U.S. Soccer

Hall: We Can Beat LA on Our Day

Sacramento Republic’s Jeremy Hall does so many things well on a soccer field. He harasses opponents, keeps attackers in check, defends like a beast, chases lost causes and puts a team on his shoulders when it’s needed. Scoring goals is nowhere near the top of his list. But the veteran holding midfielder scored the fourth deep in stoppage time of a 4-1 rout of Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake in the last round of the 2017 U.S. Open Cup. And it’s just that kind of unexpected bonus an underdog needs to get the feeling there’s something special going on.

“I’m not really sure you can call one goal a streak,” chuckled Hall, quick to deflect attention away from his penalty-kick that nudged the Republic a step closer to the 2017 Open Cup Final. In a nine-year MLS career, he scored just twice, which is not to say he hasn’t been an influential player at every club he’s called home. He’s a defender in the truest sense and can fill in at full-back, center-back or play the gatekeeper on the defensive side of central midfield like he does for his new United Soccer League (USL) club in California’s capital. He’s felt right at home since arriving last year and he leaves his mark on every game. “Everything just came together against Real Salt Lake. It just clicked completely and I think it might have jump-started something for us.”

Hall is Sacramento’s wall, a player who loves the dirty business of the game. He plugs up the middle so completely that it frees his teammates to get forward and express themselves. He’s an insurance policy with experience. “The Open Cup is dirty and messy,” Hall said, with obvious relish for the “dog-fights” as he likes to call them. “You know it’s coming and no one gives an inch. You’ve got guys all over the field, and all over the Cup, trying to prove themselves. These games, for me, are the most fun. You have to be into it and on from the opening whistle to the last one.”

Down and Dirty in the Open Cup
It sounds like a cliché, but it isn’t. Hall knows better than most that one slip-up or dogged tackle can send you out of the Cup, a competition with no draws or second chances. The Puerto Rico international with four caps has never gone particularly deep in the Open Cup, despite once winning the Canada Cup (The Great White North’s version on the Open Cup) with Toronto FC. “The Cup’s about a lot of things, but really what it’s most about is going out there and fighting.”

With stints at New York Red Bulls, Portland Timbers, Toronto FC and New England Revolution, Hall – a former member of the U.S. Soccer Residency program alongside Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley – was as respected as journeymen come in the American top-flight. And now, down in the second tier, he’s a star – an admittedly gritty, no-nonsense one who’d laugh right in your face if you told him so. When Sacramento’s English-born coach Paul Buckle, a keen student of the American soccer scene, found out Hall had been released from his contract with hometown side Tampa Bay Rowdies, he snapped to action.

 

“You need a guy like Jeremy to take the game by the scruff of the neck,” said Buckle, who stacked his side with a clutch of veterans like Scottish midfielder Adam Moffat, Chris Christian, Colombia-born former American youth international Danny Barrera and Montenegro’s Emrah Kliment. “Guys like Jeremy don’t freeze. And they give confidence to the younger guys. You can’t do anything without a few guys like that.”

Hall’s no artist. He’s a worker. A grinder. He’s as rugged and rough on the pitch as he is thoughtful off it. “It’s amazing how fast the years go by,” admitted Hall, now 28 and settling into a post-MLS portion of his career. His affection for his new club is clear. “Everyone really cares here. The fans are amazing and there’s just a genuine love for the team. It’s like a family.”

Big Brother Jeremy
If Sacramento Republic is a family, then Hall is the big brother and he’s always looking out. When he talks about the side’s chances in the Cup, you believe him because his enthusiasm is catchy. Even with five-time MLS champions LA Galaxy in the way in the Round of 16, Hall believes.

“We can beat LA on our day,” he said, admitting to giving little pointers to the Republic’s youngsters like 21-year-old Englishman Harry Williams. Hall passes on small secrets he learned through years sharing locker-rooms with MLS’ best, and coming up against them in the heat of battle. “Everything is lining up. You don’t need to even say anything about it here – the motivation in our team for the Cup is so huge.”

