Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup tie between Sporting Kansas City and FC Dallas is the lone Round of 16 match between two former champions. It’s also one that is perhaps more meaningful for both sides, given their ties to late American Soccer pioneer Lamar Hunt.
An early investor in the old North American Soccer League and original backer of Major League Soccer, Hunt was the first investor/operator of Columbus Crew SC and Sporting Kansas City when they entered the league as the Kansas City Wiz (and later the Kansas City Wizards) in 1996. With his purchase of the Dallas Burn (now FC Dallas) in 2002, Hunt owned three clubs for a time, but not before his deep contributions to the American game were recognized in 1999 as the U.S. Soccer Federation re-named the nation’s oldest knockout tournament the “Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup” in his honor.
Perhaps most importantly, Hunt got to see all three of his clubs have success in the tournament before his passing in 2006: Crew SC lifted the Dewar Trophy in 2002, followed by the Wizards in 2004, before FC Dallas bowed out in the final to the LA Galaxy the following year.
The Hunt Sports Group, run by Lamar’s son Clark, has since divested itself of Kansas City and Columbus, solely focusing its efforts on FC Dallas where another of Lamar’s sons, Dan is club president. Unsurprisingly, Hunt says the club puts special emphasis on the annual competition.
"Our dad felt so incredibly honored when U.S. Soccer named the Open Cup after him,” Dan Hunt told ussoccer.com. “It was an emotional moment for him because he had spent an extraordinary amount of time and energy trying to grow the sport in the United States. Everyone in our organization knows how special this tournament is to us. I think it’s obvious, not only in the players we put on the field, but also in the heart and determination those players show in every Open Cup match. We have a lot of fond memories from the Open Cup tournament, but I’ll never forget the emotional phone call my brother Clark and I made to our dad after we won it with Kansas City in 2004. This is just as important to us as MLS Cup. Our goal every year is to etch our name into history."
It’s this mentality that has led Dallas to multiple deep runs in the tournament. While FC Dallas hasn’t lifted the U.S. Open Cup since 1997, the club has been to two Finals and four Semifinals in the past 10 years.
Current FC Dallas head coach Oscar Pareja tasted both of the team’s recent final defeats personally. The Colombian was a second half substitute in the 2005 final defeat to the LA Galaxy and served as an assistant coach to Steve Morrow when the club fell to the New England Revolution in the 2007 championship match.
Current FC Dallas head coach Oscar Pareja in his playing days with the club challenges
LA Galaxy and U.S. MNT star Cobi Jones for a header in the 2005 U.S. Open Cup Final.
“I always remember the competition with joy,” Pareja told ussoccer.com. “Mr. Lamar would be very proud for us to win it. That’s why we have a lot of emphasis on this year’s tournament. We’ve won it once. But [this year] it has been in our agenda, so it takes our time and interest.”
Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes lifted MLS Cup 2000 with the Wizards and holds similar memories of Lamar Hunt and the naming of the competition.
“Our ownership has never made anything but the utmost positive gestures that not only the fact that Lamar owned the team, but more importantly that he has done a tremendous amount for the game of soccer in this country, and I was fortunate enough to play for him during 2000 through 2002,” said Vermes. “He’s a tremendous man.”
Vermes’ intentions for the competition, and Dallas’ cup record clearly speaks for themselves, and with two sides that clearly hold a special fondness for the Open Cup, the Round of 16 clash on July 1 at Sporting Park should be an entertaining display of two top teams at full force.
“The U.S. Open Cup is an opportunity to win a trophy, a piece of hardware,” said Vermes who guided the club to its second U.S. Open Cup title in 2012. “So for us that’s everything, and we’re going to play in the competition to win it. We don’t have any thoughts about it other than that.”
The players also seem to relish these Open Cup nights. Dallas goalkeeper Chris Seitz mentioned his side’s excitement for the Open Cup, especially against a rival MLS team like Sporting Kansas City.
“For us it’s a game and a tournament that is important. And it’s named after out owner,” said Seitz. “So our owner and his sons are very adamant about doing very well in this tournament and bringing it home to us. We as a club take it very seriously.”
A record Fourth Round crowd of 19,298 saw Sporting KC take on USL club Saint Louis FC, who managed to frustrate the Kansas club and keep the scoring low. Despite dominating play, Sporting only managed to pull through the match thanks to Graham Zusi’s second half strike.
“I think that St. Louis is very organized. It was pretty obvious that they were going to throw all 11 men behind the ball, especially ten of them, within like a 30 to 40 yard space,” said Vermes. “They played the game very, very compact, and I tried to open it up. They kind of just tried to close the game down and see if they could catch us on the counter.”
Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes has stepped into the technical area to guide the club with which he won 2000 MLS Cup crown as a player.
Meanwhile, FC Dallas had an easier time getting past USL side Oklahoma City Energy FC at home. However, the Texas side is not without some conflict themselves. Seitz started the season between the sticks with the MLS club, however injury problems took him out of the side for months, and he was replaced with veteran ‘keeper Dan Kennedy. Now Pareja has a tough decision to make between two experienced MLS goal keepers.
“For us both, it’s a great relationship, and we have a good working relationship as well as off the field,” said Seitz about his fellow keeper Dan Kennedy. “It’s one of those things where, if we have an opportunity, whether it’s Open Cup or a game in the league, we want to make the most of it.”
Wednesday’s game also marks the third meeting between the two sides in 2015, with FC Dallas besting Sporting 3-1 at home on March 14, before Kansas City returned the favor with a 4-0 result at Sporting Park on May 29.
With two games already in the books, both teams are well acquainted. Knowing the ins and outs of the opposing side could make a team confident for the upcoming match, but both managers have expressed respect and admiration for the other and his team.
“They have a lot of players with a lot of international experience, and because of that I think there’s a lot of street smarts on the field,” said Vermes. “So it’s a very dangerous team, and we realize that whenever you’re playing a team like that, you have to keep your head on a swivel, and you’ve got to be concentrated for 90-plus minutes.”
“It’s one of those teams in the league who have already played a lot of years together,” said Pareja. “There’s a good leadership there. Peter played in the league, he knows the game, he knows every corner of Sporting Park. So it’s a chance that I respect, it’s a coach that I respect, and the team has earned their respect in the league.”
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