The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup brings some of my greatest soccer memories to mind. It’s a tournament that allows adult teams from all levels of soccer in the United States a chance to make a name for themselves. Though MLS teams have won all but one tournament since the league launched in 1996, there are lower division clubs that pull surprises every year.
Hailing from Detroit, I grew up watching the Mid Michigan Bucks Premier Development League side play as giant killers to professional teams over several years in the tournament.
The fourth division team made up almost entirely of amateur college players made it their first season’s goal to qualify for the prestigious tournament, viewing it as the easiest way to bring professional teams to Michigan. Aside from qualifying a number of times, the Bucks inscribed their name deep in the tournament’s history when they became the first PDL side to defeat an MLS team, downing the New England Revolution 1-0 on June 27, 2000 in Foxboro, Mass.
The Bucks returned to Saginaw for the next round, falling on penalty kicks to the Miami Fusion, to after playing to a 3-3 draw with the MLS side. I was at that match and it was the game that absolutely got me hooked on this tournament and its value for all club’s in the United States.
Full disclosure: I would go on to intern and then work for the Bucks from 2007-2009 after they relocated to the Detroit area.
I know what most Fire fans are thinking: “Why is he talking about a team from Detroit? Doesn’t he know DETROIT SUCKS?”
Having lived in the Windy City for six months now, I’ve become familiar with that moniker, but I bring up the Bucks because they are the PDL equivalent to what the Fire have been for MLS in the US Open Cup since 1998.
For a PDL side, just qualifying is an accomplishment. It means you’re almost certain to play at least one professional team and that experience is invaluable for players that are near making the next step in their career. In 15 seasons, the Bucks have qualified for the US Open Cup eight times – more than any other PDL side. They’ve taken the scalp of seven professional teams in that time.
At the same time, the Chicago Fire Soccer Club has made the US Open Cup a huge priority, leading all MLS teams in championships with four (’98, ’00, ’03, ’06) – just one away from tying historic American clubs Bethlehem Steel and Maccabi Los Angeles for most championships all time. Overall the club is 25-8-2 in the tournament since 1998, with their win total also ranking top among all teams in the American topflight.
This Tuesday the Fire open up their 13th U.S. Open Cup campaign when the Charleston Battery pay a visit to Toyota Park. Those less familiar with the inner workings of U.S. Soccer may have never heard of the USL Second Division side, but it’s a not a club to take lightly.
Founded in 1993, the Battery have played at different levels in the United Soccer Leagues, going from the First Division to the PDL equivalent, back to the First Division, before dropping to the league’s Second Division for 2010.
Three times the South Carolina club has made it to the semifinals, most recently in 2008 when they took the scalp of two MLS clubs (Houston and Dallas) on their way to finishing as runners up, falling 2-1 to D.C. United in the final.
Oh by the way, these two teams have a tournament history. Playing at Cardinal Stadium in Naperville back in 2004, the Fire needed Dipsy Selolwane’s 107th minute goal to advance past the USL side.
While the Fire payroll may be nowhere near any of the teams playing beneath MLS, it’s important to remember that four of the club’s eight losses in the Open Cup have comes against second and even third division teams, most recently falling 1-0 last year to the Wilmington Hammerheads.
Should the Fire win? Absolutely, but it’s important to remember there’s a reason this tournament is so intriguing season after season. Four years on from the Fire’s last Open Cup title in 2006, the club is due to make a run this year.
It all starts on Tuesday.
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