Why did a bunch of Fire fans in their earlier twenties (OK, early thirties in my case) recently pile into a borrowed van at 6am on a Tuesday morning in Chicago and drive 600 miles to Rochester for a US Open Cup third round game between the Fire and lower division Rochester Rhinos?
And then drive 600 miles straight back after a scrappy 1-0 win?
Now, I might suggest that we Fire fans were fulfilling the commitment to “passion” in the club’s “tradition, honor, passion” credo. But let’s be honest with ourselves here: that’s less passion and more a mild dose of insanity.
In fact, I’d suggest that it had more to do with a youthful and chaotic desire to keep up the club’s commitment to the U.S. Open Cup, from fans to players to coaches, that generated magical moments such as these. In Rochester, we met an old Barn Burner from the Fire’s early days who had shown up to see his team in the cup once again.
Some of us in the van were too young to really remember that ’98 final, some of us (like myself) were 4,000 miles away that year and only mildly aware of the existence of Major League Soccer, let alone the U.S. Open Cup. Hailing from England, I had no awareness growing up that the United States had a domestic cup competition with almost as much chronological pedigree as the storied FA Cup, a competition I adored as a kid (my hometown team, Brighton & Hove Albion, famously made it to the FA Cup final in 1983, losing in a replay to Manchester United). In a knockout cup competition, there is never any doubt that the result of the game itself matters, in the FA Cup or the U.S. Open Cup. Win or go home, as ESPN SportsCenter would put it if it covered the competition.
The U.S. Open Cup dates back to 1914, with its original Dewar Trophy as fantastic a piece of silverware design as you’ll ever see. It’s no longer in use, but the names of each winner are still inscribed on the base each year. The Chicago Fire are there four times (1998, 2000, 2003, 2006), twice as many as their nearest MLS competitors for Open Cup glory. Only Bethlehem Steel and Maccabi Los Angeles are ahead of the Fire in all time cup wins, with five each .
It remains an “open” competition – all US Soccer affiliated amateur and professional teams can enter, which is why we found ourselves at USL-level Rochester that Tuesday. Joining the Chicago Fire’s first team in the last 16 this year were the Fire’s amateur PDL team, who enjoyed every second of their journey, including a chance to play at brand-spanking new LiveStrong Sporting Park against the Sporting Wiz, or whatever they are called now down in Kansas City.
The U.S. Open Cup is not a perfect competition. It appears at times to be an afterthought of US Soccer and MLS, its games scheduled unhelpfully on Tuesday nights, and only the final televised. One day a marketing genius will find it a sponsor, a TV contract and unleash the glory of its David vs. Goliath battles and its single-game knockout tension on an American audience used to and in love with such drama from March Madness or the World Cup or the NFL playoffs.
Until then, it’s six Fire fans representing in a van to Rochester on a Tuesday night for a game only shown via a shaky webcast – but really, I wouldn’t have it any other way. After all, the Chicago Fire won the game to go to 28-8-4 all-time in the U.S. Open Cup, and that’s what it’s all about. See you all this Tuesday at Toyota Park as the Fire compete in the U.S. Open Cup quarter-finals once again.
Tickets for Tuesday's U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal vs. the New York Red Bulls are still available. call 888.MLS.FIRE or click here to purchase.