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.”