 

You need a lot of things to go right to get on one of those rare and magical Cup runs that leaves multiple MLS teams in your wake. The last time a club from below the top-tier reached the Final was back in 2008, when Charleston Battery lost out by a slim one-goal margin to D.C. United. You need luck to do it. Experience too. Goals, yes. But guts most of all. You need everything to come together and keep coming together one game after another until there’s no one left standing in front of you. According to Hall, the Republic have been riding precisely those waves in this Open Cup.

“We’re sensing a Cup run,” said the battling midfielder, with more guts than most. “Everything is lined up just perfectly and it’s been snow-balling. The run is building on itself.” And when you start to see a name like Hall’s on the scoresheet – a fighter and a worker who’s job is to slam doors and pour water on fires – you don’t have to be superstitious to get the feeling there’s something special going on in Sacramento. 

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U.S. Open Cup Jun 27, 2017

Down & Dirty: #USOC2017 Ratchets up the Pressure in Round of 16

And then there were 16. Gone are the romantic amateurs who captured our hearts and most of the second-tier strivers who punched above their weight. What’s left in the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is serious business. Eight matches across Tuesday and Wednesday – all with at least one Major League Soccer side in action – will decided who moves on to the Quarterfinals next month, a stone’s throw from the Final of the 104-year-old competition. Join ussoccer.com for a match-by-match preview of the Round of 16. 
At the top end of the western bracket, Seattle Sounders FC – four-time Open Cup champions – travel south to take on San Jose Earthquakes, who’ve yet to hoist the Dewar Cup despite a long and storied history that dates back to the mid-1970s. While the Sounders haven’t used their first-team yet, opting instead to oust nemesis Portland Timbers with a squad of short-term loanees from their reserve squad, the Earthquakes used a mix that included long-time ace Chris Wondolowski and young attacker Jackson Yueill, the UCLA Bruin who scored four-minutes into his MLS debut against NASL’s San Francisco Deltas to help lift San Jose to the Round of 16. The Quakes may still be reeling from the recent sacking of coach Dominic Kinnear, and there’s no telling what the state of the locker-room might be. 

Five-time Open Cup champs LA Galaxy have their hands full in their second straight home game against Sacramento Republic, one of two remaining clubs from the second-tier United Soccer League (USL). It’s bound to be a close-run thing as both sides won handily in the Fourth Round (LA beating Orange County SC 3-1 and Sacramento pulling off a huge upset with a 4-1 rout of Real Salt Lake). Jeremy Hall, the Republic’s dominant holding midfielder with loads of MLS experience, is fancying his side’s chances. “On our day we can beat LA,” he said. “I’m convinced of that.”

Sporting Kansas City travel to Houston Dynamo with their goalkeeper Tim Melia tallying clean sheets for fun in MLS and leading SKC to top spot in the Western Conference. “We know Houston are dangerous at home and don’t lose there much, but in the Open Cup it doesn’t matter how you win. It doesn’t have to be pretty,” said Melia, a former MLS Pool keeper-turned-star-starter who’s coming off a 4-0 shutout of Minnesota United in the Fourth Round. While Houston do have a stellar home record in 2017, they barely survived the last round of the Cup, with a late, late goal from Jose Rodriguez deep in overtime the only difference between themselves and Division II club North Carolina FC. 

Defending champions FC Dallas, who will be big favorites playing at home against a Colorado Rapids side that resembled Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the previous round. The Denver-based men stormed back from a two-goal deficit at the half to beat OKC Energy 3-2 thanks in large part to a brilliant performance from on-loan Costa Rican defender Dennis Castillo. The Texans, for their part, made heavy lifting of the Tulsa Roughnecks, eventually winning out 2-1. 

 

Back east, New England Revolution line up at Harvard University against D.C. United. Both sides are struggling in the league and eager for the kind of bump the Open Cup can give. “The Open Cup is a way to reset and get your confidence going again,” said United’s Lloyd Sam, who came off the bench to score in a 4-1 win over amateur Cinderella side Christos FC of Baltimore in the Fourth Round. The Revs, who beat ten-man Rochester Rhinos without breaking a sweat, will be without Kelyn Rowe, who was called into the U.S. National Team for their Gold Cup campaign this summer.

