It wasn’t easy, but the Chicago Fire finally broke their eight-game winless streak on Tuesday night, overcoming a two-goal halftime deficit and a late red card to defeat the San Jose Earthquakes in penalty kicks in a US Open Cup play-in game at Buck Shaw Stadium.
Midfielder Daniel Paladini converted the winning penalty for the Fire, sending his spot kick past Earthquakes keeper Andrew Weber to give Chicago a 5-4 lead in the sixth round of the shootout.
San Jose midfielder Scott Sealy had a chance to extend the shootout, but he hit his spot kick off the crossbar, sending four-time Open Cup champ Chicago into the tournament proper.
After the match, Paladini told MLSsoccer.com he feels the win could get the Fire, who hadn’t won since their March 30 Open Cup victory against Colorado, over the hump.
“This was huge,” Paladini said. “Coming back from a 2-0 deficit in an Open Cup game, a do-or-die game, and one where we played 120 minutes and then beat them in penalties is exciting. It’s definitely different than if we came out here and beat them 3-2 or something like that — going the distance gives you an extra better feeling and our whole team felt it.”
Of course, it didn’t look like the Fire had much hope of advancing at halftime. Chicago played poorly in the first 45, conceding twice and heading into the locker room down 2-0.
It was the third straight game Chicago opened poorly, and the second of their last three that they went into the half down by a pair of goals.
“The first half we came out with our idea of playing possession,” Paladini said. “But this game, for whatever reason, they were playing a lot scrappier, just kicking the ball, hoofing it up and trying to find [forward Steven Lenhart] and trying to find [forward Chris Wondolowski]. They were just putting us on our backs in the first half and our backs weren’t playing it over the top and spreading it out.”
“The first half was a mental breakdown,” he added. “If we’re going to be under pressure we got to be smart and kick the ball over the top. That spreads them out and then we’re able to play.”
Head coach Carlos de los Cobos made a couple of adjustments at the break, bringing forward Orr Barouch and winger Dominic Oduro in for forward Gastón Puerari and defender Jalil Anibaba. The double-switch paid off in the 61st minute, when Barouch halved San Jose’s lead with his second-ever goal in a Fire uniform.
Chicago defender Yamith Cuesta equalized in the 76th, heading a loose ball off of Weber and into the back of the net.
Things looked bleak again for the Fire seven minutes in to the first period of extra time, when left back Gonzalo Segares was shown a straight red card as several players jawed with each other following a tough challenge by San Jose’s Khari Stephenson in the 98th minute.
But Chicago successfully rode out the final 23 minutes, eventually sending the match into the shootout and prevailing on penalties, giving themselves a chance to make some noise in the tournament’s knockout rounds.
“We played with a lot of heart in the second half,” Paladini said. “In the second half, we kept the ball more, opened the game a bit more, used Oduro’s speed and [winger Marco Pappa] flipped the switch and played a lot better. We’re all pumped up.”
“We definitely want a trophy,” he added. “We’re definitely a team that prides ourselves on the Open Cup.”
Sam Stejskal covers the Chicago Fire for MLSsoccer.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org follow him on Twitter @samstejskal.