Looking back on 2011 U.S. Open Cup qualifying match in Peoria

How a game in Peoria wrote itself into Fire lore

It seems odd how an early-round U.S. Open Cup qualifier played two and a half hours south of Toyota Park can take on such space in the lore of a club, but that’s exactly what the Fire-Rapids tournament play-in match did on March 30, 2011.

On a personal and club level, so many things built up to make that day special. For me, the birth of my second nephew Blaise just hours before kickoff sets it apart but then everything else happened…

I was pleased and honored to be able to call the game with my co-hort Brendan Hannan. I’d called three matches during preseason in Charleston, SC just weeks before, while he’d sat in the press box doing those P.R. duties.

“I’ll have to show him the ropes,” I thought to myself.

Forgetting the fact that he began that fateful webcast sounding more like an auctioneer desperate for breath, once he settled in, I found that he was a seasoned pro -- one I should be taking tips from.

Much like Dominic Oduro admitted to me in Thursday’s All-In Podcast that his goal celebrations are pre-meditated, Mr. Hannan asked those in the press box prior to the match what he should say if a Fire goal was scored.

A number of conservative suggestions were put out there until once voice, harkening back to the old Seinfeld adage about pretzels, won the impromptu contest…

The Match

Prior to kickoff, a contingent of about 150 supporters from Section 8 Chicago found their way behind the north goal at Bradley University’s Shea Stadium, an advantage that would come into play later on in the contest.

The match had a back and forth ebb and flow with the Fire holding slightly more possession but neither team could break through until just before the break through the Uruguayan combo of Diego Chaves and Gaston Puerari.

Chaves collected the ball 40 yards from goal before playing a perfect through ball for Puerari, who cut into the box and hammered a low effort past Ian Joyce to give the Fire a 1-0 lead.

First “YAHTZEE” before a more typical “GOALLLLLLL” call ensued from Mr. Hannan. I then made a poor correlation of Puerari bringing his prior skills as a butcher to “slice and dice” through the Rapids defense.

 No bother though as it perfectly set up the now famous call, “Forty-fifth minute goal there from Gaston Puerari and THESE PRETZELS ARE MAKING ME THIRSTY FOLKS!”

In pure jubilation I looked over and had to laugh. We were leading 1-0 going into the half and I’d just heard the greatest sports call since “Boom goes the dynamite!”

The jubilation was short-lived as a Rapids side that brought only 14 players to Peoria equalized through former Fire PDL striker Andre Akpan one minute after the break.

Remembering the club’s early exit from the competition in 2010, losing on penalties at home to Charleston, the team remained resilient and found a break in the form of what I’ll call “natural weather patterns” over Shea Stadium.

About 10 minutes into the second half, a “gust of fog” seemed to settle right over the Rapids end of the field. Couple that with Section 8 Chicago standing within 10 feet of Rapids ‘keeper Ian Joyce throughout the second frame and the special home-field advantage that only Shea Stadium can provide presented itself.

As the wafting fog somewhat dissipated over the field in the 60th minute, Patrick Nyarko found himself picking up a loose ball in the center circle. As he’s become known for, Nyarko showed nifty footwork to hold onto the ball despite challenges from two Rapids players.  

He finally laid off a back pass to Logan Pause who slid the ball into the path of rookie defender Jalil Anibaba, pushing far up the right flank.

Anibaba took a touch into acres of space, looked up through the fog and unchallenged, decided to unleash a bulleting effort from 40 yards that, well, you know…

Without a clear view of sight (because of the fog), a pause came before Hannan yelled, “GOALLLLLL” again.

Unprepared to follow up with another Seinfeld line, Brendan could have relied on something from two of his favorite 80’s sitcoms Mr. Belvedere or Diff’rent Strokes. Instead he went with pure improvisational emotion…

 “IMPROBABLE! IMPOSSIBLE! JALIL ANIBABA WITH THE GOAL! HE SPRINTS OVER TO THE FIRE BENCH.”

I have to say, the sight of a rookie scoring a goal like that three games into his professional career is pretty special. You may hear me in the background laughing but I think I almost teared up as I saw Jalil run to hug then-Fire head coach Carlos de los Cobos on the sideline.

Brendan collected himself and exclaimed, “WHAT A GOAL! IAN JOYCE HAD NO IDEA IT WAS COMING! THROUGH THE GUISE OF SMOKE (fog)!”

The Fire battled to hold on to the lead through the end of the match and ended up coming away with a 2-1 victory over the defending MLS Cup champion Rapids.

The Outcome

It was this match that set the Fire on the course to an MLS-record sixth Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final. It’s a game that I’ll always point to as being the beginning of a run that saved the season from disaster after the team struggled to navigate the first half of the campaign.

Wins in the tournament proper vs. Rochester, New York and Richmond helped the team keep spirits high and spurred a late season run that saw the side who’d won only two of its first 20 regular season matches come within three points of a playoff berth. A club that had long been known for its success in the domestic cup competition but had experienced a number of early exits in recent years rediscovered the magic and beauty of a cup run.

On the flip side, it launched Brendan’s amateur broadcast career with the highlights and goal call making their way to ESPN News. If you ever have the hankering for a good Seinfeld quip, go to YouTube, use the search terms “these pretzels are making me thirsty” and see what comes up…