Why the U.S. Open Cup is awesome

Why the U.S. Open Cup is awesome

The U.S. Open Cup struggles to get love and attention from American soccer fans so it's no surprise that it's completely off the radar for average sports fans.

However, what the single-elimination knockout competition provides is rare among American sports. Amateur teams can qualify for the tournament and face off against pro teams. Minor league teams can take on their big brothers from Major League Soccer. Upsets happen and fun match ups like D.C. United taking on amateur team Christos FC can create stories that typically only occur in movies.

This is similar, in a way, to how amateur golfers can qualify for the U.S. Open via sectional tournaments. However, these are teams, not individuals. Collecting and organizing a good team is difficult enough for a regular adult league, but think of what a team like Christos FC has to do to prepare for a professional team like D.C. United, as they did Tuesday in the fourth round of the tournament.

The team is based in Baltimore and is comprised of regular people working regular jobs, but also playing amateur soccer at a high level. Christos FC beat a minor league team, the Richmond Kickers, in the second round of the tournament and beat another amateur team, FC United, in the third round.

FC United is based in Chicago and some its staff has ties to the Chicago Fire (former player Gonzalo Segares, for one). FC United plays in the PDL, a summer league for college players. So FC United's players are still training regularly and some of the players are pro prospects despite the amateur status.

Meanwhile, Christos FC set up a GoFundMe page just to make the trip to Chicago to play that match, which Christos won 1-0. From Nick Eilerson's story in the Washington Post, there are more challenges than just travel expenses.

"Christos FC does not conduct practice, doesn’t scout opponents or study film. Game-planning typically occurs a few minutes before matches, when coaches pick a lineup based on who could get off work to show up."

The U.S. Open Cup is more than just fairytale stories though. It's also a chance for regional rivalry games that wouldn't have a chance to take place otherwise.

The Fire begin Open Cup play Wednesday at Saint Louis FC. With St. Louis not having an MLS team, and the city recently voting against a stadium plan that would likely have led to an expansion team, the only way these two cities, which have a rich history of rivalries in sports, can play is in the Open Cup.

Last year the Fire beat Indy Eleven, another regional city which the Fire couldn't go up against in MLS. The regional design of the tournament creates a number of these matchups in the early rounds.

The downside to the Open Cup is the lack of fan support. The Fire failed to draw big crowds to the three home games in the competition last year. The Fire made it to a fourth straight semifinal, where they went on the road and lost to New England.

Partially as a result of the small crowds at Toyota Park last year, the Fire will be playing a potential game in the next round in Peoria. If the Fire win Wednesday and win the hosting coin flip for the next round, the June 28 game will be hosted by Bradley. The Fire have played Open Cup games in Peoria before, most recently in 2011.

Part of the lack of fan interest is the fact that the games are played on weekdays as opposed to weekends, which also draw much better for regular MLS games. Part of it is the lack of knowledge in the tournament. Another factor going against it is that many teams use it as a chance to play younger or reserve players while resting key players for MLS games. Not all fans are excited to pay money to watch minor league or amateur soccer teams.

The U.S. Open Cup may never be as big as the FA Cup in England or many of the cup competitions in the rest of the world, but it is still a unique competition in American sports. Besides, what's not to like about the Christos FC story?

Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon


Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon

As far as notorious players in MLS with a history of scoring big goals, Alan Gordon is one of the first names on that list.

The Fire signed the 36-year-old forward on Friday, continuing to add depth to a roster that appeared paper thin throughout the preseason. Gordon, who had been on trial with the Fire for part of the preseason and even after the season opener, signed a one-year deal.

Gordon adds plenty of experience from being in the league since 2004 and having scored 55 goals with five different teams. For the past few years he has been used primarily as a substitute, but has still maintained his reputation for scoring goals late in games.

At 6-foot-3 he brings plenty of size and strength to the team and is one of the best players on headers in the league. Last season the Fire failed to score directly off a set piece, which was both due to consistently poor service from corner kicks and a lack of players adept at finishing them off. Gordon should give the Fire a late-game option in that area.

Elliot Collier had impressed the Fire enough to earn a contract as a third-round pick and an international player and even came off the bench in the opening loss to Sporting Kansas City, but it appears the team wanted more experience at forward with Gordon.

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

If you were looking for entertainment, goals, plot twists and storylines, the Fire’s season opener had all of those boxes checked.

What it didn’t have was even a point for the hosts against Sporting Kansas City on Saturday at Toyota Park.

The first half showed a Fire team which very much looked like the “incomplete” roster that general manager Nelson Rodriguez referenced just before the season. KC led 2-0 and the Fire failed to get a shot on target, showing a lack of chance creation and any semblance of a dangerous attack.

The second half showed a Fire attack which was capable of turning the heat up on the visitors, but also a defense which couldn’t defend. Sporting's 4-3 win revealed that there’s plenty of work to do for the Fire to resemble the team that finished third in the MLS regular season last year.

“Especially in the first half we saw that we weren’t ready to compete with a team that had an advantage that they had one competition game before us,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “That was the main difference in the first half, but the adjustment in the second half was tremendous. I think just showing that we can score three goals that quickly and create even more opportunities was a positive.”

However, Paunovic wasn’t about to let his team off the hook by only speaking about positives.

“What we learned today is that we have to get better on every side of the game and in every aspect of the game,” he said. “We are not there. We didn’t have a good game. I think overall a lot of innocent and naive mistakes.”

After trailing 2-0 at halftime, the Fire revved things up in the final 25 minutes and Bastian Schweinsteiger keyed the first goal with a slick assist to newcomer Aleksandar Katai. Nemanja Nikolic showed the scoring instincts and finishing ability that won him the league scoring title a year ago by scoring two more goals to give the Fire the lead in the 82nd minute.

Then it all fell apart, with two KC goals within four minutes of Nikolic giving the Fire the lead. Dax McCarty, your thoughts?

“You’re 10 minutes away from the headline and the storyline being Chicago Fire show great character, make a fantastic comeback, win the game 3-2 and yet here we are sitting here, somehow losing that game, which is insane,” McCarty said. “It’s totally insane.”

The defensive struggles, which Paunovic pointed out mirrored last year’s early playoff exit in a 4-0 loss, will need to get resolved internally. Johan Kappelhof, Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster all started on a competent defense last year and McCarty and Schweinsteiger helped play damage control in midfield. This isn’t what the weakness of the team was supposed to be yet after one game, it’s all anyone on the team could talk about.

“We gave up four goals,” Kappelhof said. “That’s not good. Simple.”

While more additions may be coming in-season, as Rodriguez has mentioned, and injuries haven’t allowed the Fire to start 2018 fresh, this game wasn’t a good sign for what’s to come for the 2018 Fire. A lack of any offensive creation in the first half and a lack of defensive concentration, as Paunovic put it, throughout the game showed a team that has plenty of pock-marks currently.

“We don’t know how to defend, quite frankly," McCarty said. "From back to front, front to back, the defending aspect of our game was pretty poor. A lot of things to learn."

The good news is even if the Fire take some time to correct the errors from Saturday’s season opener, MLS is a forgiving league. A majority of the league, 12 of 23 teams, makes the playoffs and league-wide parity means teams can go through slumps and still end in good standing. A year ago, the Fire lost six games out of seven and still had the third best record in the league. It’s OK if the team takes time to iron out some organizational issues defensively, just don’t take too long.