New York Red Bulls host Philadelphia Union with their confidence a little low following a 0-2 loss at home in their big weekend derby against New York City FC – the same side they beat to book a date with the Union in the  Round of 16. The boys from Philly are in good form in the Cup so far, led by homegrown midfielder Derrick Jones, who scored in the 3-1 rout of Harrisburg City Islanders in the previous round. 

Miami FC are the lone remaining North American Soccer League (NASL) team and a decent bet of going a good long way in the Open Cup. Led by coach and former Italian defensive stalwart Alessandro Nesta, the South-Florida side hammered MLS’s Orlando City on the road in the Fourth Round thanks to a hat-trick from Stefano Pinho. “We are a family,” said the Brazilian scoring ace. “That is our strength.” Atlanta United would do well to keep an eye on the in-form striker, especially after looking less than convincing in their Fourth Round win over Charleston Battery, which went back and forth like a rocking porch swing.

Last but definitely not least is another big one for FC Cincinnati at Nippert Stadium, where 30,160 turned up to see the home-side – founded only 21 months ago – beat nearby MLS club Columbus Crew 1-0 in the Fourth Round. This time, the USL men – led by striker Djibby Fall who’s scored three goals and three winners so far in the Cup – face Chicago Fire and their raft of big names hoping to keep the big dream alive. Such is the excitement of the match, ESPN decided to give it a national TV exposure, a rare broadcast treat before the later rounds of the Open Cup.

All eight games (one on Tuesday and seven on Wednesday) will be STREAMED LIVE on ussoccer.com and you can follow all the action and have your say by following along at @opencup on Twitter, #USOC2017.

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U.S. Open Cup Jun 27, 2017

5 Things to Know About #USOC2017’s Round of 16

The 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup has shrunk from 99 participants to a slender 16. The eight Round of 16 games this Tuesday and Wednesday (June 27-28) will decide the final clubs that move on to the Quarterfinals, just two steps from a grand Final scheduled for September 22. Make sure you’re up on all the #USOC2017 happenings before this week’s all-or-nothing contests. 

Where to Watch & How to Connect
FC Cincinnati’s (USL) game on Wednesday June 28 against Chicago Fire (MLS) will be broadcast live on ESPN2, ESPN Deportes and the ESPN app. And you can watch the other seven games (one on Tuesday and the rest on Wednesday) on ussoccer.com’s official MATCH CENTER. For the more interactive-minded among you, join us on twitter (@opencup, #USOC2017) to sound off and have your say with the rest of the Open Cup crazies.

The State of Play – From 99 to 16
The 104th edition of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup kicked-off this May with 99 teams. It has since been whittled down to a lean, mean 16 – all of which have eyes on the prize.

2017 U.S. Open Cup bracket

Underdogs Still Kicking
Of the remaining 16 sides, three are from below the top-tier of Major League Soccer (MLS). FC Cincinnati, of the United Soccer League (USL), have been drawing huge crowds to their Nippert Stadium on the campus of the University of Cincinnati and beat nearby MLS side Columbus Crew 1-0 in the previous round to book a date with four-time Open Cup champs Chicago Fire (at home again). READ MORE: Cincinnati, Ohio: Soccer City USA

The other surviving USL team, Sacramento Republic, have ridden their passionate home support and a raft of journeyman pros into the Round of 16, capping off the Fourth Round with a startling 4-1 demolition of Real Salt Lake. It was the biggest shock of the round and proof that coach Paul Buckle is a Cup specialist on both sides of the Atlantic.

The lone remaining North American Soccer League (NASL) side is Miami FC; part-owned by Italian legend Paolo Maldini and coached by another notable Italian in Alessandro Nesta. Midfielder Kwadwo Poku is a force in the middle for these men from South Florida, while Brazilian striker Stefano Pinho is coming off a hat-trick in the previous round, a 3-1 win on the road against Major League Soccer side Orlando City.  

Headliners and Headlines
Any soccer tournament is only as good as the stories that feed it. The 2017 U.S. Open Cup is no exception. Read up on some worthy narratives from the previous round:

What’s on the Line?
The winners of the Round of 16 will move on to the Quarterfinals, scheduled for between July 7 and 16. The Semifinals will take place shortly thereafter on August 9 with the winners meeting in the Final, a one-off game to decide the 2017 champions, on September 20.

