The Columbus Crew travel to take on the Chicago Fire Wednesday night in the fifth round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Both teams advanced to this stage courtesy of 2-1 victories of lower division sides.
The Crew earned their passage in a 120 minute overtime battle with the Indy Eleven that saw forward Adam Bedell and midfielder Daniel Paladini issued straight red cards before Jairo Arrieta converted from the penalty spot. The Fire had goals from Grant Ward and Mike Magee, but only played 49 minutes due to weather conditions.
It was Columbus who stopped the Fire's win streak at two with a 2-0 win in Columbus Crew Stadium on May 24. The shorthanded Chicago was without five starters, including Magee, the reigning MLS Most Valuable Player.
The Crew will be the team in this meeting missing players.
"I actually registered to play today," head coach Gregg Berhalter joked with the media after practice on Tuesday. "We are [shorthanded], but that's life."
The Black and Gold will remain without the services of leading goal scorer Federico Higuain, vice captain Wil Trapp, midfielders Agustin Viana and Fifi Baiden, and backup goalkeeper Matt Lampson, all out with injuries.
Add to that the four Crew players who have been on loan with the Dayton Dutch Lions - forward Aaron Schoenfeld, goalkeeper Brad Stuver, midfielder Matt Walker, and defender Ross Friedman - who all played for the Lions in their Open Cup loss to Indy, preventing them from being eligible for Columbus.
New addition Alvaro Rey is also unavailable because he is cup tied after playing in the Canadian Championship with Toronto FC earlier this season.
These absences, combined with the suspension of Bedell and Paladini, leave Berhalter with just 16 travelling players.
"We're not taking any risks with tomorrow," Berhalter said of the injured players on Tuesday.
"We want to go up there with as many fit guys as we have and play a good game, but we're certainly not going to risk guys that we think are questionable."
Since the end of May, the Fire have drawn with the Los Angeles Galaxy at home and the Colorado Rapids in Denver and lost to the Seattle Sounders at Toyota Park. This game will provide them a chance to get back on the right track before returning to MLS play.
Chicago comes in with a fairly clean bill of health, without the services of midfielder Patrick Nyarko, defender Lovel Palmer, and Gonzalo Segares questionable. With no game for another week, the Fire have the opportunity to play their starters to get a result.
"I think we're expecting to see a very similar lineup to what we saw in league play earlier this year," Crew defender Chad Barson said.
The Crew and the Fire have a heated rivalry in MLS, but also have some history in this tournament. The most memorable game is likely the 1998 Open Cup final - won 2-1 by Chicago - but the Fire also knocked Columbus out last year at this point.
"They knocked us out last year," Barson said when asked about the rivalry. "It's the fifth round of the Open Cup now so only a few more games and you can be a winner.
"We're relatively close geographically so I think that kind of just adds to it as far as opposing fans traveling to the games when they're away and home fans really showing up in those games. We always know when we play the Chicago Fire or any Eastern Conference team, it's really going to be a battle because we see them so often, we're very familiar with them. I wouldn't expect anything different going into the Open Cup game."
For the Black and Gold, this is certainly a game they want to win and advance, but it will also be good preparation for a return to MLS play on Saturday after a three week hiatus.
"It's a good progression," Berhalter said. "If you look at last week, playing an NASL team, and now this week playing an MLS team, it's a great progression into starting the regular season again."
This game will be a win-or-go-home affair and the Crew will be doing their best to not bow out early in the Open Cup once again against their rivals.
"We know that the Open Cup is win and move on," Barson said.
"You can't have a slip up. You either win and you advance or you're done for the year. We know that that's important."