The Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, a competition just one year short of its 100th anniversary in the USA, has seen its fair share of shocks as the tournament enters the quarter-final stage on Tuesday evening.
Of course, one of the more enticing scenarios for lower-division clubs round the world is the opportunity to lock horns with their nation’s best, and the same is proving true Stateside. With the likes of third-tier French side Quevilly defying the odds to reach the 2011/12 Coupe de France final in April and Championship side Cardiff City falling short only on penalties to Liverpool in February’s League Cup decider in England, more and more clubs seem to be earning the right to test their weight against the big guns.
Continuing the trend, minnows made a huge splash in the fourth round of the US Open Cup, with eight of the last 16 clubs having been from the lower divisions. In fact, lining up among the eight Major League Soccer sides who avoided the axe in the third phase - a fate nine of their compatriots were not as lucky to avoid - were six teams from the North American Soccer League and USL Pro respectively, and even more astonishingly one each from the fourth-tier Premier Development League and fifth-division United States Adult Soccer Association.
The most-eye catching result came from amateur club Cal FC, though, as they handed Portland Timbers their exit with a 1-0 win in the third round before setting up a mouth-watering clash against three-time defending champions Seattle Sounders. Coached by former USA forward Eric Wynalda, Cal, in their first appearance at the tournament, were poised for the biggest upset in the competition’s history.
Only the second USASA side along with Dallas Roma FC to have reached the fourth round in the competition’s long history, the southern-California based outfit had many an underdog fan singing their praises. However, after holding Sounders to a goalless first half, Cal’s Cinderella run in the cup came to a screeching halt as they finally unraveled in what turned out to be a 5-0 defeat by the champions.
“The whole thing's been a great ride,” Wynalda told Fox Soccer after their fourth-round exit. “I think for these kids, that's all they ever wanted is a chance to play with the big boys. This is a lesson. This is one of those things where you get in a game like this with a team that can beat you, you take it with you. You learn from it and you move on.”
Davids ready for MLS Goliaths
Even though the Cal FC bowed out of the competition in the previous round, yet another three sides have made an unexpected charge into the quarter-finals. One is USL Pro side Charlotte Eagles of North Carolina, who are set to face Chivas USA. In reaching the last eight, Charlotte defeated MLS’s FC Dallas 2-0 in the third round before clinching a 2-1 extra-time win over NASL outfit San Antonio Scorpions in the fourth, and this all the while suffering a dip in league form.
“We’ve never been in the final eight, so it’s really exciting and rewarding for me to watch the players enjoy it and soak it in,” Charlotte coach Mark Steffens told Ussoccer.com. “This is a hardworking group. We have veterans who have been around for a while and we’ve got some talented young kids. We’ve got a good mixture and a great dynamic. There is a unity on this squad and the guys genuinely like each other. I think that goes a long way.”
Fellow USL Pro club Harrisburg City Islanders have made it somewhat of a routine to dispatch of MLS clubs in the US Open Cup, having not only beat New England Revolution and New York Red Bulls this time around but also eliminating at least one MLS team in five of the last sixth editions. Harrisburg along with Dayton Dutch Lions, who are also from the USL, will have their hands full with respective last-eight away matches against Philadelphia Union and Sporting Kansas City.
Meanwhile, the other quarter-final represents the only all-MLS fixture with Seattle Sounders hoping to keep alive their dream of yet another title against San Jose Earthquakes. A fourth consecutive run into the final may be too tall an order for Sounders, though, and if MLS squads' early exits from the competition are any indication, it may prove to be the year of the underdog.