HANOVER, N.J. – The last time the New York Red Bulls franchise played in the final of the US Open Cup, the Chicago Fire walked out of the Meadowlands in 2003 against the then-New York/New Jersey MetroStars with a 1-0 win and the most storied trophy in American soccer history.
Now, it is that same Fire connection that is hoping to lead the Red Bulls on Wednesday night at Sporting Kansas City as they once again vie for the Open Cup.
It is a seminal moment for this franchise and in particular, for this group of Red Bulls players as this match represents the chance at a real title for their trophy case.
The potential to add an Open Cup to go along with two Supporters Shields earned twice over the last four years for the best record in the regular season, would validate so much of the work and rebuilding done by head coach Jesse Marsch in his third year with the team.
But in 2003, Marsch and his teammates on the Fire spoiled the MetroStars hosting of the Open Cup final, walking out of Giants Stadium with a 1-0 victory and the oldest trophy in American soccer. A Damani Ralph goal in the 68th minute killed the MetroStars and their shot at a first title.
Marsch started and went the full 90 minutes in that match, the chippy midfielder even earning the game’s first yellow card. That was the first and last time that New York made the Open Cup final as a gritty Fire team churned out a win.
“That was the first time that a team on the road won the Open Cup in the MLS era so that was an accomplishment. That game came down to one play. These games, you typically need a break, you need to stay focused with red cards, with penalties, you got to be disciplined,” Marsch said on Monday following training. “You got to seize the moment. On that day we did.”
He remembers his team “just hanging on for dear life and that’s a little bit what it’s like because you know there’s no looking back – teams are going to throw everything they have at each other.”
The Red Bulls have never advanced as far as the semifinals in the Open Cup until this year. Their only other cup final appearance was 2008, a loss in MLS Cup to the Columbus Crew.
Outside of their two Supporter Shield titles for the best record in the regular season, a major trophy has eluded this franchise for 22 years and counting.
First contested in 1914, the US Open Cup is the second-oldest tournament of its kind in the world behind only England’s famed FA Cup.
The single-elimination tournament is a true ‘David vs. Goliath’ format featuring amateur teams and all the clubs in the three tiers of professional soccer in the United States.
The irony is that not only is Marsch, now on New York and attempting to help them lift a first-ever Open Cup trophy, but assistant coach Chris Armas was the Fire’s captain that rainy, cold night in 2003. Red Bulls sporting director Denis Hamlett was an assistant on the Fire’s coaching staff as well.
And even the goal scorer in that game, Ralph, has a major part in the Red Bulls success. Now one of the top soccer agents in the United States with Stellar Group Agency, Ralph helped the Red Bulls land Kemar Lawrence.
In his third year in MLS, Lawrence has grown into one of the top left backs in the league if not the best outside back. He is a regular on Jamaica’s national team.
Ralph also has Junior Flemings on the Red Bulls USL team, a promising young talent as well.
One of the best strikers in the history of MLS, Ralph remembers that goal on a cold, dreary night at old Giants Stadium.
“As the play was developing, I tried to create some space for myself. I made a half-run then pulled my run up to get ready for the cutback…I got back," Ralph told Metro. "I tried to make myself big. The only thing I had in my mind was to get it between the stick and the goalkeeper."
He calls it a top five goal in a career that saw him move from Chicago to Russia in what was the biggest transfer in MLS history at the time.
“There’s not many goals that I scored that won a title,” he said
And a goal, it turns out, that crushed a franchise’s soul.