An old sports adage is that there is a reason they play the game, as the best team on paper does not always win, with underdogs pulling off upsets for the ages. That is particularly true in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, a tournament open to teams across America hoping to prove themselves, and one that usually presents a number of upsets and exciting moments.
With the competition off and running, and MLS squads getting ready to join in the fun, Hot Time In Old Town takes a look at the Chicago Fire’s history in the USOC, celebrating their early successes and looking at what went wrong in recent cups, as well as what to look for in this season’s edition of the tournament.
The Fire claim the title of “Kings Of The Cup,” and based on their history in the tournament, the Fire have a strong case to support their claim, as the Men in Red lead all current Major League Soccer clubs with six championship game appearances, having lifted the trophy in four of those trips.
Chicago dominated the competition in the early stages of their existence, reaching the title game four times between their inaugural 1998 season and 2004. Overall, the Fire have a 42 win-16 loss-6 draw record in Open Cup play, with a +54 goal differential. The Fire have five different players with at least five or more goals during their Open Cup appearances, led by Andy Herron’s eight. That list is also peppered with Fire legends, as Ante Razov, Josh Wolff, Mike Magee and David Accam also providing at least five tallies for Chicago.
The 1998 cup winning edition was the first and only Fire squad to achieve the domestic double, winning the league the same season. Led in scoring by Lubos Kubik and Frank Klopas, who each tallied twice in their tournament, the Fire beat local team Chicago Stingers in their first match before sneaking past the San Jose Clash 4-3 in penalties after ending regulation even with one apiece. The Fire then proceeded to take down the Dallas Burn 3-2 in Louisiana before securing the title on a 99th minute Klopas goal to defeat the Columbus Crew 2-1 at Soldier Field in front of a packed, wild stadium that erupted in joy at the winning goal.
Following an unceremonious bouncing in their first match in the 1999 tournament by the eventual champion Rochester Rhinos, the Men in Red came roaring back in 2000, winning their first three games by a combined 10-1. The Fire went on to defeat the LA Galaxy in the semifinals before taking care of business against the Miami Fusion, both by a 2-1 score line, to win their second Open Cup. For the Fire, Ante Razov scored three goals and Dema Kovalenko added two, while a strong defensive unit only allowed three goals the entire tournament. Josh Wolff was by far the man of the tournament for the Fire though, as he scored an impressive six goals, including four against Dallas, and would later produce the 118th minute game winner against LA.
In 2003, the Fire continued their trend of winning the tournament the year after being eliminated in their first match by the Milwaukee Rampage. They began their 2003 quest against the Milwaukee Wave, an outdoor affiliate of the seven-time indoor champions who had replaced the Rampage, cruising to a 4-1 win before taking down the Colorado Rapids to set up a semi-final matchup against frequent foe LA Galaxy, who had eliminated them in the 2001 edition. The Fire stars came to play in that game, with DaMarcus Beasley, Razov and Damani Ralph scoring in quick succession in the second half to secure their 3-2 victory and set up a showdown with the Metrostars for the title.
After falling in the semi-finals during the 2005 edition of the Open Cup, the Fire came back with a purpose in 2006, claiming their fourth title in eight years. Facing all MLS sides on their way to their championship, the Fire ran through the Kansas City Wizards, New England Revolution and DC United, before facing off with the Galaxy in the title game.
As legendary as the Fire have been in the tournament, the last decade has not been as kind to Chicago. In recent years, the Fire have been joined atop the leader board by Seattle and Sporting KC, as Chicago has last won a title in 2006, and have not made it past the semifinals in ten of eleven seasons. During a stretch from 2008 to 2012, the Fire did not manage to win more than one game in any tournament, getting eliminated by lower division sides Michigan Bucks, Charleston and Wilmington Hammerheads.
Chicago has gotten a little better recently, with the Fire advancing to the semi-finals in four of the last five editions, but ultimately lacking the quality to advance past other MLS sides that have put their strongest lineups forward in their quest for the Cup. Decisive eliminations by Philadelphia (twice), New England and Seattle have left Fire fans with a bitter taste in their mouths and put a damper on expectations for the rest of their remaining league seasons.
On the bright side, 2019 feels a little different than years past, where by summer it was often apparent that the Open Cup was the Fire’s only shot at any silverware for the season, or where Chicago had to choose between league results and Open Cup wins. This is a very deep Fire side, capable of withstanding the added rigors of tournament play in addition to their league season, with a number of very cable options on their bench that can carry the squad. Brandt Bronico, Christian Martinez, Mo Adams, Djordje Mihailovic and Grant Lillard are all young and have proven themselves during league play, providing Veljko Paunovic lots of roster flexibility during the tournament. That rotation will help Chicago stay fresh throughout the tournament, and with their offensive ability and firepower, they should be able to overpower most opponents they will encounter.
The hope remains that the lessons learned from numerous semi-final appearances in recent years will provide some veteran savvy and motivation to this Fire squad, enabling them to use their experience in combination with their talent to get over the hump and return to the promised land.
The Fire begin their quest next Tuesday when they take on Saint Louis FC.