The winner of the U.S. Open Cup qualifies directly for the CONCACAF Champions League (formerly the CONCACAF Champions Cup), a tournament of the league champions and cup winners from North, Central America and the Caribbean that sends a representative for the region to the annual FIFA Club World Cup. The CONCACAF Champions League has only ever been won on two occasions by American sides (both from MLS) – D.C. United in 1998 and LA Galaxy in 2000. The winner of the 2017 U.S. Open Cup also lays claim to $250,000 in prize money, with the runner-up pocketing $60,000.

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U.S. Open Cup Jun 27, 2017

D.C.’s Lloyd Sam: Enemy of Soccer?

Twitter wasn’t kind to Lloyd Sam after he came off the bench and scored on amateur darlings Christos FC, effectively turning a close-run contest in the Open’s Cup’s Fourth Round between David and Goliath into a 4-1 rout for D.C. United. Sam jumped in the way of David’s fate-filled stone and paved the way for Goliath to maul the littler man. “I got a bunch of tweets and texts after the game with people calling me the enemy of soccer and things like that for scoring on Christos,” he said, laughing gently. “But that’s cool. I thought it was funny and I get it. I really do.”

A few of the Tweets went like this: Lloyd Sam is the Worst! & Lloyd Sam…just ruined the best story of #USOC2017 and one even did label him the enemy of the Open Cup and soccer writ large. Feelings were hurt. An underdog that people had come to care for met its end. Things were said. It happens and pros have thick skins. But far from an enemy of soccer, he’s a spirited advocate of the beloved Cinderella runs that imbue the Open Cup with its magic. “Those boys showed an awful lot of fight in that game and they made things really complicated for us. I mean that.” 

The 32-year-old speaks slowly in a laid-back, Londoner’s accent. You get the sense that when he talks about the green-clad Baltimore amateurs, a side sponsored by a discount liquor store, he really admires what they’re doing and what they did. He couldn’t help falling for the team he himself helped to eliminate. It doesn’t sound canned, like a pro saying the right things about an underdog just to say them.

Admiration for the Little Guy
“They had thousands of fans there,” Sam added, the smile growing in his voice. “I was asking myself, ‘how does an amateur team get all these fans?’ Everyone was wearing green at the Stadium and it was our home game! They were loud too! I was impressed. I’ll admit that.”

 

To call Sam mellow would be an understatement. Born in Leeds and raised in London, he grew up playing in the Sunday leagues with friends before getting noticed by scouts from Charlton Athletic. He spent a huge chunk of his youth at the club, age 14 to 25, and even made ten appearances in the Premier League. He was raised in the cauldron of the English game, with the most severe of professional demands. But Sam, now in the autumn of his career, is just so cool about the game. He takes his work seriously, but he wants to have fun doing it. You get the sense he might get along just famously with the gang from Christos FC, and fit right into that team of boasters and live-wires who play because they love it.

“It’s easy to forget that the game's supposed to be fun,” said Sam, having made the jump from England to the U.S. in 2012 when he joined up for his first of five seasons with New York Red Bulls. “It’s not just any old job you know. There have been times in my career when gamedays were the worst days, the most stressful days. It just shouldn’t be like that.”

Sam is a dynamic attacker, good enough to have earned a cap for Ghana, the country of his parents’ birth. When he was traded suddenly to D.C. United at the start of last season, Red Bulls fans weren’t happy about it. “We all started playing this game as kids because we love the way it made us feel. We need to remember that,” he urged. “If you don’t, you won’t be at your best and you’re not doing the right thing with your life. Simple as that.”

In all his years back home, Sam – who had early exposure to U.S. culture attending American schools in Senegal and England – never managed a deep Cup run, nothing memorable in the FA Cup. He did manage to reach the semi-final of the FA Youth Cup in 2003, losing out to a Manchester United side led by Kieron Richardson. But here and now in the American game, a veteran pro for over a decade, Sam’s eager for a run at the Open Cup.

