Fire

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?

Even a win showed how injuries could derail Fire's playoff run

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USA TODAY

Even a win showed how injuries could derail Fire's playoff run

Major League Soccer has earned a reputation as a league of very fine margins.

The league’s desired goal of parity means only a couple very good or very bad teams are notably better or worse than most of the pack. A couple key injuries leave a big mark on a team.

When the Fire lost six of seven matches after the Gold Cup break injuries were an easy explanation for the team’s slump. Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster were both in the middle of breakout seasons and their absences coincided with the dropoff in results. They returned and the team has showed improvement in a 4-1-2 stretch since the skid ended.

The recent run has secured a playoff berth, but a new group of injuries have popped up at similar times and could doom the Fire’s chances of doing any damage in the playoffs. In Sunday’s 3-2 win against Philadelphia, a team already eliminated from playoff contention and which has just one win on the road all season, the Fire were without Bastian Schweinsteiger, Juninho and Michael de Leeuw. David Accam, who has been nursing a hip injury, came off the bench.

Even in victory, the Fire had to come from behind and showed a less than stellar performance with plenty on the line. Playoff seeding is incredibly tight heading into the final weekend, with the Fire having the chance to finish anywhere from second to fifth.

The Fire led in the third minute but trailed 10 minutes later, something that irked coach Veljko Paunovic.

“After the third minute we actually thought that the game for us was over and that’s unacceptable,” Paunovic said. “We cannot ever again have that performance or that mindset.”

Paunovic did praise the team’s character to find a way to turn it on and get the win.

“We are kind of happy to see that we are capable to react that way, to go basically from zero to 10 in just 15 minutes of the halftime break,” Paunovic said.

However, the need to turn it on like that is not a good sign for the playoffs when the opponents will be better than Philadelphia. One of the reasons for the improved play was the introduction of David Accam into the match after halftime. Accam was fouled in the box to earn the penalty kick that Nemanja Nikolic scored to tie the match.

[RELATED: With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year’]

The Ghanaian has been nursing a hip injury for weeks and it has limited his playing time. This was the third straight match he has not started. When asked if not starting Accam was about his injury or resting him for the playoffs, Paunovic said, “It’s a little bit of everything.”

“I felt good today on the field,” Accam said. “I haven’t played in a long time so today I felt good and I think I’m ready to help this team.”

Accam described the injury as a nerve injury. He said the plan was for him to play 30 minutes, but Paunovic told him to get ready earlier because the team might need him.

“Sometimes I just wake up and I don’t know,” Accam said. “It’s really painful. Other times it feels so good. The last two or three weeks it feels really, really painful.”

This was also the first match Michael de Leeuw, the team’s leader in assists, missed due to his torn ACL suffered last match against New York City FC. Juninho missed his fifth straight match with a knee injury and his status for the playoffs remains unclear. Bastian Schweinsteiger is nursing a thigh injury and while he is expected to be available for the postseason, his fitness will be in question. Joao Meira went down early in Sunday’s match and finished the match, but was walking with a significant limp in the locker room after the game.

This all adds up to plenty question marks heading into the playoffs for the Fire. Who knows what the team will look like when the postseason rolls around.

With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year'

With MLS scoring title nearly locked up, Nemanja Nikolic views it as 'work of one year'

Nemanja Nikolic has won scoring titles before in his career so his place at the top of the Major League Soccer goal-scoring list is not an unfamiliar place for him.

Nikolic, who joined the Fire this offseason, won the scoring title three times in the Hungarian league and did so in his last full season in the Polish Ekstraklasa before leaving for the Fire. By scoring a hat trick in Sunday’s 3-2 win against Philadelphia, Nikolic put himself in prime position to win the Golden Boot in his first year in MLS.

Nikolic scored in the third minute, finishing off a long ball from Brandon Vincent that gave him a breakaway, buried a penalty kick in the second half to tie the match and scored the game-winner in the 78th minute on an impressive first-touch finish. Nikolic now has 24 goals on the season. The nearest competitors in the scoring title race, Diego Valeri (21) and David Villa (20), would need a hat trick of their own just to get back in the race with one weekend left in the regular season.

“I think it’s important for every striker to win this,” Nikolic said of the scoring title. “This is our job. We need to do this every week. The season is really long so up and down situations you will have always. The important thing is how you will believe in these things and how you will come out from the bad momentum and also how you will train when you have good momentum.”

Nikolic’s third goal was huge beyond getting Nikolic his first hat trick of the season. The win moved the Fire up to third in the Eastern Conference standings while a draw would have dropped the team to fifth. A fifth-place finish means going on the road in the first-round so securing at least a top four spot is a big difference.

When he scored the third goal and again when he was subbed out of the match in added time, the crowd chanted “NIKO!”

“I feel really good, not just about hat trick, about the victory,” Nikolic said. “It was really important for us. The first half was not that great, but I think we showed attitude. We showed personality, how we need to play in second half. We were not afraid.”


During the week leading up to the Philadelphia match, Nikolic talked up how many quality strikers were deserving of winning the scoring title. When asked if any of his teammates had joked about the scoring race with him, Nikolic responded very seriously about what it means.

"I think it’s no joke," he said. "I think it’s work of one year."

Vincent assisted on both of Nikolic’s goals from open play.

“Unbelievable accomplishment for him,” Vincent said of Nikolic likely winning the Golden Boot. “He deserves every bit of it. He’s been clinical on the chances he’s gotten. He probably could have had even more goals, honestly. He’s a striker and he deserves that for sure.”