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There Can Only Be One: #USOC2018 Final Preview

The 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup has reached its culminating moment. The trophy is polished and resting, the stage is set at BBVA Compass Stadium in South Texas, and one of the two Finalists on Sept. 26th will be crowned champions for the first time. Philadelphia Union were twice-beaten runners-up in 2014 and 2015, while Houston Dynamo, two-time MLS champions, are playing in the big game for the first time in their history. Join ussoccer.com for a look back at how they got here and what to expect on Wednesday when the curtain raises at 7 p.m. CT (ESPN2, UDN).

Both sides opened their Open Cup account with lopsided 5-0 victories at home in the Fourth Round; the Union beat second division pro side Richmond Kickers of the United Soccer League (USL), while Houston scored all of their goals in the second half against impressive amateurs and Open Cup regulars NTX Rayados out of North Texas. From there on, both teams played all of their games at home, showing for good and all just how important the hosting coin-flip can be to a successful Cup run. The Dynamo slipped past Minnesota United (MLS) in the Round of 16 by a slim 1-0 scoreline before knocking out the defending champ Sporting Kansas City (MLS) 4-2 in the Quarterfinals. Their Semifinal against tournament debutants LAFC (MLS) ended 3-3 a.e.t. and needed a penalty shootout to put the Dynamo into their debut Open Cup Final.

(Young - Mauro Manotas - and old - Philippe Senderos - have been making an impact for the Dynamo)

The Union followed up their opening-day rout of the 1995 Open Cup champion Kickers with a pair of one-goal results against New York Red Bulls (MLS), 2-1, in the Round of 16 and Orlando City (MLS), 1-0, in the Quarterfinals. The Semifinal, the fourth straight game at their Talen Energy Stadium on the banks of the Delaware River in Chester, Pa., was their best performance of the competition so far. They scored all three goals of the 3-0 win vs. the Chicago Fire (MLS) in the second half of a game that not only sent them to the Final of the Open Cup for a third time in five years, but changed their momentum in the league. They are now right on the cusp of qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

Offense vs. Defense
The numbers don’t lie. Houston have reached the Final, in large part, because of their dynamic offensive play. Alberth Ellis, Romell Quioto and, perhaps most importantly, Mauro Manotas form a three-pronged counter-attacking machine that saw the Dynamo score no fewer than 13 times in the space of just four games. Colombian striker Manotas, still 22, is in line to become top scorer of this edition of the tournament with a goal in the Final – and a brace would likely see him win the top-gun prize outright, outpacing LAFC’s Diego Rossi and David Ochoa of Miami United FC on four goals each. In case that were not enough in the achievement department for the lean, leggy Dynamo No. 9, he broke Houston’s all-time single-season scoring record across all competitions this year and holds the enviable record of being the Dynamo’s top all-time scorer in Open Cup play. “I allow myself to dream about lifting the Cup this year,” Manotas, who only broke into the Starting XI at the start of this season, told ussoccer.com. “In this life you have to dream in order to win, and you have to keep working too.”

While Houston rocketed to the Final by virtue of their impressive attacking array, Philly arrived at this stage by being stingy. While they scored 11 goals, they conceded just one over the course of the campaign. It’s a fact not lost on head coach Jim Curtin, a former defender who won the tournament twice as a player with Chicago Fire. “Our defense starts with Andre Blake [the Union’s Jamaican international goalkeeper who’s had an outstanding competition]. The way he’s been playing allows our defenders to be aggressive and to take chances,” said Curtin, who was in charge in the two consecutive Final losses in 2014 and 2015. “That’s a powerful feeling for a defender to have and it filters through the team. That said, we still conceded one goal so we could have defended better.”

(Union captain Alejandro Bedoya - center - has experience overseas and at the 2014 World Cup)

While Curtin sets an impossibly high standard for his backline, he knows full well the threats posed by a high-flying Houston Dynamo in the attacking third. “It’s a Final, and we know they’ll be up for it. We’re going to get their best punch in their building,” he said. “The key to the game will be who controls the tempo. If it turns into an end-to-end, wide-open game, we have no chance. We have to take that part of the game away from them.”

On the other side of the technical area, Wilmer Cabrera, a 50-times capped Colombian international who knows all about the big day, is hoping home field counts for something in this, the Dynamo’s fifth consecutive 2018 Open Cup contest at BBVA Compass Stadium. “It’s wonderful for us. It’s another home game for us. But you still have to win at home. You don’t get anything just because you play at home. It’s great to have the draws go your way, but you also have to put it in on the field. We’ve done that so far and hopefully we’ve got one more in us.”