Big Cup Ambitions
“We’ve started well. And there’s no reason we can’t keep it going,” said Sam, who has four goals this term and admits to his D.C. United side being out of sorts in league play, currently third from bottom in the Eastern Conference. The Round of 16 game on June 28 against New England Revolution represents a chance to kick-start something good. “It’s a good way to jump-start the season, to get out there and get some goals and get things going again. It’s a way to forget and move on. We’ve got some rhythm and we’re four wins away from a trophy in the Cup. That’s something to take seriously.”

 

Just because he’s laid back doesn’t mean Sam takes his role as a team veteran lightly. It’s quite the contrary. “I’m a little more vocal now than I’ve ever been,” said the long-time Arsenal fan, who holds his season playing alongside Thierry Henry in New York as the thrill of a lifetime. “Well, I was always vocal but not in the team-leadership kind of way. Now I’m vocal in the right way. You have to show the young guys that nerves are going to pass and to believe in yourself.”

This is precisely the reason Sam was the perfect substitute for D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen to bring on in the second-half and squash Christos FC’s dream, even if it meant making himself the villain of the piece (and the internet). “I was always going to be calm coming into that game,” he said after scoring a tidy third from 20 yards in a game that was still tight and in the balance at 1-2. “You can’t calm anyone else down, it’s not in your power, but if they see you relaxed and going about your business it might help them a little.”

The aim of any player – Christos FC’s amateurs or D.C. United’s top-tier pros – is to win. But for the MLS pro, it’s an actual job no matter how fun. “The guys from the lower leagues play like their lives depend on it – it’s a Cup final every time for them,” he said, brimming with respect for the men in green of Christos FC, at this very moment in front of desks or pushing lawnmowers. “It’s a great story for them and they want it to go on forever, but you never want to be on the other side of a big upset in the Cup.”

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U.S. Open Cup Jun 26, 2017

Cincinnati, Ohio: Soccer City USA

Cincinnati, Ohio is the capital of American Soccer. Let it sink in. Say it out loud and let it roll around your mind. For the moment at least, all eyes are on this city where the Licking and Ohio rivers meet, known more for a devotion to bats, mitts, and the oval kind of football. “There’s a perfect storm going on here,” midfielder Andrew Wiedeman told ussoccer.com about his second-tier FC Cincinnati, on a run to the Round of 16 of the 2017 U.S. Open Cup that is drawing huge crowds to a downtown dead as doornails not long ago.  

“It was the best atmosphere I’ve ever played in in my career,” said Wiedeman, the San Francisco Bay Area native who admitted to getting goosebumps “literally, for the first time” when he marched onto the turf at Nippert Stadium on June 14 for a famous 1-0 win over nearby MLS outfit Columbus Crew SC. There were 30,160 fans in the stands – a record crowd for a non-Final in the Open Cup. And they weren’t just there. They were loud, easily drowning out Crew fans who’d made the 100-mile trip south. “And I say that having played in all the big MLS stadiums. Nothing comes close to that day. The Bailey was just crazy!” 

 

What’s the Bailey, you ask? It’s a section at the north end of the Stadium, built in 1915 for American football and part of the University of Cincinnati campus. It’s where 1,700 of FC Cincinnati’s hardest-core supporters stand and shout, ignite buckets of blue smoke, unfurl elaborate tifos, bang drums and generally intimidate the hell out of visiting teams. “I wouldn’t want to be an opposing goalkeeper and have the Bailey bouncing up over my head,” added Wiedeman, a whip-smart pro since 2010 with four seasons in MLS to his name. Believe him when he says there’s something special going on in the Queen City.  

The Bailey Effect
“I think the word Bailey comes from the old days and means some kind of castle wall,” said Ryan Lammi, a member of Die Innenstadt – one of a clutch of supporters groups that sprang to life and grew up with the new United Soccer League (USL) team since its founding just 21 months ago. “It’s a little tough to pronounce, and even tougher to spell,” 27 year-old Lammi laughed, taking time out from his job as a civil engineer to chat about the young club he’s come to love. Innenstadt means inner city in German and is a nod to the city’s sizable German roots. “When we get to banging on the banners up there in the Bailey it makes a ton of noise and can be pretty intimidating.”

