As a member of the Michigan Bucks in 2009 and again in 2011, Tony Walls knew how big of a deal Tuesday’s US Open Cup game against the Chicago Fire was bound to be for his former team.
The Fire defender saw the Open Cup-themed Facebook posts from the Bucks pop up on his computer screen. He saw the excitement of his former teammates and coaches leading up to the game.
And when he walked into the Ultimate Soccer Arenas in Pontiac, Mich., he saw a packed house, unlike any crowd he’d seen when he played there.
“These Open Cup games are pretty big,” Walls told MLSsoccer.com after Tuesday’s game. “To have a good opportunity like this, tonight, to play against an MLS team, it’s not only a good opportunity to jumpstart a team, but [the Bucks] can show their fans that they can compete on the highest level, and that’s exactly what they did tonight.”
The challenge, though, was making his Fire teammates realize how big this game was for the Bucks before Chicago’s shocking 3-2 overtime loss in their first game of the tournament.
“I think we were a little thrown off by their desire and their will to win and how bad they wanted this game,” Walls said. “I guess we thought they were going to lie down because of the badge on their jerseys, but that wasn’t the case.”
All game, a team made up of mostly Fire reserves had a difficult time with a team that plays in American soccer’s fourth tier. After Chicago tied the game, 1-1, Michigan had plenty of chances to take the lead, including a shot that hit the cross bar.
But the Fire took the lead in the 51st minute on a Federico Puppo strike, and it looked as if they might escape.
“After we went up 2-1, you could see that we kind of thought we had the game won,” Walls said. “Soccer’s a funny game. Take one moment off, and they’re back in the game.”
That moment came in the 79th minute, when Nathaniel Boyden’s header beat goalkeeper Paolo Tornaghi at the back post.
The Fire allowed another goal early in overtime, this time off the foot of Nermin Crnkic. Despite a few attempts at goal, the Fire weren’t able to pull out a victory against a motivated fourth-tier side.
“We came out, I guess you could say, overlooking them, or sort of expecting to win,” Walls said. “You could see this was probably the biggest game of the summer for them.”