U.S. Soccer
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Eight Remain: #USOC2018 Quarterfinal Preview

Things get serious in the 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup’s Quarterfinal Round. There will be no more experiments, most underdogs have been sent packing by the big boys and the tension will be ratcheted up with a place in the Semifinals on the line. Seven teams from Major League Soccer (MLS) and one from United Soccer League (USL) will play for the right to advance on Wednesday, July 18. Heart Read more
U.S. Open Cup Jul 17, 2018
US Soccer

Nemanja Nikolic: Goals are my Job

Striker Nemanja Nikolic keeps it simple. “My job is to score goals,” he said when asked about bagging all three so far in the Chicago Fire’s run to the Quarterfinal of the 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. In a long career spanning both sides of the Atlantic, no one can ever accuse the big Serb striker of shirking those particular professional duties. READ MORE: Union Stand on Read more
U.S. Open Cup Jul 17, 2018

Union Stand on the Shoulders of Philly Giants

When what’s now known as the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup kicked off on Saturday, November 1, 1913, there were few indications it would go on to become the most enduring team sporting competition in the country. READ MORE: Senderos, Manotas & the Dynamo's Alchemy READ MORE: LAFC & Bob Bradley's Open Cup All-Stars READ MORE: Savarese & All the Open Cup Angles R Read more
U.S. Open Cup Jul 16, 2018

Senderos, Manotas & the Dynamo’s Alchemy

A successful Cup run is more alchemy than science. You need to get the balance right – between young and old, experienced and hungry, determined and patient, scoring and defending. Then you need to hope things go your way. Houston Dynamo are walking the tightrope well in the 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup with aging Swiss defender Philippe Senderos providing the yin to young Colombian striker Read more
U.S. Open Cup Jul 14, 2018
US Soccer

Savarese & All the Open Cup Angles

When it comes to the Open Cup, Giovanni Savarese knows all the angles. From his old days playing semipro summer ball in New York City to the heights of MLS’ early years, he’s been seconds from a Final on two occasions and on both ends of big upsets at the helm of the NY Cosmos. Now, in his first job coaching in the American top flight – out west with MLS outfit Portland Timbers – he’s aiming for the one angle that has eluded him: looking down on all the rest with the oldest prize in American soccer tucked under his arm.

“Look around the world - at Germany, England, Italy, wherever, and the Cup is always very important. An important part of history and the culture of a club,” said Savarese, a ferocious competitor in his playing days. He scored nearly a goal every other game in three seasons with the old MetroStars (now New York Red Bulls) and had stints in Italy and England after making his professional debut in Venezuela at the age of 15. “But I want to make it clear, I’m not making the Open Cup a priority in Portland. It’s not about focusing on one thing over another. I insist that we compete for everything. And I mean everything: in practice, 5-a-side, ReGen sessions… I don’t care, you better be ready to scratch and claw to win because that’s what we’re aiming for here.”

(Savarese got a first taste coaching top-tier world stars with the NY Cosmos in the NASL)

For the Timbers, a club with history, culture, a passionate fan base and tifos galore, that kind of attitude alone is revolutionary. Aside from a surprise MLS Cup win in 2015, after sneaking into the playoffs, the Timbers are short on silverware. Their success in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is restricted to one Semifinal appearance in 2013, when they lost to Real Salt Lake. It’s clear, at the dawn of the Age of Gio, winning – anything – is the new philosophy. Savarese’s put out strong teams, including veterans like Diego Chara, Fanendo Adi and high-octane striker Samuel Armenteros, in both of Portland’s 2018 Open Cup wins over San Jose Earthquakes and LA Galaxy.

Winning: The Only Priority
He’s clearly putting his money where his mouth is. “Any team in front of us is the priority,” said the coach who’s showing the same kind of single-mindedness he did in front of goal over a near 20-year career that saw him capped 30 times for his native Venezuela. “We want to be a team that goes into every game with a mind to win it. If you don’t, you’re not respecting yourself, you’re not respecting your opponent or the competition you’re in.”