 

Die Innenstadt isn’t the only supporters group to rise up around FC Cincinnati, now in its second season, but they’re crucial in the march that happens every matchday. About a mile from Nippert Stadium is a bar called Mecklenburg’s Garden, where Die Innenstadt’s die-hards hoist a few barley pops and make a few toasts to good health and cheer in the beer garden. When sufficiently lubricated, they begin to walk up Vine St. to Corry Boulevard. They pick up other crews along the way, all with their own names and their own home bar. By the time they get to the stadium and march up to the Bailey, they’re warmed up – singing and drumming and making the cocky noises of seasoned soccer fans.

Supporters on the March
“We just go outside our bar and wait for the crowd to come up the road,” said Payne Rankin, a Cincinnati native late to his love affair with soccer but an evangelist now – converting members of his family who hated the game because it wasn’t gridiron or baseball and was too different to care about. “Before the Columbus Crew game, I looked back at the march and it was huge – 2000 people maybe. We kept picking ‘em up and it grew and grew.”

The Crew fans, a creditable band of 1000 easy, never had a chance. They were drowned out early and completely. Come to think of it, the Crew never had a chance on the pitch either. Even with Federico Higuain, Wil Trapp, Justin Meram and Ethan Finlay in the starting XI – damn near a full-strength side – they couldn’t counter the power of the Bailey, FC Cincinnati and this particular moment in time and space. The Crew dictated the play in the first-ever Ohio Derby, but FCC held firm and the Bailey blow the ball away from the danger zones. 

 

“We’re up there perched like weird birds – It’s ominous and there’s smoke and flags and we’re just being annoying and looking down,” said 25-year-old Payne. His supporters group is called The Pride, and he’s found himself in the grip of an extraordinary sporting moment. “It’s impossible at the time to know how loud you’re being because you’re just one of many, but when we scored I’m telling you there were pretty stoic men crying in the stands.”

The only goal of the game came right under the Bailey at Nippert’s north end. It was just after the hour-mark of a game FC Cincinnati spent sitting back and bunkered in. “They definitely won the possession battle,” chuckled Wiedeman, who claims if ever an MLS bid were to come to the Queen City it would be “the second coming of Portland.”

 

The Crew took 19 shots to FCC’s five on the day. But the scorer was only ever going to be one man: Djiby Fall. He’s from faraway Senegal but he calls Cincinnati home now. A pro for well over a decade, he’s played in Denmark, Russia, Norway, UAE and Belgium. He’s the best header of a ball that Wiedeman’s ever seen. But at 32 and winding down, he’s just a gun for hire – a goal-slinger for money, right? Not quite. “I was emotional,” said Fall who’s scored three goals so far in the Open Cup and all of them match-winners. “When I saw our fans up there and the support they were giving us, how they reacted to my goal, I became very emotional.” 

Fall Tears Fell Too
Fall fell to his knees and shed tears. He shed them just like the Bailey’s stoic men – some of whom didn’t give a damn for soccer a few years ago but are right in the thick of it now. “You saw it when he scored,” said Rankin, who says he’ll never forget that night. “Fall started celebrating like it was just another goal, and then it hit him: he fell to his knees and got emotional because he knew what it meant to all of us up there. He went from happy to just collapsing – all because of this crazy, beautiful, awesome, frustrating game.”

 

And that’s not it. It would be enough for a lifetime if it was, but there’s more to the story. These fans in this city, who’ve made something special where there was nothing but empty seats and potential before, get to do it all over again. The gods have blessed them with another home game in the Round of 16, and it’s well on its way to a sell-out when Chicago Fire and their stars come marching into town. Broadcasters, with their eagle eye for numbers and trends, have taken notice too. ESPN2 will air the game in a national broadcast - rare for the Open Cup before the Semifinal Round.  

“We’ve got nothing to lose when the Fire come, just like we had nothing to lose when Columbus came,” said Wiedeman. “The pressure’s on them and they’ll have a lot to answer for to their fans if they slip up. If we do, our fans will be proud of us.” Rankin, one of those fans caught up in this singular moment in a quiet corner of the American Midwest, is ready to do his part – one loud, proud voice in a crowd: “All we can do as supporters is be as loud as we can and hope that makes a difference.” 

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U.S. Open Cup Jun 26, 2017
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