Every year, the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup includes a new batch of amateur clubs hoping to be the tournament’s latest Cinderella story. And every year, TheCup.us introduces soccer fans across the country to these teams that have been the heart and soul of this competition for more than a century. This year, we are expanding our annual “Meet the USASA” series to include the USSSA and US Club Soccer. We bring you “Meet the Underdogs.”
Wednesday’s first-round matches of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup are a chance for the 42 remaining amateur teams in the record 91-team field to take center stage.
But on a night that will feature exclusively players who aren’t being paid to play, the Madison Fire might best exemplify the “Sunday League” amateur teams that decided to try their luck on a higher level in the national tournament.
The Fire have been around since 2003, when two teams in Madison, Wisconsin — Dionysus and Hooligans — merged, but the team didn’t have a logo until one of its players created one last month in preparation for its Open Cup debut against the Des Moines Menace.
Technically, David Kommavang is the Fire’s manager. But he said that’s more of an organizational role rather than an on-field role. Decisions about lineups and strategy are made by the team as a whole — and he’s usually busy playing in the midfield anyway, so he can’t make those calls.
“We talk about what we want to do as a team before we go in,” said Kommavang, who added that the team is hoping to find someone to handle the managerial duties on the sideline Wednesday night for the match in West Des Moines, Iowa. “We’ll be like ‘OK, we’ll start David in the middle and if it goes bad, we’ll push him up to the left and we’ll sub this guy out or something.’ We have ‘what-if’ in place already and we have game plans.”
The Fire have enjoyed great success in the Madison Soccer Association over the past decade, winning four of the past seven Division 1 titles. But last fall, with the top division in the city league shrinking, the current team decided to take a step up and join the Wisconsin Soccer Leagues Major Division.
“A lot of the players wanted to play different teams, because MSA only has six teams (in Division 1). Everybody knows everybody, so that sort of competitiveness, I guess you could say, got lost a little bit,” said Kommavang, a Madison native. “A lot of them thought it would be a good idea to have a Major team … You know, different teams, different atmosphere and maybe the other teams aren’t going to like us.”
The Fire struggled somewhat in the fall, going 3-5-2 against the Milwaukee-area clubs in the WSL Major Division.
“I knew that was going to be a challenge,” said Kommavang, one of several players who played in the league with Madison United. “We’re like, ‘Let’s go ahead and do it. We’ll get through the fall and in the spring, we’re going to make a run for it.’ There’s no doubt in my mind that we’re one of the best teams in the Majors.”
Indeed, the Fire have gone 3-0-1 in their first four matches of the spring, outscoring opponents 13-3 and posting three clean sheets in the process.
In addition to moving into the WSL Majors, the Fire took a shot and signed up for the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. Only two other teams entered the US Adult Soccer Association (USASA) Region II tournament — Kansas City Athletics drew a bye and qualified for the Open Cup proper, while the Fire drew FC Indiana at home with the winner also earning a spot.
“We did take a risk and we got lucky that was a home game,” Kommavang, whose team still only had 12 players for the match — after much confusion over the date and location of the game, it was played at Reddan Soccer Park in nearby Verona.
Ali Barry scored the lone goal and Demba Camara recorded the shutout as the Fire won 1-0 on Oct. 4, 2014 to claim a berth in the 102nd tournament.
“Oh, it’s amazing,” Kommavang said of playing in the US Open Cup. “It’s another step and I think it’s a good way to test our skills to see where we’re at.
“I hope we can get through the first round and see as far as we can go and just give the team and our teammates a good experience, a different level of soccer. Just to be a part of that, to me, that’s just awesome.”
As part of their preparations to play Premier Development League powerhouse Des Moines Menace in Round 1 on Wednesday, the Fire borrowed a page from the successful Wisconsin men’s basketball team and started running up a large hill at Elver Park on Madison’s west side. Badgers coach Bo Ryan, whose team has advanced to the NCAA Final Four each of the past two seasons, has had his teams run the hill as part of their preseason conditioning program for years.
“We will play teams that will be more skilled than us or will have more great players than we have, but we have control over how fit we are,” Kommavang said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime-thing maybe, let’s just go in there 100 percent in shape.”
While the sentiment might ring true, Wednesday won’t be Kommavang’s US Open Cup debut — he played with the Madison 56ers in the 2011 tournament, coming on as a sub in a 4-0 victory over Illinois club AAC Eagles in a first-round match.
The Fire’s roster includes a mix of players from both local and international backgrounds. Trevor Banks (Old Dominion), Brian Bultman and Erol Goknur (Wisconsin), Ryan Germann (Wisconsin-Milwaukee), Will McAteer (Wright State) and Sabastian Xiong (Wisconsin-Green Bay) are former NCAA Division I players, while many other players starred at Division III and junior college programs.
Also on the roster is Khalid “Johnny” Zafari, a 43-year-old native of Afghanistan who has been a constant with the Fire and in Madison soccer circles for years.
“He’s played a few games this season,” Kommavang said of Zafari. “He’s in amazing shape, man. We call him ‘The Godfather.’
“As for the Fire’s chances against the Menace and possibly USL professional club Saint Louis FC in the second round?
“We could be like the California team,” Kommavang said, referring to Cal FC, which beat the Wilmington Hammerheads of USL Pro and Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers as they advanced to the fourth round of the tournament in 2012.