Jorge Rodriguez was more than capable during his pro soccer years in Dallas. The versatile defender and midfielder could certainly hold his own, even if he wasn’t necessarily a game-changer or head-turner.
So how ironic that perhaps the most important kick in more than two decades of professional soccer in Dallas came off this Salvadorian international’s right foot. His well-placed penalty kick almost 20 years ago was the clincher of the 1997 U.S. Open Cup, the fifth successful conversion as the Dallas Burn took down a far more heralded D.C. United bunch at a neutral site on a cold Indiana night in November.
Who knew back then that it would be the only championship this club, rebranded as FC Dallas in 2004, would earn during its first two decades? That could change Tuesday night in the northern Dallas suburb of Frisco, where a stadium built by the same man for whom the tournament is now named, domestic soccer pioneer Lamar Hunt, hosts the U.S. Open Cup final.
Jorge Rodriguez converted the deciding penalty kick to deliver the '97 Open Cup title to Dallas.
The 1997 U.S. Open Cup files are thick with backstories from competitors on both sides of that cold night at the Carroll Stadium on IUPUI’s campus. For Dallas, the emotion of the evening was all about the thrill of the only professional soccer final in which many of the players would participate. And also about helping a teammate through some very hard times.
“It was definitely a very emotional night,” said Dante Washington, who scored 52 goals over 9 MLS seasons and helped Dallas lift the trophy that night.
Washington remained active in MLS circles after retirement as a broadcaster, but he’s hardly the most familiar name from coach Dave Dir’s hand-picked, tight-knit group. Most prominent was Jason Kreis, who would go on to be the youngest MLS Cup-winning manager, claiming Major League Soccer’s ultimate prize in 2009.
Garth Lagerwey, the front office architect of those successful RSL teams and now GM with the Seattle Sounders, was a backup goalkeeper on that 1997 team. So was Jeff Cassar, now RSL’s manager, who was injured and not available for the Open Cup final. Also on that team were current RSL assistant Ted Eck and Vancouver Whitecaps director of soccer operations Tom Soehn, himself a former MLS manager.
Kreis was on his way to becoming Major League Soccer’s original 100-goal scorer. (Great trivia: he is the only player to have hit the inaugural goal for two MLS franchises, doing so for Dallas in 1996 and Real Salt Lake in 2005.) Two years after that Open Cup championship Kreis became the first American-born player voted league MVP, doing so with the first 15-goal, 15-assist season in league history. He would be named an MLS All-Star five times.
But team-wise, the list of achievement was far shorter. A few of those of the early Dallas Burn men had come with Dir from the Colorado Foxes, having won two championships in the early 1990s in the old A-League. But for Kreis and quite a few others, their personal list of professional championships begins and ends with the Dewar Cup hoist that night in Indiana.
“That’s one of the fondest memories I have as a player,” Kreis said as he and others recalled the 1997 crown. “It’s the only trophy I ever won as player. In fact, it was the only final I ever got to play in.”
Jason Kreis was pivotal to the Dallas Burn in its run to the 1997 U.S. Open Cup title.
He recalled not starting for much of the 1997 season, but that he “did start in all the Open Cup matches, and felt like I had a big hand in getting our team to the final.”
There was actually a little more to it. Kreis, now manager at Orlando City SC, had come into the club as a rookie playmaking midfielder in 1996 and had big plans for 1997. But the club added blue chip Swiss international Alain Sutter, who pushed a young and brooding Kreis to the bench. (The next year, Dir moved Kreis ahead in the formation to striker to get both players on the field, which proved a master stroke that benefitted manager and player.)
The club was lucky to have Sutter, a Bundesliga vet and previously a driving force on a strong Swiss side in the 1994 World Cup. He was influential in getting the Burn into the MLS playoffs but also a big reason why the Burn crashed out. Sutter had been terrific in eliminating the LA Galaxy in the first round but developed a stomach bug and was ineffective as the team lost to Colorado in the conference finals.
So Dir and his men definitely felt that “something to prove” pressure. Andy Swift, working then in media relations but later the team’s GM and now executive director of the Dr Pepper Dallas Cup, explained it like this:
“The Open Cup final was an opportunity to play MLS Cup champion D.C. United, who they would have played in MLS Cup, and who they generally felt they had a good chance of beating, provided Sutter was healthy.” Swift said. “So within the team, the game was an important opportunity to show they were as good as a two-time MLS champ.”
The Dallas Burn (now FC Dallas) hoist the 1997 U.S. Open Cup trophy.
United was a fantastic team, blessed with individuals who would become MLS legends, Marco Etcheverry, Jaime Moreno and Raul Diaz Arce foremost among them. Directed by Bruce Arena, they had won a second MLS Cup just days before the Open Cup final (which was played back then at a neutral site).
“I really feel like that was one of the best teams I have ever played on in terms of the talent we had,” Washington said. “We were really disappointed in how things worked out against Colorado and felt like we should have been in MLS Cup [against D.C. United]. So it was great that we got to meet D.C. for this title.”
A testament to the talent and close-nit nature of that team is the astonishing fact that the Burn captured the ’97 Open Cup title without playing a single home game the entire tournament and remains the only team to have achieved that feat in the competition’s modern era (1995-present).
Washington pointed out there’s a little more going on in today’s domestic soccer scene. In addition to MLS Cup and the Open Cup, there are CONCACAF Champions League positions at stake. And Supporters Shield today is a bigger deal now than it was in those earliest MLS campaigns.
“It’s a title, you know? Any title is a big deal, of course,” he said. “But back then it was pretty much MLS Cup and the Open Cup, and that was it.”
Tomorrow, we go for our 1st trophy since '97.— FC Dallas (@FCDallas) September 12, 2016
This is the must-watch look at that amazing team, told first-hand. pic.twitter.com/GKD6AQeHJU
The disappointment of a previous playoff ouster wasn’t only motivation driving the team. Dir had been careful to place the right people inside that barebones locker room at the old Cotton Bowl on the State Fair of Texas grounds, a roster full of “givers” rather than “takers,” as current national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann would say it. So the players were generally quite close, and it hit everyone hard when goalkeeper Mark Dodd’s mother died unexpectedly just days before the Open Cup final.
“We weren't sure if he was going to play, or even make the trip,” Swift said. “But once he decided to play, it became another rallying cry for the team, to win it for Mark.”
“To this day, I don’t know how Mark held it together for that match,” Washington said “It meant so much to all of us, to be able to give him just a little bit, even just an ounce of happiness after all the stuff he had gone through that week.”
The match was even, with United generating a slight edge in shots (18-14) but each goalkeeper claiming five saves. Both teams hit the post; Dallas did so twice, including once in the 30-minute overtime. (Highlights are here.) In the end, the teams played 120 scoreless minutes before Dallas prevailed in penalty kicks.
“I still have that medal,” said Lagerwey, who recalled picking up injured teammate Mark Santel and carrying him onto the field to be part of the post-game dog-pile and celebration. “It still means a lot. It’s still the only championship I won as a player, and it was a pretty cool moment to be part of that.”