Connolly: Visiting a soccer oasis

a team that plays two divisions above them in the current setup -- in a third-round Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup match. Coming into the match, there was only a slight glimmer of hope that their part-time professional players who double as youth coaches, teachers, real estate agents and office workers can hang with a side that is currently leading the Eastern Conference in MLS.

So you can imagine how much excitement filled the intimate grounds of Lusitano when Neil Krause tapped in a Omar McFarlane shot just five minutes into the match to give Western Mass a 1-0 lead. It was as though Luis Figo, himself, had just tallied for the home side.

But much in the same manner that usually happens in these sort of matches, the more experienced, higher-quality side woke themselves up and took control of the play shortly thereafter. The lead that the home team clung to in the early going was vanished by the time halftime rolled around, as Chicago took care of business by scoring three goals, two from rookie Will John and one from Lubos Reiter.

The second half wasn't as eventful with neither team finding the back of the net, giving the Fire a chance to breathe a little easier after a nervous start.

Despite being down a goal five minutes in and seeing play stop on two different occasions for fisticuffs -- Western Mass is known around the United Soccer Leagues for being a physical and emotional side, to say the least -- the Fire emerged with a real appreciation of the unique environment they played in.

"It's pretty interesting here," said head coach Dave Sarachan. "You're driving through little neighborhoods and then all of a sudden there it is. It's such an intimate place with the fans being so close. You can definitely say it's soccer-specific."

Jim Curtin, who started in the central defense with C.J. Brown, got a kick out of the surroundings, wishing there were more places like this in MLS.

"You have this little restaurant and bar right there along the side of the field with people hanging out watching the game," he said. "Make this place a little bigger - add a few thousand seats - and it'd be a great MLS stadium."

For those who have been to SAS Stadium down in Cary, N.C., Lusitano has a similar look as far as the seating goes. It's nothing fancy with high school-ish bleachers on both sides of the field. With its restaurant on the premises -- a gathering place for fans before and during the match and for the Pioneers players and coaches post-game -- it's a tad reminiscent of Blackbaud Stadium in Charleston, S.C.

However, it's hard to think of a soccer venue in this country that routinely has its fans line the chain-link fence around the field at distances close enough to nearly hang over the touchline in many places.

"You could hear everything they were saying," said Curtin. "So when they scored so early into the game, it was a bit of a scare because Western Mass was feeding off their energy."

"That first goal brought the place to life," added Sarachan, whose side will return to Lusitano once again in three weeks to take on the New England Revolution in a fourth-round U.S. Open Cup matchup. "It actually was a good thing for us because that's the type of environment we want our guys to experience and have to play in front of."

Hard-tackling left back Kyle Fletcher, a veteran of seven seasons with the Pioneers dating back to the side in 1999 that won the D3 Pro League title, said that it's always a lively group at Lusitano, no matter who the opponent is.

"There's so much electricity in this place," he said. "People flat out love the game here. And it shows in the way they react to us. Put it this way: If you never saw a soccer game before in your life and you came here for your first game, you'd definitely come back again."

Indeed, said Sarachan, who is no stranger to playing in some of the country's little-known parks and unique stadiums from his days as a professional.

"It also reminded me of some of the stadiums you visit overseas," he said. "There are little of pockets all around Europe with places like (Lusitano)."

Rookie Jack Stewart said it brought him back to the trip he took with Notre Dame over to Scotland during his days with the Fighting Irish.

"These are the stadiums we saw over there," he said. "I like it better this way with the fans so close that they're right on top of you. It's first class here, in my opinion."

Of course, had Chicago lost the sentiment might not be as strong. One bad night would have not only ended in embarrassment for the Fire, but also an early exit from a tournament that this franchise has triumphed three different times (1998, 1999 and 2003) in seven tries.

"These are very important games," said Sarachan. "Not just for the team, but for players like Will (John) and Jack (Stewart). You can only judge talent so much in training. This game mattered - it wasn't an exhibition. So to do well in a knockout situation shows me that they're doing well."

Both rookies showed well, as did left back Leonard Griffin. Thornton also came up with a few big saves when he was needed, especially during the first half when Western Mass got several opportunities around the box.

Interestingly enough, the Pioneers player that stood out the most happened to be the same player that Chicago discovered at the InterSport Combine in 2004 and had in to train on several different occasions last season. McFarlane, a 22-year-old originally from Jamaica, used his sprinter-like speed and smooth skills to glide down both flanks into the box half a dozen times on Wednesday night.

"He was a handful, definitely," said Sarachan.

McFarlane was disappointed at the outcome because he felt his side had enough chances to draw closer, but was pleased with his play.

"I hope they thought that I was a good player," said McFarlane, who stayed with former Fire star Damani Ralph whenever he was flown in to train with the team. "I learned a lot when I was in Chicago. Guys like C.J. Brown, Damani, and Andy Williams helped me become more humble and learn to be more patient. Maybe this will open some doors."

Opening doors for unknown players from lower leagues. Giving second-teamers a chance to catch the eyes of their coaches. And absolutely scaring the heck out of the established ones -- even for just a dozen minutes or so - in a match that's supposed to be a cakewalk for the MLS teams. And all of it taking place with the sweet aroma of grilled sausages to add to the excitement in the air of a small gem of a stadium more than two hours west of Boston.

Exactly what the U.S. Open Cup is all about.

Marc Connolly writes for ESPN.com and several other publications. This column runs each Wednesday on MLSnet.com and Marc can be reached at marc@oakwoodsoccer.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs


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