The Open Cup…It’s important!
That’s been the tagline from the Chicago Fire throughout the club’s run through the early stages of the 2011 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
It’s important because the Fire hold more Open Cup titles (four in 1998, ‘00, ‘03 & ‘06) than any other MLS club. They sit one championship away from tying Bethlehem Steel and Maccabi Los Angeles for the all-time tournament record. The team’s been to five finals, only losing to that pesky team in Kansas City during an otherwise forgettable 2004 season.
If you notice, most of those accomplishments aren’t what anyone would file under “recent”. And as the side finds itself in the competition’s quarterfinals for just the second time in five years Tuesday night, the mantra and understanding of what the Open Cup means to the club and its supporters has been a common theme of late.
“We’ve talked about the success and meaning of the tournament recently,” said Fire captain Logan Pause. “That success started long before I was here. Winning the double in 1998, then winning again in 2000. My first year was 2003 when we won it and I was here in 2006. It’s been a tournament this club has put a lot of effort, energy and money into being successful in. We know what we’re playing for when we walk on the field Tuesday night.”
The question of how seriously the tournament was being taken by the club of late had been raised after the team’s gone out to lower-league opposition in three of the last four tournaments. The question was even posed during a Supporters Town Hall held prior to the 2011 Home Opener back in March, with the club’s Director of Player Personnel Mike Jeffries declaring that the team would field strong lineups for all Open Cup matches.
That promise was kept through both MLS qualifying games against Colorado and San Jose and though last month’s Round of 16 match against USL-Pro side Rochester last month wasn’t a full-strength 11, fans did see nearly all of the available first team players take some part in the 1-0 victory.
While New York Red Bulls coach Hans Backe claimed Monday that he would be playing all reserves in Tuesday’s clash, Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas left little doubt as to what his lineup intentions were for the game.
“We’ll play the best team that can help us win,” he said Monday. “You saw the team we put out in L.A. and now we just have to see how our guys feel. It’s also a different opponent but without any risks, without any injuries, there’s not going to be many changes.”
If there were any doubts as to what that meant, Klopas reiterated his intent minutes later.
“It’s a game, a tournament that we want to win…there won’t be any changes unless there are injuries.”
For Klopas, it’s safe to say the tournament holds special meaning. Perhaps Chicago’s most famous soccer son, Klopas is responsible for beginning the club’s lore in the tournament, having bagged the “golden goal” winner in the 1998 Open Cup Final played at Soldier Field. While that instance is often mentioned as one of the greatest moments in club history, it also speaks to the magic that’s felt in this already “Cinderella” type tournament.
It’s not a competition many have found a way to make money off. In fact it’s almost always a money loser for the clubs that host…but its local, its grassroots, its David vs. Goliath and having some experience at the lower levels of American soccer, it’s the understanding that on any given day, a lesser team can take down the big boys.
Lower league takedowns have become less rampant as more MLS clubs have begun to take the tournament seriously. That might have as much to do with winning a trophy as it does with the qualification spot teams now receive for winning the competition. Four wins (for some 5-7) is all that keeps a team from taking part in the region’s club championship, something that Pause mentions as extra incentive for the tournament.
“We take pride in that and knowing that it’s another opportunity to lift a trophy,” said the midfielder. “At the beginning of the year, throughout the years, it’s been one of our main goals to win the Open Cup. Now we see the winner get entry into the Champions League which is a huge opportunity for this club. Yeah, the Champions League is mentioned but at the end of the day we’re still two games from the final. Tuesday’s going to be a tough game.”
Klopas, who won the tournament a second time as an assistant coach for the club in 2000, echoed Pause’s sentiment and will look to continue towards his third title Tuesday night.
“We’ve been talking about it, that hasn’t changed. It was our goal from the beginning of the season and it’s a very important tournament. One that the players understand is the shortest tournament to win to be able to win a title. You’re three games away from reaching that goal. We have to be focused and we’ll be ready Tuesday in front of our home fans.”
- The Chicago Fire are unbeaten in U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal matches, going 5-0-2 in seven appearances. The team has never failed to win a home quarterfinal match in regulation, going 5-0-0 all-time.
- The Chicago Fire are unbeaten against the New York Red Bulls at Toyota Park, going 5-0-3 in eight matches.
- The Fire are 26-8-3 all-time in the U.S. Open Cup proper, 28-8-4 when counting qualifying matches.
Jeff Crandall is the Team Writer for the Chicago Fire. Follow him on Twitter @JefeCrandall.