This was my first Open Cup game. But not entirely by choice.
I had a ticket to go to the Fire’s USOC tie in the previous round, at home to Columbus. I showed up, milled about in the parking lot, soaked up the rain, and ultimately was forced to take shelter once lightning started streaking across the sky. Eventually word filtered out that the game was postponed due to weather. I went home, soaked and disappointed. The game was played the next day around lunchtime in abundant sunshine; I couldn’t make it out there and ended up having to watch the Fire dispose of That Yellow [expletive deleted] Team by a 2-1 scoreline on the livestream.
I tried again for the next round, at home to then-USL outfit Orlando City. It was a nice evening— clear, warm but not too warm, a nice breeze blowing through the stadium. I was in the Harlem End; a few sections over in the northwest Corner Kick end there was a small contingent of Iron Lion Firm people. (My friend and I couldn’t help but make Voltron jokes throughout the evening.) There was a good vibe in the stands. We could tell it was going to be a good night.
Truth be told, I can barely remember the opening goal from Chris Rolfe in the opening minutes. I do remember Section 8 roaring into life.
Is getting laid tonight!
We didn’t score again in the first half but the Fire looked basically in control the whole time. And anyway, this was a USL team. We were fine. We were good.
The panic didn’t set in until early in the second half, when Rob Valentino hit his equalizer. The Section kept the noise and the drumming going, because that’s what you do. But it was hard not to worry. We’ve been here before. We were barely a month into the Mike Magee Era, and we weren’t sure what the limits of his magic touch were yet. Maybe, maybe, this was the night when everything fell apart.
If the players were nervous, they definitely didn’t let on that night. And in the last half hour of the game, they decided a good flexing was in order.
Rolfe snagging his brace just after the hour mark. (“Chris Rooooooolfe/Is getting laid tonight... TWICE!”) Patrick Nyarko in the 69th minute with a thundering run and a sly finish. Yann Songo'o being sent off in the 71st minute, bringing Orlando down to 10 men. Magic Mike in the 83rd. (I remember hugging someone at this point. He was shirtless and delirious.) Adama Mbengue sent off three minutes later, leaving Orlando with a 4-1 deficit and nine men on the pitch with only a few minutes left in the 90.
The Section, drunk on cheap booze and reveling in the team’s rampant performance, hit their (slightly off-key) stride.
In the jungle
The might-y jungle
The lion sleeps toniiiiiiiight
And then Joel Lindpere made it five in stoppage time. Joel Lindpere! Do you remember how utterly feckless a team had to be to concede a goal to Joel Lindpere in 2013?!
The 5-1 win over Orlando was confirmed a few moments later and we all stumbled into the gloaming, dazed and ecstatic. A month and a half later we’d get embarrassed at home to DC United in the semifinals. So it goes.
A lot has changed in those four years. The Fire went through a lengthy period of darkness and decay, once which they’re only just now (maybe) pulling out of. Orlando City joined MLS, signed Kaká and Cyle Larin, and are generally a much stronger force to be reckoned with. So it goes.
The Fire head to Orlando this Sunday in an attempt to hold on to their lofty place near the top of the Eastern Conference. In less than two weeks they’ll enter the USOC, hoping to put former USL affiliate Saint Louis FC and maybe, maybe, start rebuilding their rep as Kings Of The Cup. While the squad from that 5-1 thumping four years ago is gone, the spark is still there. Not sleeping. Waiting.