Photos from a night of Semifinal action in the 2015 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. The Philadelphia Union began the night by returning to the U.S. Open Cup Final for the second time in two years with a 1-0 win against Chicago Fire. Later on, Sporting Kansas City earned its spot in the tournament Final with a 3-1 win against Real Salt Lake.
Just over two years ago, Sporting Kansas City downed Real Salt Lake on penalties to lift the club’s second MLS Cup in the chilly climes of Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan.
Though the two sides have played a number of times since, only Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup Semifinal can come close to the intensity that was felt on that cold December day.
The game was the second final that Real Salt Lake had dropped that year after being upset by lowly D.C. United in the 2013 U.S. Open Cup Final. The memory is one that RSL captain and U.S. international Kyle Beckerman has held on to ever since.
“I think anytime you play a final somewhere, it’s going to stay in your mind,” he told ussoccer.com. “Of course I think of it -- how close we were to winning on their turf, but you also can’t look too far back. For the most part it’s another game. This is similar where it’s do or die, there’s more on the line to play for than other games this year. We’re familiar with each other, we know how each other play and it will makes for a tight affair.”
Though Dom Dwyer was part of Sporting KC when the club lifted the 2012 U.S. Open Cup Final, he played a bit role for the club that year. The following year’s MLS Cup Final was his first crowning achievement and says it went a long way to spark the current rivalry between the two sides.
“We both remember that game for different reasons,” Dwyer told ussoccer.com. “It’s a fond memory for us and not a happy one for them. They’re a tough team, it’s always a battle against them. I’m very much looking forward to the game and playing against them. I look forward to playing football, doing it in a big game against a rival. That’s what any player wants to do.”
The two clubs have already met their quota of three MLS league matches this season, with RSL holding the 2-0-1 advantage. Called in for the U.S. squad at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, Beckerman had to miss the last meeting between the two sides – a 2-1 RSL victory on July 24 – as well as the team’s Round of 16 and Quarterfinal wins against the Portland Timbers and LA Galaxy.
Kyle Beckerman hopes to guide RSL to a second U.S. Open Cup Final in the last three years with a win against SKC on Wednesday night.
Though away on National Team duty, Beckerman watched on as his team utilized the Open Cup to gain a spark at a difficult point of the campaign.
“It was just a really trying period for us in the season,” Beckerman said. “We kind of hit a little lull and the Open Cup gave us a chance to respond from earlier games. We got a big win against Portland then the Galaxy, it helped us get a bit of momentum for the rest of the year.”
That momentum came just in time for RSL to open its CONCACAF Champions League campaign with a 1-0 victory over Guatemalan side Municipal. Having gone to that competition’s final in 2011, the club has placed more emphasis on success in the U.S. Open Cup for the berth it grants to its winner in the annual regional tournament.
“We’ve been to the final of that tournament and got a good taste of it. When it comes down to it, it’s the quickest way to qualify and with that comes extra money and gives your club a bigger audience. With the Open Cup, it’s a chance to lift a trophy and that’s important, but our coaching staff and upper management have taken it a lot more seriously because of what it does for us in CONCACAF.”
While there’s little doubt that Sporting KC would also revel in a return to the Champions League, forward Dom Dwyer, says his side has embraced the history of the competition and what it means to the club’s rabid fan base.
“The Open Cup is a very important competition to us and something we take a lot of pride in,” he told ussoccer.com. “It’s a tournament we won a couple years ago – a lot of guys remember that feeling of lifting the trophy in front of our fans and want to get that taste again.”
After scoring three times on loan to Orlando City during that club’s U.S. Open Cup Quarterfinal run in 2013, Dwyer has made the competition a point of personal pride this year with Sporting. The Englishman set a club record by scoring four goals in the team’s 6-2 drubbing of FC Dallas in the Round of 16.
“That was a very special night for me personally and for the club,” Dwyer said. “Obviously it’s nice to score whenever you can and I was definitely feeling it that night. We have a very strong team and that’s pretty much part of it. We’re going to get chances and my job is to manage to put them away.”
In the Quarterfinal weeks later against the Houston Dynamo, Dwyer had a penalty saved, but earned redemption by tallying an 86th minute winner in the 3-1 victory. His five goals have him leading the tournament’s Golden Boot race.
Beckerman is well aware of the danger Dwyer provides Sporting Kansas City, lauding the forward for his recent rise over the last two seasons.
“Dom is a player that doesn’t stop moving, he’s constantly working off the ball, working for the ball,” he said. “He does a lot of defensive stuff that goes unnoticed for Sporting. When they say defending from front to back, Dom’s truly doing that. That ultimately helps them pressure and their whole team plays better because of it. He’s doing a lot of stuff that doesn’t come up in a stats sheet, but when you get him a chance in front of goal, he’s burying it. He’s really coming into his own and becoming a top striker in this league – one we’ll definitely have to keep an eye on.”
While last week’s draw means that Wednesday’s game will be Sporting KC’s last home match of the 2015 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the opportunity for RSL to host the final is there, if they can win and the Chicago Fire fall to the Philadelphia Union. Though the extra potential carrot of hosting another final at home is there for Beckerman and Real Salt Lake, he was adamant that the focus remains solely on just getting to the tournament’s championship game.
