Moments after falling 3-1 in extra time of the 2014 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final, the Philadelphia Union painfully stood and watched as Seattle Sounders FC lifted another trophy, on the Union’s home field at PPL Park.
The exercise was as much about sportsmanship as it was about character building according to Union head coach Jim Curtin.
“I wanted them to know that feeling,” Curtin told ussoccer.com. “Everyone on the team – I made sure they stayed out there. That should be what motivates you to go out and get a result. Every good team that I played on that eventually won a trophy went through the tough moments of losing a final.”
As a defender with the Chicago Fire, Curtin won two U.S. Open Cup titles in 2003 and 2006. He also had to look on in disappointment as the Fire fell to the San Jose Earthquakes in the 2003 MLS Cup and Kansas City Wizards in the 2004 U.S. Open Cup final.
“It’s a difficult thing to go through,” Curtin continued, “but as we approach the competition this year, we talk about unfinished business. That moment last year, it should motivate our guys.”
The Union will need that motivation as they welcome USL league leaders Rochester Rhinos to PPL Park on Tuesday. The club was the last non-MLS side to lift the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in 1999 and comes into the match sitting atop the 24-team USL with an 8-0-4 record (28 points).
They’ve carried their dominant league form into Open Cup play, defeating Greater Binghamton FC Thunder 1-0 in the Second Round, before an impressive display in Third Round play against fellow USL foe Harrisburg City Islanders. In that match, the Rhinos lost forward Steevan Dos Santos in the 38th minute and surrendered a 106th minute goal, before Tony Walls equalized two minutes later, and Asani Samuels bagged a brace to defeat the City Islanders 3-1 after extra time.
Rhino's goalkeeper Brandon Miller pulls down a cross in Third Round play of the 2015 U.S. Open Cup. (Photo credit: Harrisburg City Islanders)
“We have a competitive group,” said Rhinos head coach Bob Lilley. “Down a man at half time, I told the guys ‘We’re going to win this game. As the clock runs, they’re going to push guys forward. If we stay solid, we’re going to get our chances.’
“You get into overtime and anything can happen. I didn’t expect to score three goals in the second overtime, but when they scored we responded immediately. Guys had the mentality that they weren’t going to lose the game. Their resiliency showed and I think that’s what they’ve shown all year.”
That resiliency will be put to the test again on Tuesday. Unlike the Union, who sat idle in MLS play this weekend, Rochester hosted Louisville City FC Saturday night, about 72 hours before kickoff on Tuesday. In the short span, Lilley’s side will hope to build more upon the Rhinos’ rich history in the competition, while continuing their impressive form in league play.
“Before the Louisville game, we hadn’t spoken to our team about Philadelphia,” Lilley said. “There’s so much that has importance to our league. I do think that similar to a playoff setup, you’ve got to be able to maximize each outing and get the best on the day out of your team. You’re not always going to have every player healthy or every player available but when you get to that game, it’s important that every player maximizes his performance.”
While he didn’t put the Union in the minds of his players before Saturday’s league contest, knowing that Philadelphia is sitting idle this week, Lilley said he’d prepare his side to play their first team on Tuesday.
With a team that’s beginning to round into form after stumbles early in the MLS season, Union boss Jim Curtin confirmed he plans to put out a top lineup.
Philadelphia's Sebastian Le Toux holds off a challenge from Seattle defender Chad Marshall in the 2014 U.S. Open Cup Final.
“We’re going to put out a strong team for sure,” said the Union boss. “Maybe I sprinkle in one or two young guys, but they’re young guys that have played for us already this year and contributed. I’m not going to be fielding a second team and not having a game on the weekend is a good advantage for us.
“The guys are confident right now, they look like the group I remembered from the good moments last year. We’ve gotten healthy at a good time, and everyone’s kind of pushing each other. We’re getting even more healthy, Fernando Aristeguieta is going to be back, Conor Casey, Michael LaHoud, Steven Vitoria are all coming back.”
