Chicago Fire interim head coach Frank Klopas will be a part of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in a different light this Tuesday when his Fire take on two-time defending champion Seattle Sounders FC at CenturyLink Field.
Klopas capped off the Fire's inaugural 1998 MLS season with the game-winning goal during Chicago's Open Cup win over the Columbus Crew.
Now Klopas will be on the sidelines, where Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid on Monday made a ringing endorsement, saying that "Frank has to have a conversation with his boss, his technical director, who I think is also named Frank, and get that 'interim' removed from his title."
Klopas' '98 game-winner against the Crew was a banner moment in a banner season. But if the 2011 Fire manage to unseat Seattle in front of its home faithful of 30,000-plus, Klopas said that as a coach it would carry more enjoyment than the '98 Open Cup team.
"If we were to win this, I think the feeling would be different," Klopas said. "It would probably be better to be able to do it also from this side because I know what these players go through every day, their commitment, and the focus. And I think it would be a great feeling to be on this side. It would be a better moment than doing it as a player. It's hard to say. I know it would be different for me. I would enjoy it more."
With the Sounders and Fire both winning this tournament during their MLS expansion seasons (Seattle in 2009), clearly Klopas and Schmid have put plenty of stock into the Open Cup. The Fire and Sounders have six Open Cup titles between them entering Tuesday's game.
"We've been an MLS team that has won it more than any other -- four times," Klopas said. "So we are very much looking forward to playing against a very good team, in an atmosphere that is second to none, other than Chicago, I would say, for me. The players are looking forward to the match. I'm looking forward to the match. The atmosphere is going to be fantastic."
"I'm a big fan of history and tradition, and this is a competition that has history and tradition within U.S. Soccer," Schmid said. "It's a competition that I, myself, have been able to play in years and years ago. I know my friends in L.A. who played for a club there called Maccabi AC, who ended up winning like five U.S. Open Cups."
Seattle's 2009 run both in the Open Cup and during the regular season certainly brought back the talk of the Fire's '98 season because no other MLS expansion team had been able to make such a strong early statement.
Now the Sounders have a chance at a third crown after beating D.C. United in '09 and the Crew last year.
"I think as an expansion team, as a young club in MLS, winning the first two Open Cups were tremendous in terms of our club's recognition, and in terms of our fans, and in terms of the confidence of our team and our players, to realize that they can win a competition and that they can get through it. Our philosophy is, even though there are other 'fish to fry,' if you're not going to try and win it, let's not enter it."
From the Fire's standpoint, their season has dual importance once again now that they are hanging around the outskirts of the playoff picture.
Chicago is playing in its third game in a week, coming off a 1-1 draw at the Houston Dynamo on Saturday, preceded by a 3-0 road win over Real Salt Lake last Wednesday.
One person the Fire might be getting back is midfielder Sebastian Grazzini, who missed both of those matches with a hamstring injury.
"If he's OK [Tuesday morning], I think he'll be available on the 18-man roster," Klopas said of Grazzini. "But we just have to see how he reacts to [Monday night's] session. We pushed him [Sunday] a little bit with our fitness coach. ... With a hamstring, you never know until you actually go out there and do some kind of fitness test and some sprinting."