“We really just focus on getting into the final. The only thing we can control is to put ourselves in the final. If it’s home it’s great. If it’s away, we’re okay with it. We just want to get to the dance. We know if we can get there, we’ll have a chance to win.”
As the Draw to determine the hosting priority for the 2015 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Final concluded last Wednesday, the Chicago Fire were in the air, flying to Portland for an MLS match against the Timbers.
Goalkeeper Sean Johnson had just awoken from a nap when the club’s Director of Communications Frank Stranzl beamed the good news throughout the plane: If the team won its Semifinal match at Philadelphia, they’d get to host their first U.S. Open Cup Final at Toyota Park since 2006.
“It was fantastic news,” Johnson told ussoccer.com. “Knowing the tradition this club has and the history of that tournament and the success we’ve had in the past few years, to have the ability to be back at home in front of our fans if we take care of business in Philly is great.”
In just his second year as a pro, Johnson witnessed first-hand what home field advantage in a championship match could mean as the Fire fell 2-0 to Seattle Sounders FC in front of 35,615 at Century Link Field in the 2011 U.S. Open Cup Final.
“You look at competitions around the world and you have a neutral site for the FA Cup, you have a neutral site for the Champions League, but it’s a big deal to be at home in front of your fans. They give you an extra boost, having the support we do and knowing what it would mean to win an Open Cup for the Fire, it would be second to none to win in front of our fans in Chicago.”
Few would know better about what lifting an Open Cup in Chicago would mean than Jim Curtin. The Philadelphia Union head coach did it twice as a defender with the Fire in 2003 and 2006 and says those experiences are the reason he’s made the competition a priority since taking the manager’s reins last June.
“It’s always a little strange going against your former team,” Curtin said. “You see the badge and know what it meant to you when you played, but at the same time you recognize where you are now. To have that be against a team I played with for a lot of years and have a lot of fond memories with in the Open Cup, winning it twice, it makes it a little special. I’ve tried to take the mentality and mindset that was instilled in me when I was in Chicago that the Open Cup is a major competition, it’s one of two trophies in this country that you can lift.”
With the Union and Fire sitting ninth and 10th respectively in the MLS Eastern Conference, the tournament has been a bright light for both clubs, as they’ve struggled to find consistency in league play. Though as Curtin says, “An elimination game has consequences, the most obvious is that the loser goes home.”
“Philly is an opponent that’s in a similar position to us, they’re hungry and at home,” Johnson added. “Either team can look at the season so far and see the Open Cup and know we’re both one win away from playing in a final.”
Both teams made roster additions during the window to help strengthen their sides for a push to the final. After chasing Didier Drogba, the Fire instead snared former Toronto FC striker Gilberto and also added Trinidad & Tobago international Daneil Cyrus to aid in central defense. Not to be outdone, the Union brought Swiss international Tranquillo Barnetta and made a deal with Toronto FC for Warren Creavalle to bolster their midfield.
With league position being what it is and a spot in the 2015 U.S. Open Cup Final on the line, the match may have a feeling of finality for whoever comes up short. While the Chicago Fire have played all three of their matches at home and two against lower league opposition, the Union have had to scrap through two shootouts and two matches where they’ve played down a man for a majority of the game.
Curtin says the adversity his side has faced ever since falling to Seattle Sounders in last year’s Final, has built character and confidence ahead of Wednesday’s all-important match against the Fire.
Philadelphia Union manager Jim Curtin has heaped importance on winning the U.S. Open Cup and now has the club on the cusp of a second final in as many seasons.
“The run we made last year and to get so close and to lose in extra time was devastating for our guys,” he continued. “I made the guys stand out there and watch Seattle accept their medals to see what it’s like. It should be something they remember, which drives and motivates them for this year’s competition. Has it gone smoothly? Absolutely not. The group has been through a lot together and I think every team on a cup run has gone through a wild, crazy game – we’ve just been through three of them.
“We have that going for us. Every game in this competition is a battle. You have to be prepared to go 120 minutes and a shootout if need be. You’d like to be done in 90, but it isn’t always the case.”
And while the Fire will be guaranteed Final hosts if they can down Curtin’s side, their task won’t be easy with the team currently on a 19-match road winless streak across all competitions (0-15-4). Add that the Union have taken 17 of their 23 points in the league at PPL Park this season and they’ll feel good that they’re playing the match at home.
“The home field advantage is enormous in the Open Cup,” he said. “You never know in this game how many opportunities you’re going to have to play in a final. Being one game away is something we’re not going to take lightly. There will be urgency in the game, it’ll be on our home field, we’ll have 18,000 fans backing us which will create a very tough environment.”
As this team readies for what is no doubt their biggest match of the year, Johnson says the Fire won’t let the club’s recent away woes factor into their mentality.
“Everybody that steps on that field Wednesday is going to be in the mindset that they want to be in a cup final. Philly is a good team. They have some good pieces and we have to respect that. We have got to make sure we do the things necessary to come away with a win and put ourselves in the final.”
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