2011 LAMAR HUNT US OPEN CUP QUALIFIER
This Wednesday, May 25th at 7:30 PM, Sporting KC will play the first home match of the season - not at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park, but at the Blue Valley District Activities Complex at 135th and Switzer in Overland Park, KS. After advancing to the final round of qualifying for the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup with a victory over the Dynamo last month in College Station, TX, Sporting will face the New England Revolution with a berth in the tournament's Round of 16 on the line.
If you found that paragraph confusing, just roll with it, and welcome to the wild and wacky world of American soccer fandom; we’re glad to have you. If you’re familiar with the FA Cup - it’s like that, but here. If you aren’t familiar with the FA Cup, here’s the short version: it’s a single-elimination tournament. Almost anybody in the country can put together a team, and qualify for the Open Cup through the US Amateur Soccer Association by winning regional tournaments. Professional teams enter into the tournament later in the process. The whole thing happens parallel to the MLS season or any lower division season, and results in one have no bearing on what’s going on in the other. Are we clear? (There’s a lot I’m leaving out, so don’t nitpick, mkay? There’ll be time for questions at the end.)
The Open Cup has provided great memories for many long-time supporters of MLS clubs, myself included, for a wide variety of reasons. For one thing, there is a long, genuine history associated with the Open Cup; it has been contested for nearly 100 years, and a look at its winners hints at a great deal about the history of American soccer (with the notable exception of the lack of winners from the NASL - they did not take part in the tournament). You can see the geographic roots of the game, as well as the corporate and or ethnic associations of the bulk of the winners in the pre-MLS era.
I have many fond memories of home Open Cup matches (we’ll include the “qualifiers”) in KC. The first was probably actually the worst. The Wiz were supposed to play in the quarterfinal round against the Colorado Foxes, then a team in the second division A-League. However, for reasons that I’ve never really explored, the Foxes weren’t able to agree to a scheduled date, and the Rapids came to Arrowhead instead. No, really.
It was early September, and unseasonably cool; 40 degrees, raining, with howling winds. The game was included for season ticket holders, but most of them took a pass on this one. The game had received no promotion or real sales activity, and most people were bewildered as to what was even going on.
1996 Wiz Fan: So, what you’re telling me is that we’re playing the Rapids, another MLS team, but it isn’t an MLS game?
Other Interested, But Better-Informed 1996 Wiz Fan: Yes, but we weren’t supposed to be playing the Rapids, we were supposed to be playing the Colorado Foxes of the A-League. They might be better than the Rapids, anyway, so good for us! Wolde Harris is way better than Jean Harbour! Mark Dodd and Taifour Diane used to play for them.
1996 MLS Fan: Mark Dodd? The Burn goalkeeper with the perm who dives instead of moving his feet?
2011 MLS Fan: What’s a Burn?
And so on. All of which is a long way of explaining that there was absolutely no one at the game. There were three (3) people in our usual standing supporters’ spot behind the goal that night. Three. Apparently, everyone on the sidelines had been invited to go up and watch from the Stadium Club. A few haggard souls were up at the top of the endline seating, under the club level overhang, but that was it. Oh, and we lost 3-2, with two of the Colorado (Rapids) goals coming from horrific mistakes by rookie goalkeeper Chris Snitko, getting the start in less-than-ideal conditions. Just miserable all around. Of course, I look back upon it fondly.
Most of the other Open Cup memories are quite happy, including four wins in five Open Cup matches at the BVDAC, but they were several years in the making. In 1997, 1998 and 2000, the Wizards’ US Open Cup “runs” all ended in a lone, ignominious defeat on the road against a lower division team. In 1999, because of the qualification system in place at the time, we weren’t even eligible for the tournament. After 1996, there was not an Open Cup home game in Kansas City until 2001. At that time, because of the expense of opening Arrowhead and the limited lead time and promotion budget of Open Cup, GM Curt Johnson scheduled the home Open Cup match against the Seattle Sounders (then in the second division) to be played at the then-new BVDAC.
Many other MLS clubs had gone this route, due to lack of control over their venues, and it became a great tradition in Kansas City. In that first season of Open Cup play at smaller venues, the 4-1 win over the Sounders was followed by a tense 1-0 loss to the Chicago Fire, whom the Wizards had edged out for both the MLS Cup and the Supporters’ Shield the year before.
That 2001 loss to the Fire remains, bizarrely, one of my best memories of supporting the team. The crowd was packed together (not a common occurrence at Arrowhead), and the standing supporters were right on top of the action, and right with the other fans. The Fire goal was scored in the 90th minute by Hristo Stoichkov, who starred for Bulgaria in the 1994 World Cup, and won the 1994 European Footballer of the Year award for his efforts for Bulgaria and Barcelona. The loss was tough, but the game was intense, and I saw Hristo Stochkov play on a high school field in Overland Park. “Surreal” doesn’t quite cover it.
On several occasions when the BVDAC was not available, or when a larger crowd was anticipated, other venues were used. I had great experiences walking to/from the Power Plant brewpub in downtown Parkville (RIP) for games when Park University’s facility was used. The game at Shawnee Mission North two seasons ago, easily the largest secondary stadium that has been used for Open Cup play in KC, lent a different feel to the proceedings. Last year’s game at UMKC was great because of the bars and restaurants nearby, plus the score of families walking to the game, many of them coming via the Brookside Trolley Trail.
The win over the Fire in 2004 at Arrowhead to actually win the tournament that bears Lamar Hunt’s name was great, to be sure. It helped soothe the pain of a season that saw the injury-riddled Wizards come within just three goals of an unprecedented (and still unaccomplished) domestic “treble” (winning the MLS Cup, Supporters’ Shield and US Open Cup in the same season), and I’m glad that the injury-prone Igor Simutenkov scored the game-winner, because he remains one of the finest players to have ever played for us, and he will always have something by which he can be remembered.
As an aside, and I’ll have to write about this some time, I firmly believe that the 2004 Wizards weren’t only the best team in our club’s history, but one of the best MLS teams of all time. It took an absurd amount of rotten luck for them not to win the aforementioned treble, including playing much of the season without key players, including Preki, the reigning league MVP. But, I digress.
As the day of LIVESTRONG Sporting Park’s opening approaches, I can’t emphasize enough the unique nature of these Open Cup matches. Despite the recent lack of wins in MLS play, in Open Cup play, we currently sit five wins from winning one of US Soccer’s oldest and most prestigious trophies. Get tickets for this Wednesday’s game, and you’ll see every face in the crowd, hear every word on the pitch, and probably witness the last competitive home match outside of LIVESTRONG Sporting Park for many years to come.
This is both the first chance to see the first team in a competitive match in KC this year and the last chance to live a part of Kansas City soccer history that isn’t coming again. We have a home now, and Open Cup games will be held in that home like MLS matches or international matches (friendly or competitive). While there’s a part of me that is glad that we won’t see this happen again, there’s secretly an even bigger part of me that will be sad to see it end.