As Major League Soccer expands, there is a lot of debate on whether it is more important to win the Supporter’s Shield or MLS Cup. A full season consistently collecting points or catching the right form at the end of the year in a knockout competition is always the debate. But the most historic and coveted trophy in for soccer in this country is, without a doubt, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
The oldest knockout competition in this country, with a huge purse and a CONCACAF Champions league spot on the line, begins later tonight for the Chicago Fire down in St. Louis. Supporters probably don’t need it, but here’s a quick refresher of the Fire’s storied success in this competition: four-time U.S. Open Cup champions and six-time finalists. The first cup run part of the famous debut double for the Men in Red, and the fourth title took them into elite status, one of only eight clubs to win the Open Cup four times.
This competition is approached differently year to year for many teams; it is an opportunity for younger players to get minutes, rest older players, or try a new style of play. But make no mistake, this year Veljko Paunovic needs to sell out to win the U.S. Open Cup.
Let’s be realistic here. This team, while extremely talented in many areas, is not consistent enough to make a legitimate run at either the Supporter’s Shield or MLS Cup. The former is already out of reach, and do you trust this group to go on the road anywhere and steal consecutive games in the playoffs? The same team that hasn’t won an MLS road game in over an entire calendar year? Even with the new playoff format, I don’t at this stage of the season.
Paunovic, clearly a more successful tournament coach than everyday manager, has already guided this team to an Open Cup Semi, but he needs to get over the hump. I don’t think I am overstating here, but if this team misses the playoffs once again, an Open Cup run may be the only thing that he can do to keep his job.
He has the team to do it, and there’s no reason to think this Fire can’t win the Open Cup. Over 90 minutes, this team can hang with anyone in this competition. We’ve seen the way they can play when on the road at LAFC and Toronto, the win at home against NYRB. Stringing together five of their best performances over the next three months is all it takes.
I would usually call for rotation, younger players getting more minutes, and resting some of our core players, but they should put all the eggs in the Open Cup basket, beginning with tonight against Saint Louis FC. Go get #5.