Once again I am reminiscing about past soccer experiences. This time it was last Wednesday night in Minnesota that got me thinking about the U.S. Open Cup. As most of you know we have qualified for the semifinal of the competition thanks to a spirited effort against the Minnesota Thunder of the A-League. What you may not have known was that it definitely was not easy. For the A-League, the Open Cup is a chance to prove that they too belong in the upper echelon of American soccer.
The Thunder had just come off a 1-0 upset win against our nemesis the L.A. Galaxy a few weeks earlier and were determined to add another MLS scalp to their collection. I don't think we came out with the proper mentality and within five minutes we were down 1-0. But we continued to press the game and when we tied it just before the half it looked as if it would be easy sailing. However, no matter what country you are in, cup competitions are never easy. Down 2-1 early in the second half the Thunder never gave up. Jon Conway made two spectacular saves to protect the lead only to see them score on a free header off a corner kick. Extra time proved nothing, even with the controversial dying seconds (we appealed for a handball). Then it was on to penalties. We held our nerve (and serve) and won 5-4. Up next is a trip to Kansas City and an opportunity to reach the U.S. Open Cup Final.
That's a long lead-in, but what triggered the memories was a run put together by the Rochester Raging Rhinos of the A-League in 1999. Being on the other side of things (now with MLS), I could sense the desperation and determination of the Thunder in their attempt to defeat us. The beauty of soccer is that you always have a chance to win. In 1999 I played for the Rhinos and we had a very memorable run. Each and every game had some sort of drama. In our first round we played at home (a common theme) against an amateur team from New York. Well, this game went to overtime where we won with a golden goal. In round two we faced the defending U.S. Open Cup and MLS champion Chicago Fire and prevailed 1-0 (also at home in front of over 12,000 fans). Next up was Dallas 2-1 in overtime (at home again).
The semifinal was against the Columbus Crew in what proved to be the most memorable of all the Cup games. We played in Virginia Beach on the edge of some hurricane in the strongest winds imaginable. Now I'm not the best kicker of the ball, but my best goal kick reached 35 yards. So when we survived the first half going into the wind at 0-0 we thought we had the game won. Little did we know. The second half was a little crazy but to make a long story short it was 2-1 for the Crew with about 10 minutes left when Stern John missed a sitter from about six yards out and you could sense that we had a chance. In the 88th we scored off a deflection and then in the 90th our left back, Tim Hardy, who never passes let alone shoots with his right, hits a bomb (with his right foot) from 30 yards out into the bottom corner to put us in the final.
We beat Colorado 2-0 in the final but the excitement of that run is something I'll never forget. In each and every game somebody different stood up and carried our team. At the time we felt we could compete with any team in the MLS. Now we weren't naive to think that we could win consistently week in and week out but we did believe, on our day, we had just as good a chance to win as them. So sometimes getting past the A-League clubs on paper seems simple enough but they do have a little extra motivation.
Now we are one win away from a cup final. It won't be easy, but it is still a major championship and one the team is looking forward to attempting to win.