Both teams have been through the fires and are now one win away from lifting a trophy. There will be nerves on the day and it will be down to the respective team leaders to calm the troops with everything on the line. “It’s OK for guys to be a little nervous. That’s natural,” said Union captain Alejandro Bedoya. “But you just need to go through your routines – take your walks and your naps and get ready like you do. In the end, there’s a trophy on the line and that’s all the motivation you need.”

Dynamo’s Old-Timers
While Bedoya leads a team that has relied on youth and Homegrown talent out of PA, The Dynamo has a raft of old campaigners in the locker room, wise old veterans like DaMarcus Beasley (36), Philippe Senderos (33), a former FA Cup winner with Arsenal in 2004-05, and Honduran international Oscar Boniek Garcia (34). “You need guys like this,” said Boniek on the eve of his first championship game since losing an MLS Cup Final in 2012. “These are the kind of guys who’d played in big games and won trophies and they can show the way for the younger guys.”

(Whoever wins it will be making history for their club - a first Open Cup title)

In the end, the winner will make history. The winning team’s picture will hang on the wall in either BBVA Compass Stadium or Talen Energy Stadium for as long as the clubs shall live. Houston are alive with the possibilities in their first Open Cup Final and Philly Union are looking to banish the ghosts of Finals past. “We’ve still got guys in the team like Ray Gaddis, CJ Sapong, Andre Blake and Fabino who were here for those losses and it would be extra special for them to win it this year,” said Union boss Curtin. “Being in a Final is big for any player and I want my guys to know that feeling of winning a trophy.”

Cabrera is aware of the same stakes. At home, there might even be a little more pressure on his men in orange. “This is the most important thing. It’s hard to put into words what it would mean for the club, the city, the fans and the players. You don’t win trophies every day. And the fact that we haven’t won one in a while [their two MLS titles came in 2006 and 2007] is proof that things have changed and become more difficult. But now we have the opportunity. Hopefully we can continue performing well. We are waiting and preparing now and our goal is to get the Cup.”

Whoever wins will be doing it for a first time, and they will join a list of winners going back to 1914 to where the oldest soccer crown in American history. All will be known on Sept 26th in South Texas.

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U.S. Open Cup U.S. Open Cup Final - Houston Dynamo Sep 20, 2018
US Soccer

Bedoya: Philly Union’s Missing Link?

Alejandro Bedoya is the link-up man for the Philadelphia Union. He’s the No. 8. The hidden playmaker. He’s the club’s captain, leader and chief schemer. He’s a conduit on the field from back to attack, doing “what I do best: moving the ball from the defense to the front.” He’s a link between personalities and teammates in the locker room, “managing egos and pridefulness.” And he’s a link to a bigger world – one he met head-on, with no promises of success, when he set off for Europe at the tender age of 20.

“I was just out of college where I had a kind of free role, and at that level what matters is if you’re better than the guys around you. You don’t learn much about tactics in the college game,” said Bedoya who, after visiting his friend and Boston College teammate (future U.S. National Team and Union teammate too) Charlie Davies in Sweden during his senior year, knew what his next step would be. “Pretty quickly, I realized there was a lot more to the game than getting into a good spot and demanding the ball. Over there [in Europe] we’d watch game film for hours after training and before games. I learned about how to move in certain formations, how to move when you have the ball, when you don’t. When to step up. I got an overall education in tactics there.

(Bedoya during his years with Nantes in France's top flight) 

Soccer Education in Europe, Not College
Bedoya’s not the best player in Major League Soccer. He’s not the fastest. He’s not a genius born to make art with his feet. What he has, and what he is, came with measured decisions, considered outcomes and chances taken. He’s not boastful when he sizes himself up; he’s confident. “I consider myself, tactically, one of the most intelligent players in the league [MLS] and all of that came from my time in Europe.”

There were many decisions to make before his debut in a Svensk Cup game with Orebro in Sweden. There were many questions to ask: Will I be homesick? Will I miss my family too much? Why not take one of the other roads open as a top collegiate prospect? “I always dreamed of playing over in Europe, even from when I was a little kid. When you play FIFA you never pick your local team, you always pick a team from over there,” said Bedoya with a laugh.

He went from strength to strength in his seven years across the Atlantic. He acclimated quickly in Sweden’s top flight, moved on to Rangers in Glasgow to taste the roar and howl of Ibrox and the blood and thunder of Old Firm derbies against Celtic. In France, with Nantes, he played in one of the top five leagues in the world. Each step was a part of a school of soccer where he took extensive mental notes and rarely got caught daydreaming. Along the way, Bedoya broke into the U.S. National Team and fulfilled another lifelong dream: playing in the World Cup – all four of the USA’s games in Brazil in 2014. “I’ve always been an ambitious person. And I guess I took the road less traveled, but I hope it becomes the path more American players take in the future because there’s a lot of great play over there. It was a big learning curve but it helped me tremendously.” 