Savarese’s respect for America’s oldest soccer competition is clear. He lightens up around edges drifting back to his college days when he became one of the top-scorers in Long Island University (Brooklyn) history and played summers, and a few Open Cups, with 1989 runners-up Greek American Atlas Astoria of NYC’s Cosmopolitan League. “I have so many good memories from back then,” said the coach, caught up temporarily in the fog of nostalgia – and those Sunday games at the ancient Metropolitan Oval and among the remnants of the World’s Fair at Randall’s Island. Back then he played for the fun of it – and maybe a handful of dollars for a meal. “After our season was over, us young guys we’d go into the men’s league in New York and there you’d get the chance to play with former pros, get a little food money and really become part of a bigger soccer family. In many ways, it was a chance to grow.”

(Gio's Timbers face a tough test in the Open Cup Quarterfinal - on the road against LAFC)

Graduating in 1995, one year shy of the birth of MLS, Savarese signed with the Long Island Rough Riders – then of the USISL Pro League. He played alongside Chris Armas and Tony Meola, winning a title and being named the league’s top player, before going on to become one of the most prolific scorers in the early years of Major League Soccer. In his time with the Metros and New England Revolution, he scored 51 goals in 102 appearances. Always one to pay attention, to ask questions of his more experienced teammates and pester his coaches, it was no surprise when Gio took up coaching. “When I was playing I kept a notebook with the different types of training sessions we did,” said Savarese, whose Timbers have yet to concede in this year’s Cup and now face a Quarterfinal test, their first on the road, against high-flying new boys LAFC, a team led by a two-time Open Cup winner in Bob Bradley and a host of former champs on the pitch. “I didn’t know it was going to be my future, but I was into coaching early as a concept.”

His first taste of coaching in earnest came in 2005, when he became the head of youth development with the New York Red Bulls. It wasn’t long before he was the head coach (and soon after, Sporting Director too) of the revamped New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League (NASL). A second-division club, Savarese had to balance a squad of young players and veteran stars like Raul and Marcos Senna, more accustomed to the world’s biggest stages than the turf at Hofstra University. Aside from his well-known competitive streak, Savarese showed a talent for recruiting and building in those years, and for keeping a diverse locker-room trained on the same singular goal. He won three NASL championships in four title-game appearances.

(The Timbers are flying high in the Cup & in the league in 2018 under their new boss)

Things weren’t so easy in the Cup. He had a smaller squad than his counterparts in Major League Soccer. The goals for teams below the top-flight are, necessarily, tempered by reality. He brought the Cosmos as far as the Round of 16 (2014 & 2015) and beat New York City FC in 2016. He knows the other side of the coin too, the burn of losing to a lower-league team. His Cosmos were knocked out early last year by Pennsylvania amateurs Reading United – college kids playing in the PDL on their summer break. It’s a sting he’s avoided so far in his first stint atop the heap, looking down from a great height in that precarious position of being the team everyone wants to knock off a perch.

Looks the Same from Up or Down
“Whether you’re coaching a team in the lower divisions or one in the top division, you have to have the same attitude toward the Cup,” said Savarese, who’s led his Timbers to fifth place in MLS’ Western Conference where they’re just six points off the leading pack in a congested race. “If you’re not playing to win, you’re not going to win. You need to have a strong mentality because every game in the Cup is going to be tough – teams get up for it and you could have extra-time and penalties. None of this is easy. But when you’re looking up at a team above you [in the lower leagues], those are the games you live for. As an MLS team, it’s strictly about beating teams you should beat, whoever we come across. It’s the same mentality and goal, just different expectations.”

(Savarese has made a point of fighting on all fronts in his first gig in Major League Soccer)

The Timbers and Savarese are looking for the same thing in 2018 – a first Open Cup crown. It would be historic for both in what is looking more like a heaven-made marriage with every passing week. “I have no complaints about how things have gone in our first two Open Cup matches,” added the coach, dead set on competing hard on every front. “We’ve performed and got the wins we needed to move on, and that’s what it’s all about in a Cup. It’s never easy. Every team we could meet from now on is going to be extremely dangerous too. That’s just the way it is. But there’s a chance in front of us.”

He wants it all. He wants more. It’s plain as day. He craves MLS Cups, Open Cups and the CONCACAF Champions League shot that comes with them. Savarese is a glutton who wants to win everything and play for all he can. It’s a contagious approach and catching on at a club ready to roar for a winning team. “All I want to do here is to build an identity,” said Savarese, appreciative of his first chance at the big-time, and what he’s come to call the Timbers Family the same way he remembers the Greek Americans 30 years ago as his ad-hoc soccer family. It’s safe to say he wants that identity to be a team that wins…everything. “If we build a good identity and people recognize it, then we did our job.”

