At first glance, Wednesday's U.S. Open Cup final between the Chicago Fire and the Los Angeles Galaxy is the kind of matchup that cup organizers dream. On the one hand, you have Chicago, the league's hottest team and a bona-fide contender for the MLS Cup. On the other, you have a Los Angeles side at the wrong end of the Western Conference table. A David and Goliath match up if there ever was one, right? More like Goliath versus a sleeping giant, which is exactly what Chicago head coach Dave Sarachan should be afraid of.
You see, Sarachan's team has everything going for it. The match is being played at Chicago's Toyota Park, where the Fire are unbeaten in their past nine competitive matches. And over that period, it seems that no matter who the Chicago head coach puts in his lineup, they always seem to perform. On top of that, the Fire are playing a Galaxy side who they not only defeated 2-1 last weekend, but who also look set to miss out on the playoffs for the first time in team history.
For Sarachan, all this has done is make the paranoia that is endemic to coaching all the more acute.
"It's the old Murphy's Law," Sarachan says. "Everything is lining up, but you have to be prepared for things to go any which way. Playing L.A. twice in a row, there are no guarantees that the next game will go like the first game."
Murphy's Law doesn't even begin to describe what has happened on the field for the Galaxy this year, as the 2006 campaign has turned into yet another underachieving season. Of course, last season, Los Angeles used its run to the U.S. Open Cup title as a springboard for better things, and when the Galaxy claimed the MLS Cup six weeks later, the inconsistent play that dogged the team all season was conveniently forgotten.
This season it appears as though it will cost them. A 2-8-1 start under former head coach Steve Sampson put the Galaxy in a huge hole, and while things have improved somewhat under Frank Yallop, Los Angeles finds itself needing a miracle -- or perhaps the intervention of a few former Juventus directors -- just to make the playoffs. With just three games to play, the Galaxy are six points behind Colorado for the fourth and final playoff spot. While one could argue that the Galaxy's playoff fate will be the furthest thing from their minds come Wednesday, the specter of missing out on the postseason still looms large. Star forward Landon Donovan acknowledges his team's plight, but he's banking on L.A.'s experience in big games to carry the team through.
"Over the last couple of days, we've come to the reality that this could be it for our season," Donovan says. "We've got three more [league games], but we could win all three and still not go. Our job over the next couple of days is to therapeutically forget about it, but I don't worry about that with these guys. The times we've been in a final, people have understood the importance of it, and I don't expect anything different."
There is the fact that a new system of play, and new players brought in by Yallop have made cohesion in that attacking half a struggle at times. Even on those occasions where L.A.'s approach work has been solid, the final telling pass or shot has been missing.
"[Yallop] jokes about it, that it's almost been like preseason all over again," Donovan says. "From a fitness standpoint, we were nowhere near where we should have been. It's unfortunate that the preseason plan couldn't have happened in January, or we would have been flying by April. But that's the hand you're dealt, and you deal with it."
Despite these obstacles, the Galaxy will bring some advantages to the field come Wednesday, primarily in the form of Donovan himself. For all of the talk about his disappointing World Cup, Donovan remains perhaps the most potent big-game performer in MLS. Los Angeles is also a team with nothing to lose. They played that way during the aforementioned loss to the Fire last weekend, one in which it carried the game to the home side for long stretches, and only some fine goalkeeping from the Fire's Matt Pickens allowed Chicago to walk away with a win.
Yallop indicated that they would use the same game plan on Wednesday, one that will see Donovan and Santino Quaranta running off target man Alan Gordon. Yet the circumstances of the game could force a different tactical approach. Last weekend's match was one that the Galaxy had to win, and when the Fire's Chris Rolfe scored after a mere 38 seconds, it forced Los Angeles to take some risks in attack that the tension of a Cup Final might not afford.
You can bet the house that Sarachan will make some adjustments of his own, although some of them aren't by choice. The biggest change will come in midfield, where inspirational captain Chris Armas is suspended, thus making the inclusion of Logan Pause a near certainty. Sarachan will need to determine just what do with the injured trio of goalkeeper Zach Thornton and midfielders Nate Jaqua and Ivan Guerrero. Sarachan said each player would be a game-time decision, and given the recent performances of players like Pickens, those choices become even more difficult.
The Chicago coach also will need to decide what to do with his frontline. Does he give Calen Carr a chance to add to his tally of three goals in the Open Cup, or does he persist with Rolfe and Andy Herron, who both scored last weekend? Chances are Sarachan will go with the second option, although it's expected that Carr will play some part in the game's latter stages.
Regardless of what lineup Sarachan decides upon, he knows that his team will need to defend better in transition than they did last weekend.
Sarachan adds: "We certainly learned that we need to do a better job, as a collective group, of making sure that when we turn the ball over, we don't allow a lot of space for guys like Donovan, [Pete] Vagenas, and [Santino] Quaranta to run into."
If that's the case, then the Fire will hoist the first trophy of the season, and the sleeping giant will remain in its slumber.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.