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U.S. Open Cup, Chicago Fire vs St. Louis FC

St. Louis FC midfielder Austin Martz, right, celebrates scoring in the first half of a U.S. Open Cup game against the Chicago Fire at Lindenwood University in St. Charles on Tuesday, June 11, 2019. (Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com)

Two shots on goal in the first half. Two goals. One incredible victory.

St. Louis FC pulled a major upset Tuesday night, beating Major League Soccer’s Chicago Fire 2-1 in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup before a crowd of 4,456 at Lindenwood University’s Harlen C. Hunter Stadium in St. Charles.

“Delighted, obviously. Really proud of all our players,” STLFC coach Anthony Pulis said. “The effort they put in tonight was immense. I thought we played some good football at times. . . . Again, I’m not just saying it. I genuinely believed we could win the game. I’m fortunate enough to work with a fantastic group of players every day. Their mentality is great.

“I knew that if we played anywhere near the level we’re capable of, individually and collectively, we could give Chicago a good game and a run for the money. As the game panned out, we were well worth the victory.”

STLFC moves on to the round of 16 against an opponent to be announced Thursday morning.

The Fire, which won Open Cup titles in 1998, 2000, 2003 and 2006, started strong in Tuesday’s match. Less than a minute in, captain Dax McCarty took the game’s first shot, forcing STLFC’s Tomas Gomez to make a save.

Less than a minute later, the visitors’ CJ Sapong broke in from the left side and forced another save from Gomez. The loose ball dangerously pin-balled around the STLFC penalty area before the defense was able to clear.

In the 11th minute, a free kick from Chicago’s Djordje Mihailovic found Sapong in the box. But his shot was blocked by STLFC’s Paris Gee.

On their first real scoring chance of the contest, STLFC grabbed the lead in the 17th minute. On a counter started by midfielder Lewis Hilton, the ball was played to Russell Cicerone breaking down the left wing. His cross to the box was headed in by Austin Martz.

“The slow start, it wasn’t the plan. The plan was to come out with energy and press,” Martz said. “Once we settled down, I felt like we started to play our game. To get my first (STLFC goal) on a night like this, against an MLS club, was really positive. I have to credit the guys on this team for sticking with me and encouraging me over the last couple of seasons.”

In the 21st minute, the home team went up 2-0. Hilton played a free kick into the box for Guy Abend, who snapped a header past Chicago keeper Kenneth Kronholm.

“We came in always believing we can get a positive result,” Hilton said. “Just a matter of taking our chances and getting crosses into the box. Got on the end of two crosses and worked as hard as we could and managed to get a great result.”

Late in the half, Chicago’s Raheem Edwards nearly handcuffed STLFC keeper Gomez with a blast from the left side. But he managed to punch the ball from danger.

STLFC led 2-0 at the half.

The Fire tried to set a tone early in the second half. On a scramble two minutes into the half, Chicago’s Nicolas Gaitan managed to get ball past Gomez but his shot was blocked by defender Phanuel Kavita and right into the arms of Gomez.

In the 55th minute, Gomez came up with a diving stop after the Fire’s Fabian Herbers unleashed a low shot in transition.

In the 66th minute, on a counter, STLFC’s Albert Dikwa held the ball on the right side before feeding it to reserve Caleb Calvert. He quickly relayed it to Gee, who fired wide.

A minute or so later, on a free kick from the right side, Hilton delivered the ball to the box for Calvert, whose redirection attempt went off the far post and caromed back to Calvert. His follow-up shot went across the goal mouth.

In the 72nd minute, the visitors cut the STLFC lead to 2-1 when Nemanja Nikolic converted a penalty kick.

That set up a frantic finish.

“One of the things we talk about is being fearless and just playing our game,” Hilton said. “And that’s exactly what happened out there tonight.”

STLFC, which is 5-2-4 in United Soccer League Championship play this season, returns to league action on Saturday at the Bethlehem (Pa.) Steel (3-7-4).

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Joe Lyons is a sportswriter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.