Charlotte Independence’s bid for a second-straight upset against an MLS team was short lived as the Chicago Fire erased an early deficit Tuesday to secure a 3-1 Fifth Round U.S. Open Cup victory at Toyota Park.
The Fire were led by Lovel Palmer and Mike Magee who combined for all three goals and an assist after Chicago fell behind 1-0 in the fifth minute.
In his first start of the season, Magee leveled the score in the 37th minute after a give-and-go between Palmer and Kennedy Igboananike that resulted in Palmer sending in a low cross from the right flank. Magee, making a diagonal run, stepped inside his defender and flicked the shot past Charlotte goalkeeper Richard Gilstrap.
Palmer scored the game-winning goal in the 50th minute.
After a lengthy spell of pressure from the Fire, Charlotte attempted to clear a corner kick out of the box. Palmer, lurking about 10 yards away from the top of the box, had the ball fall to his feet. He blasted a stunning strike to beat a diving Gilstrap from distance.
The Fire’s third goal of the evening brought the crowd to its feet as it was a direct result of the returning Patrick Nyamko’s first touch of the season. Having subbed on in the 77th minute, Nyarko received a pass from Magee on the right flank. Handling his first touch of the season, Nyarko danced around his defender into the box, fed Magee the ball back and Magee scored his second goal of the evening to secure the victory.
Fire coach Frank Yallop said the sequence was the highlight of the night and it was great to see two of his most dangerous offensive weapons shake off the rust quickly.
“It has been a long way back for them,” Yallop said. “You miss guys and then you see them on the field and you realize how good they are. It’s not in training it’s actually playing the proper game. Very happy for both guys.”
Charlotte did not let the Fire into the quarterfinals without a scare. Playing on the road against an MLS team for only their second time in club history, Charlotte showed no fear early on and caught the Fire flat footed with an early goal.
As the Fire backline looked to advance the ball past midfield, Charlotte forced a turnover and pounced on the opportunity when midfielder Alex Martinez found striker Tomasz Zahorski with a perfectly timed through ball that beat the Fire’s pressuring back line. Zahorski finished his breakaway with a composed shot past a diving Sean Johnson.
The Fire progressively applied pressure as the half went on. Gilstrap came up with two consecutive difficult saves starting with a chance from the top of the box by Joevin Jones at the 19-minute mark. After that diving save, Gilstrap came up big again in the 22nd minute after Magee tried a chip shot over the keeper. Though he was off his line, Gilstrap leaped backwards and punched the ball over the crossbar.
Charlotte almost caught the Fire again immediately after Magee’s goal as Zahorski received a pass deep in the box but was turned away by Johnson who came up with the shin save.
While the last remaining USL side struggled more in the second half, substitute Ryan Finley forced two athletic saves from Sean Johnson. In the 62nd minute, Finley received the ball all alone in the center of the box after a great dummy and forced a point blank save from Johnson. Finley challenged Johnson again in the 87th minute with a diving save to the left for the Fire keeper’s fourth save of the match.
The win moved the Fire to 36-12-3 all-time in the U.S. Open Cup, which is the most wins of any team in the Modern Era.
Magee said he hoped the result could springboard a strong second half in league play where the team has dropped four straight and confidence in the quarterfinals where they will host Orlando City.
“There was definitely something a little different in the group tonight,” Magee said. “We’re ready to fight for each other.”
FULL MATCH REPLAY: CHARLOTTE INDEPENDENCE AT CHICAGO FIRE