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U.S. Open Cup Jul 13, 2018
US Soccer

Starlet to Shooting Star: SKC’s Daniel Salloi

Daniel Salloi made some sparks in 2017. This year, you’d need the Kansas City Fire Department to put him out. Two goals against FC Dallas in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 last month made him the second-youngest Sporting KC player to score a brace and brought his haul for the tournament to five goals in six games. So, how come no one was talking about him at the final whistle?

“It’s funny, I felt a little bad about it,” chuckled the 21-year-old Hungarian striker. He was subbed off in the 85th minute, only for his replacement Yohan Croizet to steal the headlines with a dramatic volleyed winner in in the 89th. “I was thinking, ‘gosh man, I can’t believe he goes and scores this beauty goal to win it when I had this amazing game.’ When I saw it go in I was on the bench and I was just freaking out. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a game where someone scores a winner as amazing as this.” 

(Salloi scored in last year's Open Cup Final win against NYRB)

Salloi’s pride and joy in his teammate’s goal, one that 26-year-old Frenchman Croizet calls the best of his career, is crystal clear. And it says a lot about the rail-thin attacker with a nose for goals. “You could see what it meant to him, to the whole team, right on his face,” said Salloi, whose six goals so far in MLS play and three in the Cup make him, suddenly, one of the most dangerous attacking weapons in one of Major League Soccer’s most dangerous teams. “[Croizet] really showed his emotions and you could see just what it meant.”

Croizet’s Winner, Salloi’s Win
While the winner belonged to Croizet, a first-year MLSer grappling with English and rookie adjustments, the win belonged in large measure to Salloi. He’s a player who’s paid his dues and is hitting the kind of form that comes with determination, a club ready to build for success and, of course, the right kind of luck. After coming to Kansas as a high school exchange student in 2014, he joined the Sporting Kansas City Academy before bouncing back and forth between his native Hungary and Swope Park Rangers (SKC’s USL affiliate) for the next three seasons. He was in that common purgatory for an aspiring player, waiting for his chance to break into the first team.   

“Those are always challenging times,” said Salloi, who’s come to call Kansas City his Second Home and even finds time to study Business and Sports Management at night online. “You have to be patient and believe your chance will come. In a foreign country, alone without your family, it’s not always easy. But you have to deal with it. You have to be ready for your chance and you have to be ready to take your chance when it comes.” 

(Fresh-faced as he is, Salloi looked much younger in his Swope Park Ranger days in USL)

His chance came in last year’s Open Cup, where he scored two goals including the winner in a tense Final at home against New York Red Bulls. It was the first time his parents had come to visit from Hungary, and he walked the field after the final whistle on that September night in a daze trying to spot his folks up in the stands. Salloi Senior, a famed coach and former player in Hungary, watched his son’s progress in the 2017 Open Cup on the Internet back home. He woke his wife, Daniel’s mom, only when the boy scored. “I don’t remember anything from that moment,” Daniel admitted about those frenzied celebrations on the pitch after winning last year’s Cup – too young to drink the champagne that cascaded through the locker-room moments later. “I was way too excited.”

Cup Beginnings
It’s no surprise then that Salloi has a special place in his heart for the Open Cup. It’s where he found his feet. It’s where he got his first chance to show the vision and quickness he had hidden away. His clever reading of the game and eye for the in-betweens where defenses are vulnerable. It was clear last year that this player, so long and lean he looks underfed, was not to be taken lightly. “I’ve always liked the Cups,” admitted Salloi, who scored plenty in the Magyar Kupa (Hungarian Cup) cutting his teeth with club sides Újpest FC, Vasas SC and Gyirmót. “It’s the idea that you’re advancing on the night and not just collecting points. There’s an extra hype to that. I have a taste for it.”

2017 U.S. Open Cup Champions Sporting Kansas City
(Salloi front and center at last year's Open Cup victory celebrations)

It’s not only Salloi who’s got a taste for the blood and thunder of Cup play. SKC boss Peter Vermes, a former U.S. National Team defender and two-time World Cup veteran, has made the tournament an annual priority since taking over in 2009. Instead of resting on his laurels and coasting with a championship team, he decided to build. To shuffle his pieces. To bring in more talent. If you’re not moving, you’re standing still – to paraphrase the no-nonsense boss.