Curtin also has the competition’s all-time leading scorer, Sebastien Le Toux, to threaten what may be a tired Rochester back line on Tuesday. Le Toux’s 15 modern era Open Cup goals have given the Frenchman plenty of appreciation for the competition.
“It’s a tournament that I’ve had some success in,” he told ussoccer.com “It was nice to play at the beginning in Seattle in USL, getting games against MLS teams, it was nice to try and show yourself to other teams. I scored some goals. We had some good runs in Seattle, twice to the semifinals in 2007 and 2008 and my third year with the MLS squad we won it.
Union head coach Jim Curtin (center) won the U.S. Open Cup as a player with the Chicago Fire in 2003.
“The goal record means a lot to me,” he continued. “I’m a forward and when you play you want to score as many goals as you can. I’ve scored goals with almost every team I’ve played for in the competition and that’s special. I hope to score more and add to the record.”
As the Union begin their quest for another deep tournament run on Tuesday, Curtin has no reservations about treating the tournament and the teams his side faces with respect.
“It’s a very strong team, very organized, don’t give up a lot of goals, they score a bunch and haven’t been beaten this year. We’re not going to take them lightly,” he said of the Rhinos.
“Teams can handle it however they want, but I handle it in the way that: it’s one of the two cups you can win in our country. If you don’t take it seriously, you’re full of it to be honest. It’s pro sports and any time there’s competition you want to win. That should be the mentality. It was ingrained in me in Chicago and I’ve carried it with me to Philadelphia. We’re going to take the cup seriously and hopefully we can make another deep run like we did last year.”
On Feb. 9, 2013, the U.S. Women’s National Team kicked off the new year with a 4-1 victory against Scotland in Jacksonville, Florida. Christen Press, then 24-years-old, was responsible for two goals that day, scoring in the 13th minute and adding another in the 32nd to give the U.S. a 2-0 lead at halftime.
The early goal was Press’ first for the USA, coming in a match that was also her first cap.
Becky Sauerbrunn hugs Christen Press in the aftermath of Press scoring on her WNT debut.
Earning that first cap is special for any player, but a debut and a goal in the same game? That’s a rare feat. In the 30+ year history of the U.S. WNT 21 players have scored in their first caps.
NOTHING TO LOSE
Press’ path to that first game three years ago was an interesting one. In early 2012, she made the decision to move to Sweden after U.S.-based Women’s Professional Soccer folded. Press thought leaving the country might negatively impact her hopeful National Team career, but little did she know, it was only just beginning.
“I think just because I always thought that the National Teams would be watching the American league, I thought that going abroad was kind of like saying goodbye to my dream of playing for the National Team,” recalled Press. “I left around this time, in February, and I thought I would not get a call, I sort of thought that I would fall out of U.S. Soccer’s radar.”
As it turns out, head coach Pia Sundhage kept tabs on players in Europe, especially in her native land of Sweden. Press got off to a hot start with her new club, and it wasn’t long before she was on her way back home.
Press returned to the U.S. and joined the WNT in Florida in April during the final stretch of what had been an intense fitness camp. She kept to herself and tried to quickly learn as much as possible despite only being there for five days.
“I had nothing to lose,” she said. “It was my first camp, it was warm and I was so happy. I don’t think I spoke to anybody. I was not nervous, I was just happy to be in Florida and my dream was coming true. I’m always quiet when I don’t know my surroundings, so I just kept to myself trying to learn the rules, how to behave; it was all so quick.”
That short stint turned out to be the only one for Press before she was named an Olympic alternate in 2012. The following February, Tom Sermanni took over as WNT head coach, and it was then Press learned she would start against Scotland. Her chance had arrived.
“I went on the field, the crowd was so much bigger than I’d ever played in front of, and for me it was so much bigger than life,” said Press. “But I kept telling myself, ‘I’m not nervous, I’m confident, I’m a good player and I believe in myself.’”
Years and multiple goals later, plus one Women’s World Cup title to her name, the dream is alive and well for Press.
Press celebrates scoring her first World Cup goal against Australia in the USA's opening match of the 2015 Women's World Cup