(The Union captain struck early in the 2018 Open Cup Quarterfinal against Orlando City) 

Bedoya grew up in the game. First in New Jersey, then in the western part of Florida. His father, born in Colombia and a former professional with Millionarios, made his family in America. And while Alejandro remembers supporting Colombia and “wearing my Carlos Valderrama wig” while a seven-year-old during the 1994 World Cup, something tugged him back to the States after seven years abroad. He’d passed on a chance to start his career in Major League Soccer, but in 2016, with a second child on the way, he felt the tug of home. Again, he measured the pros and cons. He had a list of reasons and many things to consider.

Philly the Right Fit for Homecoming
“I met Jim [Curtin – Philadelphia Union head coach] while I was still in France when he was over scouting a teammate of mine at Nantes,” said Bedoya about his decision to join the Union and return to MLS as a Designated Player, a title he puts in air quotes in the Union locker room in Chester, Pa. a few weeks before the 2018 U.S. Open Cup Final against Houston Dynamo (7 p.m. CT on Sept. 26; ESPN2, UDN). “I liked the things he was saying. I liked the plan they had here, their youth academy and the fact that they wanted me to play as a No. 8, a defined role. And it all just kind of fit. I love living on the East Coast. Philly is close to New York and New Jersey, where I have a lot of family. And people say I’ve got the right attitude for Philly!”

It wasn’t an immediate marriage made in heaven, but the Bedoya-led Union is clicking now in 2018 after the club failed to reach the league playoffs last year and went out early in 2016. They’re on the cusp of reaching the MLS post-season and they’re back in the Open Cup Final again. “I reached a Cup semifinal in France, but we lost so I never played in a Cup Final,” said Bedoya, who came to the Union just after the club’s heartache of a pair of Open Cup Final losses on home soil in consecutive years in 2014 and 2015. It was a chance for the Union, founded in 2010, to win its first trophy. “I’m sure those losses hurt for the guys who were here, but there’s no looking back really, and it’s about what’s in front of us. We have a great opportunity to lift a trophy.”

(Bedoya played in all four of the U.S. National Team's games at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil)

Bedoya, 31 and closer to the end of his career than its start, is an old campaigner in a Union side that relies on youth and Homegrown talent. He’s a steadying influence on those younger players and they look to him to lead the way. He scored an early lone goal in the Open Cup Quarterfinal against Orlando City – one of those sloppy games you just need to grind out if you want to get to the Final. But in the Semifinal, against Chicago Fire, there was no hanging on for a result. It was a performance in which the Union were as good as they could be. “In games like that you need your best players to be your best players and Alejandro just took the game over,” remembered coach Curtin about the 3-0 win at home that put Philadelphia into the Final, and gave the club another chance to lift a trophy for the first time in its history.

The opening goal didn’t come until ten minutes into the second half, but it was snapshot of what Bedoya does best. Receiving a return ball from Borek Dockal at the edge of the penalty area, he was faced with a wall of red defenders. There wasn’t an obvious way through or around. So it had to be over the top. Bedoya’s delicate chip cleared the wall but dropped too far from Chicago goalkeeper Richard Sanchez for him to claim it. Union forward Cory Burke collected the pass and fired home. It set the stage for a comprehensive 3-0 win. “We dominated them and we should have scored more,” said Bedoya, the orchestrator and split-second decision maker. “The pressure was on and we came through.”

Cup Momentum Leaks into League
It wasn’t just a convincing win that put the Union into a Final. It was a turning point in the league too. It turned the year around and changed the atmosphere in the locker room. They didn’t drop a result in the entire month of August. Burke got on a roll in attack, the confidence of CJ Sapong, veteran of the 2015 Cup Final loss, returned with his goal. Everything clicked, and all of it, in no small way, came from the link-up play in that moment of the team’s quiet captain. “When things like that happen, the spirit in the locker room just picks up,” said Bedoya about the upturn in good vibes that can come with a deep Cup run. And while things haven’t all gone their way in September, the Union will arrive in Houston for the Final on Sept. 26th with justifiable confidence. “Everybody’s happy and the banter is flying left and right. The guys are talking more and joking. You can just feel it.”

(Bedoya, who's been with the Union since 2016, can be the club's first captain to win a trophy)

When asked what his last minutes before kick-off in the away locker room at Houston’s BBVA Stadium will be like, Bedoya doesn’t describe pep talks and rallying cries. “It’s a trophy we’re playing for. And that’s all the motivation you need,” said the captain, the man brought to Philadelphia to link the young and youthful Union with silverware. “This club has only been around since 2010 but we have no trophies, and we want them. That’s a big reason I cane here. We’re playing some good stuff this year, but we haven’t won anything yet. A trophy, though, that’s something no one can take away.”