“We’ve stepped it up this year. Winning the Cup last year sets expectations high and we want to make sure we win a trophy again,” said Salloi. “We’ve added quality players all around – guys like Croizet [France], Felipe Gutierrez [Chile] and Johnny Russell [Scotland]. These are just the kind of players you want coming in to your team. You pass them the ball and not only do you know it’s coming back, you know it’s coming back where you want it – to your left foot or your right foot or into space.”

Full-Speed Ahead in KC
Sporting Kansas City, the 2017 Open Cup champions, are getting better. It’s bad news for the seven other Quarterfinal survivors, especially their next opponent Houston Dynamo. But it’s not just talent coming in, according to Salloi, who knows the challenges of breaking into a team as sturdy and consistent as SKC’s. It’s the right kind of talent. The right kind of guys. “We’re like a family here,” said Salloi, who admits to becoming best friends with new striker Russell in the short matter of weeks. “I know everyone says that, but it’s true here. The coaching staff does such an amazing job of finding players who are good off the field and on it too. We just click here, and that’s not by accident.”

(Salloi, like most of his SKC teammates, talks up the family feel in the locker room)

Vermes isn’t the cuddliest teddy bear in the toy box, but he knows what he wants. He knows what he likes. And Salloi, humble and young as he is, knows what an “atta boy” from this particular boss means. “He’s a strong figure,” said Salloi with a smile, talking about Vermes. “You always have to take a step back and give him respect – it’s important to think of him as a boss. But that makes it even nicer when he trusts you and puts you on the field. It gives you confidence because you know his standards. So when I’m scoring goals and he comes up to me and says ‘big-time,’ I know he means it.”

There’s no doubt about it. Daniel Salloi’s hit the big-time. He’s made that jump from waiting and hoping, traveling and missing family, to being the go-to guy in a team where success is required. He’s not just a starter – he’s a star. It’s not been an easy road, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. Only tough roads lead to the Promised Land. “A lot of it is waiting and getting used to the team, and listening,” said young Salloi, looking back across that gulf he spanned when he scored a winning goal in the Cup in front of a sell-out home crowd in his new home in America. “But then you get your chance and things click and suddenly you’re doing things you could never have dreamed of.” 

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U.S. Open Cup Jul 13, 2018
US Soccer

LAFC & Bob Bradley’s Open Cup All-Stars

Sure they’re a first-year club, but LAFC have star-power to burn in the 2018 Open Cup. “I’m very lucky here – between the coaching staff and the players, we have a lot of guys with Open Cup experience and Open Cup successes,” said Bob Bradley, himself a two-time winner of American soccer’s oldest trophy and a vocal advocate for making the Open Cup a priority for players and fans. “It’s something we can all embrace together.”

Three starters in Los Angeles FC’s first-ever Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup game had either won the tournament or played in a recent Final. Latif Blessing, Lee Nguyen and Walker Zimmerman were all in from the start – and all Open Cup finalists within the last two seasons. Add in Bradley’s own experience in the Cup (five Finals under his belt) and a two-time winner, an assistant coach, in Ante Razov, who lifted the Cup three times as a player and Benny Feilhaber, ready to come off the bench as an impact-sub, and you’ve got some serious firepower, talent and Cup wisdom. One thing is clear, as it always is in Bradley-led teams: Open Cup matters.

(LAFC playmaker Benny Feilhaber won an Open Cup last year with Sporting KC)

First Trophy on Offer
“You play any sport at a high level because you want to win trophies,” Lee Nguyen, a losing Finalist with New England Revolution in 2016, told ussoccer.com. “This is a big opportunity for us to put some silverware in our cabinet. It’s our first chance to win something as a club, and a club like ours, with aspirations to win things and get to the CONCACAF Champions League, this is our first chance. We see the Cup as the start of something special.”

This thinking is straight from the Bob Bradley-playbook. The 60-year-old coach, a former USA, Egypt and Swansea City manager, recognized early on in his career the value of the Open Cup to players and fans and clubs just starting out. It’s a simple equation - trophies matter and there are only two available to teams in the American top flight. “At Chicago [Fire] we believed in the Open Cup. We had strong supporters and they cared about the Open Cup too. We decided early on that we needed to compete in it in the right way.”

