 2-0 deficit. Two late goals were followed by an extra-time winner and defensive heroics to seal the upset.
All things considered, this clash played out according to the script. The Fire controlled possession, took shot after shot, and lived up to their role as favorites. That being said, they struggled in the opening stages, with a rock-solid House back line preventing them from creating major opportunities. The center-back partnership of Oskar Duenkel and Naz Kabbani kept the net empty, with midfielder Ricardo Avalos making several impressive defensive contributions as well.
The visitors even managed to launch an attack or two in the opening 25 minutes, winning two free kicks near the 18-yard box. Nothing came of them though, and the Fire finally broke through in the 26th minute. Miguel Navarro’s cross from the left flank split the opposing defense in two and left striker Kacper Przybyłko with an easy tap-in volley. The Pole converted and the MLS side were in control.
Maren Haile-Selassie very nearly made it two just a few minutes later, dancing circles around the House defenders before being stopped by goalkeeper Tony Halterman. The second goal did come eventually, defender Kendall Burks heading the ball into the back of the net off a cross by Alonso Aceves. Seconds later, and the game could have been put beyond doubt, but Alex Monis just missed the target with his low effort.
The second half was much of the same, with the Fire in complete control. Chance after chance came, but goalkeeping brilliance from Halterman prevented the hosts from making it 3-0. The House, to their credit, did break into the opposing half on a few occasions. Second round hero AR Smith had a look at goal, as did a few of his teammates. For the most part however, the Fire read the House attackers’ runs well and prevented them from materializing into legitimate opportunities.
The Fire eventually got a third, Aceves once again whipping in a tricky ball into the box. Wyatt Omsberg flicked it on with his heel and Burks slotted it into the bottom corner for his second goal of the night. The hosts continued to attack, even as much of the front line made way for youngsters off the bench. They fell short of going up 4-0, but the job was done.
Both sides’ managers had words of praise for their respective teams in the post-match press conference. Hendrickson complimented the work ethic of his youngsters in training, and noted that unlike in much of their MLS season so far, the Fire did not allow their opponents to get back into the match this time. He singled out Alonso Aceves as a standout performer.
Hendrickson lamented, however, the finishing in attack, saying the score could have very well been higher. Also emphasized was the importance of doing well in the cup. He said the win over House meant more after the disappointment of last year and stated that “this is a competition we want to win.”
Kendall Burks, hero of the night with his first goals for the Fire, agrees with the manager. He says the prospect of making a deep run in the cup excites the team. As for his sharp-shooting performance, Burks remains humble, saying his post-match celebrations will consist of “maybe giving [my mom] a call.”
House manager Matt Poland has certainly turned heads during his side’s magical cup run. Just 30 years of age, he served as an assistant under CJ Brown (now a member of Hendrickson’s staff at the Fire) during CHAC’s inaugural season. He describes Brown as his “biggest mentor,” and has certainly filled his shoes well over the past 12 months.
Poland credited his squad for defending well in the first 25 minutes in the absence of star center-back John Makowiecki. Makowiecki had recently left the team to go on trial with a professional club in Poland (the country). The manager also noted the experience gap between his side and the opposition – “they rolled out a few million-dollar guys, and we have [Oskar Duenkel,] a high school senior who has school in the morning.” Finally, when asked whether he aimed to win the Midwest Premier League title this season, Poland reiterated that this is not the club’s primary goal. “Titles are nice, but the goal is to get these guys professional contracts,” says the young coach. He has so far lived up to this promise, with nine House players from 2022 now playing professionally.
As for the experience of playing the Fire in front of a rowdy Chicago crowd, Poland reminisced how “we joked about playing the Fire when we first signed up for qualifying in August.” He described the realization of this dream as a “surreal” moment for Chicago House.
— Chicago Fire FC (@ChicagoFire) April 27, 2023
Though their worlds collided for a night, the two Chicago clubs have very different ambitions for the remainder of 2023. The Fire hope this win will constitute a turning point, and the endless dropping of points in MLS play will come to an end. It’s a quick turnaround for the team, with New York Red Bulls the visitors at Soldier Field this Saturday. The ambition for this year is clear – make the playoffs. A deep cup run would certainly be a nice bonus.
As for the House, it’s a return to reality. A two-week break follows, before the talented amateurs launch their league campaign. They’ll play ten games during the summer, and regardless of what Poland says, they’ll certainly challenge for the title. The first test is Berber City on May 13th.
A beautiful story ends for the House, and a trophy challenge begins for the Fire. The Chicago Derby certainly delivered.
Photo Credit: Jamie Sabau-USA TODAY Sports of Chicago Fire FC and Chicago House AC Headshot on April 26, 2023.