“I love the Open Cup,” announced Sacha Kljestan, New York Red Bulls captain and as big a homegrown star as you’ll find in Major League Soccer. His voice goes up a little when he says it, like he’s defending something. And he is, ahead of a Semifinal with Cinderella second-tier side FC Cincinnati. He’s sticking up for a 104-year old tournament that traces the peaks and valleys, grassroots zeal and passion, that helped soccer grow beyond a novelty in American sports. “You feel like you’re part of something bigger.”
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It’s no surprise that Kljestan feels the romance of the Open Cup in his gut. He’s a sensitive player, among an endangered species of natural No. 10s. You get the sense Kljestan’s looking through a special kind of eyes when he peers out over the field, seeing possibilities most miss and those opportunities that like to hide.
The Open Cup reached out and touched Kljestan early. It was before he was a star and before the demands of professionalism made a job of a game. “I talked to my coach in college about the old days of the Open Cup,” said the 31-year-old schemer, 51 times capped by the U.S. Men’s National Team, drifting back to his three years at Seton Hall where he played and went to class, probably ate ramen noodles from a styrofoam cup. Back when he was just a kid with a special relationship to the ball. That coach was Manfred “Manny” Schellscheidt, once a midfielder for Elizabeth SC and twice a U.S. Open Cup champion in the early 1970s. “He [Schellscheidt] was full of stories and I loved to hear them,” added Kljestan, the son of a Bosnian-Serb immigrant and former professional. “He’d talk about going out to LA to play in the Open Cup and the old German American League in New York. He talked about the Finals and the trophy. There was something amazing about it.”
What it all meant: First taste of Open Cup
Kljestan got his own first taste of the Cup in Southern California, back home on summer-breaks from college. “When I played in the PDL [the all-amateur Premier Development League] I remember how desperate we were to win the league because that got you into the Open Cup,” he said, chuckling a little, remembering rooting around the edges of the tournament he’d heard so much about, where if you were good enough and lucky enough you could play against a professional team. “In college I remember one time we got to play against the MetroStars – just a scrimmage – but it made you feel huge, like a big deal. I still remember now what those games meant.”
Those memories, the ones that felt like dreams, were stirred when Kljestan dropped $500.00 in the can for 2017 U.S. Open Cup darlings Christos FC on GoFundMe. “I don’t know why I did it,” he said of his donation to the team of amateurs from Baltimore who went on an epic 2017 Cup run and were low on travel cash. What’s more Open Cup than a team of old friends, with their headquarters in the back of a liquor store, good enough and gutsy enough to take on D.C. United in the Fourth Round? “Maybe I was just in a good mood that day, but their story got me thinking about my early days. Those Christos guys just playing on weekends and working day-jobs, and they went and earned a shot to play an MLS team.”
That’s the romance. Right there. The word pops up a lot when talk turns to the Open Cup. The romance of part-timers piling in cars on Sunday mornings, playing through hangovers, and dreaming of a chance. The romance of a lower-league team getting hot and knocking off an MLS big shot. The romance of a time, back in black-and-white, when the idea of making a living playing soccer was so far-fetched it would knock you off your bar stool. There was nothing romantic about Kljestan’s time at Chivas USA, where he landed as a rookie pro after foregoing his senior year of college. The now-defunct MLS club is a cautionary tale. The Open Cup was ignored there. “We used to put out a reserve squad for every game,” said Kljestan, disgust still ringing in his voice. “We’d get bounced early every year. I never liked that and being in the Open Cup Semifinal now – with a team that takes it seriously – is something I’m really proud of.”
Kljestan: Captain of Team Goliath
Captain Kljestan is right at ground zero of Open Cup romance now. He’s smack in the heart of it. On August 15, he and his top-tier stars, including free-scoring Bradley Wright-Phillips, travel to take on FC Cincinnati in the Semifinals. It’s David against Goliath and Kljestan is skipper of Team Goliath. The New York Red Bulls have never won the Open Cup -- they never won MLS Cup either. The closest they ever came was the 2003 Final, when still known as the MetroStars, they fell in a narrow 1-0 defeat to U.S. Open Cup powers Chicago Fire at Giants Stadium. They will be favorites on the big day in Ohio. But with that tag, in a tournament that loves an upset, comes heavy pressure.
“A second-division team in the Semifinal of the Open Cup, that’s awesome,” said the Red Bulls midfielder, ever the romantic even if his aim is to crush an underdog’s Open Cup dream to help turn his own to reality. FC Cincinnati have swept past MLS sides Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire before upending fellow Division II side Miami FC in the Quarterfinal marking the first time a second-tier team has gone so far since Richmond Kickers’ run in 2011. “This is so huge for soccer in our country, big for the club and big for the fans too. This is what the Open Cup is all about.”
Romantic or no, Kljestan’s still a pro. “We set winning the Open Cup as a goal for ourselves before this season even started,” said the man, who even did his share of the dirty work in the Quarterfinal against long-time rivals New England Revolution at Harvard University. It was a bruising contest, “nasty,” according to Kljestan. “Winning that game, where we had to fight for everything, felt like we’d turned a corner.”
One in a line a century old
The Semifinal in Cincinnati sold out in just shy of seven hours. There will be 36,000 fans at Nippert Stadium, built in 1915 – the year after Brooklyn Field Club won the first Open Cup – to see their team challenge for a place in the Final. To move a step closer to their Open Cup dream. You get the feeling that the size of the day, and its place in the long lore and legend of the Open Cup, pleases Kljestan too. He’s happy to slip between the pages of the competition’s history books.
“This tournament has been around for over a hundred years,” added Kljestan, who’s hard to stop once he gets going talking about the Open Cup. “That’s a lot of history right here in our country. It goes back to all those little corners of the game back before there even were professional leagues. There were no pro teams back then, but someone always won the Open Cup. It means something to every player who ever won it and who ever played in it. It means something in this country.”
Kljestan spent four seasons in Belgium with giants Anderlecht. He won titles, went head-to-head with Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the Champions League and had some of those domestic Cup days when “you played a team from the lower divisions and you knew it was going to be the biggest game of their lives.” Being fancied among humbler opposition won’t faze him as he plays for this old Cup that’s passed through the hands of part-timers and pros, legends and journeymen, since 1914. He wants to hold up that trophy, the same one his college coach did, and feel the glee only an Open Cup champion knows.