It’s the 81st minute in a 2014 U.S. Open Cup Quarterfinal where the Atlanta Silverbacks and visiting Chicago Fire are locked 1-1 and staring 30 minutes of extra time straight in the face.
The combination of both sides being down to 10 men following a midfield confrontation around the half-hour mark and a muggy Atlanta night would dissuade either side from wanting to play any additional time.
It’s the perfect scenario for an unlikely hero to step up, and that’s when new Chicago Fire forward Matt Fondy identified himself. Signed just four days prior to the match, the former Chivas USA, Los Angeles Blues and Pittsburgh Riverhounds forward picked up a loose ball at the top of the area and powerfully strolled toward goal before being chopped down just outside the six yard box.
Referee Edvin Jurisevic pointed to the spot and Fire captain Jeff Larentowicz confidently slotted his penalty kick effort straight up the middle to give the Windy City side the go-ahead goal.
“That was great,” Fondy recalled. “I think most players can relate, but at the professional level moving from team to team, sometimes it’s hard to integrate, especially being halfway through the season already. It was great to get out to a good start and make an impact off the bench.”
“That was a big moment,” remembered Larentowicz. “After the game I remember thinking that this new guy has come on and made a difference.”
Captain Jeff Larentowicz and the Chicago Fire are looking to make a run in this year's tournament after a disappointing loss to Seattle in the 2014 U.S. Open Cup semifinals.
One more late goal put the game on ice, and the Fire advanced to the club’s 10th U.S. Open Cup semifinal (a Modern Era record), but as the season went on there were few similar moments for Fondy and the Fire. The team went on to break Major League Soccer’s record for draws (18) and finished outside of the MLS Cup playoffs for the fourth time in five years.
Perhaps the biggest dagger came in a road semifinal at Seattle Sounders FC where the Fire were routed 6-0 – the most lopsided defeat in club history.
In an effort to rebuild, Fondy was one of 15 players that left the team in the offseason, going on to sign with new USL side Louisville City FC. On Tuesday, the 25-year-old forward will return to Toyota Park as the Fire host City in the U.S. Open Cup Fourth Round.
“I’m definitely excited to come back and see the guys I played with,” Fondy said. “You become friends with people when you play, and I’m looking forward to playing against my former teammates and competing. I think that after my time with Chivas USA and the Fire I wanted to go to a team where I could have an impact and fight for a championship. Whether that’s Open Cup or the league, competing at that level and being an integral part of the team is most important at this point in my career.”
One of the more experienced players on the Louisville City roster, Fondy has captained the side that currently sits fourth in the USL’s Eastern Conference, and leads the team in goals with six and two assists in 12 matches.
Matt Fondy has found a staring role with Louisville City this season, bagging six goals and two assists in 12 games.
And Larentowicz has kept tabs on his former teammate.
“What I’ve heard from the other guys that are playing with our affiliate in Saint Louis that just played Louisville or Mike Magee that just went down there and played against them, he’s definitely one of their top players and top scorers,” said the Fire captain. “He showed coming on last year in Atlanta that he can be a handful and I’m sure he’s going to be doing the same things on Tuesday.”
As for the four-time champion Fire, the side begins the 2015 U.S. Open Cup with the same goal they’ve had every year since 2006, equaling Bethlehem Steel’s and Maccabi Los Angeles’ tournament record of five titles. Before they get there, putting the 6-0 semifinal drubbing at the hands of fellow four-time champs Sounders FC behind them will be important.
The club was hurt by that. I think we did pretty well to get into the semifinal. We were not ready to play that game and got our asses handed to us in that match. - Fire head coach Frank Yallop
“Our team has changed a lot since that game,” Larentowicz added. “For those of us that were here for it, it’s our job to make sure we get it across to the new guys and make it right. Everybody knows the last couple years we’ve come close to getting to the final and have come up short. Tuesday is when it begins and we need to be focused on the task ahead.”
Both Chicago and Louisville face short turnarounds with matching 2-0 league defeats coming against the New England Revolution and Rochester Rhinos, respectively, on Saturday. While Yallop said Monday he’ll put out “as strong a lineup as possible”, he also confirmed he’ll be without winger David Accam and Joevin Jones who are away on international duty, while Magee, who recently returned after a long injury layoff, will also be unavailable after tweaking his hamstring last week.
With the race to five U.S. Open Cup titles now tighter than ever between the Fire and Sounders FC, Larentowicz said there’s no question that his team won’t be taking Louisville City – or any opponent – lightly as they aim to lift the cup once again in 2015.
“It’s a mentality. You’ve seen in the past what our Open Cup runs have done for us as well. I think we’ve started the last two seasons poorly and reached this point in the year, taking these games seriously and done well in these games. It’s done good things for us going back to the MLS season. Beyond all that, it’s the mentality to go out and win games – it doesn’t matter who you’re playing. It’s a difficult tournament, it’s one where you’re going to have to go on the road to win a game or two to win. It takes a winning mentality.”
On Feb. 9, 2013, the U.S. Women’s National Team kicked off the new year with a 4-1 victory against Scotland in Jacksonville, Florida. Christen Press, then 24-years-old, was responsible for two goals that day, scoring in the 13th minute and adding another in the 32nd to give the U.S. a 2-0 lead at halftime.
The early goal was Press’ first for the USA, coming in a match that was also her first cap.
Becky Sauerbrunn hugs Christen Press in the aftermath of Press scoring on her WNT debut.
Earning that first cap is special for any player, but a debut and a goal in the same game? That’s a rare feat. In the 30+ year history of the U.S. WNT 21 players have scored in their first caps.
NOTHING TO LOSE
Press’ path to that first game three years ago was an interesting one. In early 2012, she made the decision to move to Sweden after U.S.-based Women’s Professional Soccer folded. Press thought leaving the country might negatively impact her hopeful National Team career, but little did she know, it was only just beginning.
“I think just because I always thought that the National Teams would be watching the American league, I thought that going abroad was kind of like saying goodbye to my dream of playing for the National Team,” recalled Press. “I left around this time, in February, and I thought I would not get a call, I sort of thought that I would fall out of U.S. Soccer’s radar.”
As it turns out, head coach Pia Sundhage kept tabs on players in Europe, especially in her native land of Sweden. Press got off to a hot start with her new club, and it wasn’t long before she was on her way back home.
Press returned to the U.S. and joined the WNT in Florida in April during the final stretch of what had been an intense fitness camp. She kept to herself and tried to quickly learn as much as possible despite only being there for five days.
“I had nothing to lose,” she said. “It was my first camp, it was warm and I was so happy. I don’t think I spoke to anybody. I was not nervous, I was just happy to be in Florida and my dream was coming true. I’m always quiet when I don’t know my surroundings, so I just kept to myself trying to learn the rules, how to behave; it was all so quick.”
That short stint turned out to be the only one for Press before she was named an Olympic alternate in 2012. The following February, Tom Sermanni took over as WNT head coach, and it was then Press learned she would start against Scotland. Her chance had arrived.
“I went on the field, the crowd was so much bigger than I’d ever played in front of, and for me it was so much bigger than life,” said Press. “But I kept telling myself, ‘I’m not nervous, I’m confident, I’m a good player and I believe in myself.’”
Years and multiple goals later, plus one Women’s World Cup title to her name, the dream is alive and well for Press.
Press celebrates scoring her first World Cup goal against Australia in the USA's opening match of the 2015 Women's World Cup