(Between the coaching staff and players, LAFC are rich with Open Cup winners & recent Finalists)

The right way paid off for the coach. He won the 1998 Open Cup in his first year at the club and he repeated the trick again two years later – adding to the 1996 Open Cup title he picked up as an assistant coach to Bruce Arena at D.C. United. In addition to his three Open Cup crowns, Bradley lost a pair of Finals [1997 with D.C. United and 2003 with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars]. And it’s no coincidence that he’s assembled the team he has in LA now. For a first-year team like his, the Open Cup is a possibility and an attainable target. He’s got winners in his squad. And they know the way.

“It’s important at the end of the season to look back and have won a trophy,” said defender Walker Zimmerman, the U.S. international who was crucial in FC Dallas’ 2016 Open Cup title run. “For us, as an expansion team in our first year, the Open Cup is our first chance to win a trophy and lift it up. There’s a lot of focus on that from our side.”

Fresno & SacRep Down, Timbers Next
LAFC opened their Open Cup account with a simple win over USL second-tier pros Fresno FC in the Fourth Round. Latif Blessing, the young Ghanaian gem who starred for Sporting Kansas City in last year’s run to their fourth Open Cup title, got on the board with his third goal of the tournament in the space of two years. And the rest of Bradley’s Open Cup-tested campaigners also put in impressive performances.

“We’ve got guys who’ve been here before in the Cup,” added Zimmerman, who was a cool presence in the back against a spirited Fresno side that threw much into attack in the second half. “These guys know the simplicity of the Cup – in five games you can win a trophy. That leads to the concentration of making sure that you’re doing everything the right way, preparing the right way, because at the end of the day it may not be the easiest trophy to win, but it’s the shortest amount of games to play to win one.”

(Latif Blessing won an Open Cup last year in SKC and scored the winner for LAFC against SacRep)

It’s clear, talking to the players, that Open Cup was written on a whiteboard somewhere in the Banc of America Stadium early on after this team was assembled. Those two words were probably underlined twice and tapped with the marker. Having opened their account at home, they played their again in the Round of 16 against USL’s Sacramento – the highly motivated USL side that knocked out former champs Seattle Sounders in the last round. With a place in the Quarterfinals on the line, LAFC had to fight for it with Blessing sealing the deal with a last-second winner to see off the spirited USL side 3-2. The win sets up yet another home game in the sunny LA – this time against familiar MLS opposition in the 2015 champion Portland Timbers. The two teams are separated by a handful of points and both contenders at the top of MLS’ Western Conference standings. 

“Playing at home is massive,” said Feilhaber, who knows what he’s talking about after picking up the trophy at Children’s Mercy Park with Kansas City last year. He was crucial in the turning-point win against FC Dallas in the 2017 Quarterfinal that opened the door for another winning campaign. “It’s the kind of competition where you have to put your best effort in and go through any way you can. It doesn’t need to be pretty. Open Cup games are always tough. There’s a lot that makes this tournament different, but the first thing you have to do is put yourself in the position to win it by taking it seriously.” 

(Walker Zimmerman won the Open Cup in 2016 with FC Dallas, beating LAFC teammate Lee Nguyen in the Final)

Open Cup: The Target
The Open Cup is job-one for this first-year club in the heart of LA, fittingly close to Hollywood and its dream factories. And it’s not just silverware and trophy-counts that inspire Bradley. He’s a stern and serious man, but there’s a little bit of the dreamer in him too – you can see it around the eyes when he talks about this Cup that’s meant much to him through the years. “I mean, it allows you to compete with clubs from all over the United States from all the levels,” said the respected manager. “We don’t have promotion/relegation in this country yet – maybe some day but not yet. And in the meantime the Open Cup is an opportunity for everybody, and I think when an MLS team treats it the right way, it ends up meaning a lot to the supporters of that club.”

No one knows better than Bradley and his band of Cup specialists, so many winners who know what it feels like to lift the trophy up on a warm Wednesday night in September and join rare and historic company. “We’re all pushing together for this – we agreed we’re going to go after it. We’re embracing it together,” said Bradley, as expansive as he allows himself to be in interviews. “It’s important to us and we’ve had enough of our great fans here at the stadium to know that it’s important to them too.”    

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U.S. Open Cup Jul 13, 2018