FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – New England Revolution defender Chris Tierney stood on the side of the training field tucked behind Gillette Stadium and tried to place the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Semifinal against Chicago Fire in context.
There is little doubt that this encounter – a meeting on Tuesday night (8:00 p.m. ET, ESPN2) between two historic rivals for a place in the 103rd U.S. Open Cup final next month – carries significant weight. This group of players craves a chance to secure the club’s second U.S. Open Cup title and underscore their own success over the past few years with silverware.
The return to prominence after a fallow period at the turn of the decade includes several significant moments. The MLS Cup defeat to LA Galaxy two years ago is inescapable. So is the triumph over New York Red Bulls on home turf to reach that stage. Those foundational moments serve as the bedrock for a team with the determination to consolidate them with a title at long last.
New England Revolution defender Chris Tierney hopes to help lead the team to its first domestic silverware since its 2007 Open Cup title.
It is why Tierney ranks this date against the Fire near the top of the list as he rifles through it. The opportunity ahead – a chance to defeat a typically defiant and organized opponent to claim a place in the final against FC Dallas or LA Galaxy next month – is a tantalizing one.
“I think it’s probably – home playoff games aside – the biggest game we’ll play in Gillette Stadium that I can remember,” Tierney said.
Most of the credit for the Revs’ fourth trip to the U.S. Open Cup Semifinals and the first visit since 2008 stems from the strength in depth cultivated over the past few seasons.
Heaps and Revolution general manager Michael Burns reconstructed the squad after Heaps’ appointment in November 2011 and focused primarily on cobbling together a durable core of players. Those efforts led to the MLS Cup appearance two years ago and paved the way to increase the competition along the way.
The ability to rotate players without sacrificing performance paid off in this year’s tournament. Heaps blended his lineups carefully to navigate through narrow away victories against NASL sides Carolina Railhawks (1-0 AET) and New York Cosmos (3-2) and set the stage for a home Quarterfinal against Philadelphia Union last month.
“At least before the quarterfinals, we had a couple of away games, but we were going on longer trips so we could bring the entire squad,” Heaps explained. “We managed it, even through longer minutes. It really speaks to the depth of our team. We have really good depth. Even though we’re injured a bit right now, we’re getting recovered from being injured a bit. I like our depth even more coming up this week.”
It is a strength pegged on the continued willingness to deploy MLS MVP runner-up Kei Kamara (influential off the bench against the Cosmos and thrust into the starting XI at the last minute against the Union), U.S. MNT midfielder Lee Nguyen and other frequent contributors during the tournament.
The persistent use of those key players – plus the contributions of other regular starters, particularly Quarterfinal scorer Je-Vaughn Watson – laid the foundation for survival. This dogged run included two extra-time affairs (the 1-0 victory against the Railhawks in the Fourth Round in June and the penalty kick triumph over the Union on July 20) and a willingness to exert all of the energy required to navigate through to the last four.
Revolution coach Heaps won this tournament as a player in 2007 and underscored the importance of receiving contributions across the board in order to reach the Semifinals.
“The only way you can advance in this tournament is to make sure you have core guys playing and core guys resting,” Heaps said. “You have to blend those two. You have guys who are seeking minutes or trying to earn places in the starting XI or the 18. They really separate themselves in these games. We’ve really been able to do that, up until the Semifinal. Now it looks a little differently when you get out of the Quarterfinal and into the semis. Your focus becomes trying to advance into the next round.”
The emphasis on this competition shows why Heaps rotated some players during the 4-1 defeat at Toronto FC and placed so much importance on achieving success on both fronts. Chicago poses an awkward threat with its solid defensive core and its willingness to play quickly on the counter with David Accam and Michael de Leeuw. Those threats are well known to the Revs after a tense 1-0 victory at Gillette Stadium on July 23 and well suited to this knockout, winner-take-all match.
Even with those potential pitfalls in mind, the hosts are well aware of the stakes at Gillette Stadium and well situated to return to the Final for the third time (2001, 2007). Tierney captured them perfectly as he reflected on the magnitude of the proceedings. He noted that there are no consolation prizes for reaching the semifinals or reaching the final. There is only one winner. And it is down to him and his teammates to take that next step and ensure the chase extends through the final next month.