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U.S. Open Cup Sep 19, 2018
US Soccer

Coaches Q&A: Cabrera, Curtin & The Cup

Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin has led his side to the Final of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup for the third time in five years. On the other side stands Wilmer Cabrera, the former Colombia international and youth-team wizard who’s guided his Houston Dynamo to the Final for the first time in their history. ussoccer.com put the same six questions to both bosses as they chase the same trophy, and a place in their club’s history on Wednesday, Sept. 26th in Houston (7 p.m. CT; ESPN2, UDN).

(Wilmer Cabrera worked through the youth coaching ranks with U.S. Soccer and Rio Grande Valley FC Toros - USL)

We’re here in the build-up to the 2018 U.S. Open Cup Final. Can you point to one game, or one moment, in this campaign that stands out as a turning point?
Wilmer Cabrera (Dynamo): It was the Quarterfinal against Sporting Kansas City. They were the reigning champions and we knew that if we got past them we’d really have the chance to go all the way. It required a lot of effort from us [4-2 win] because it was a tough game. It wasn’t easy, but I knew then that we had what it takes as a team to keep moving forward. Something clicked. Now we have one more game to go and we’re excited. This is the most important game of the competition, a Final always is, and we know it won’t be easy either.

Jim Curtin (Union):
Definitely the turning point for us was the Chicago [Semifinal]. This was a catalyst for all the good things happening in our club right now. It really turned our season around. It got us into the Cup Final, obviously, but it also gave us confidence in the league. It got Cory Burke going [he scored two of three second-half goals in the 3-0 win]. You saw the leadership of our captain Alejandro Bedoya, who just took over the game. Since then, we’ve been on a great run of form in the league [MLS]. A game like that, depending on how it goes, can really make or break your season. If it goes the other way, it can be a heartbreaker and drag you down. But the players deserve all the credit for what’s happening. We’ve paid the Open Cup the respect it deserves and we’re here in the Final again.

(Jim Curtin won a pair of Open Cups with Chicago Fire as a player and has taken the Union to a third Final in five years)

In the Open Cup, you have to rely on the full spectrum of players available to you – young players, inexperienced players, sometimes players from the youth system. How did the young guns step up this year?
WC (HD): This year we really needed some of the young guys to step up in the early stages. You always want to play your top team in every game, but it’s not always possible. You have to use what you have and hope you get the balances right. So when we needed the young players to step up, because of our very busy schedule in June and July, they did it in a big way. We wouldn’t be in the Final today if they hadn’t done a job when we asked them to. They all stepped up, even guys from USL [Division Two United Soccer League affiliate Rio Grande Valley FC Toros] in our first two Cup games. They all played well, and some of them even scored important goals, and it leaves us with a feeling of pride doing a whole job as a club. We showed we have depth and everyone has played an important role when asked to.

JC (PU): Young players are really a big part of everything we try to do here at the Philadelphia Union. And in the Open Cup, early on, you really do have to rely on those younger players to step up. And when they do, you can feel that momentum build and that camaraderie grow with every win. Every game that you advance, it builds a little more. If you’ve ever been in a professional locker room before a game, there’s just a real tension that you can feel. And for young players, getting a taste of that is the best experience you can give them. You can’t recreate those types of moments and feelings in practice. You have to live with the agonizing defeats and feel those great highs for yourself. That’s the beauty of the competition, of the Open Cup, it can build confidence and your guys can show a strong mentality. You learn to not be scared. Guys really stepped up in those do-or-die moments you have in a knockout competition. And to be here at the Final is a real achievement across the whole club.

(Cabrera's Houston Dynamo have played all of their 2018 USOC games at home - the Final will be at BBVA too)

Would you say there’s a special psychology to a Final? Does it just feel different?
WC (HD): It’s important not to over-think it when you’re going into a Final. You just have to make sure you prepare the team in the right way. When the moment comes, the players will feel it and that will be all the motivation that they need. I need to be sure they don’t overcompensate because too much of anything is not good. Too much excitement is not good and too much relaxation is not good. You need to balance it so that the adrenaline is high but not too high. You can’t let that take control of your nerves. And, really, you have to enjoy it and believe that you’ll go out there and do your best.

JC (PU): To say ‘it’s just another game’ is BS. That’s just coach-speak and it’s not ever true. Everyone starts out at the beginning of every season wanting to play in a Final and win a trophy. Sure, you try to find ways to keep guys as loose as possible and you try to make it seem like it’s just another game, but there will be nerves. And there’s a build-up. You try to sprinkle in practicing penalty kicks and using the tournament ball, things like that. But at the end of the day, players know when a Final’s here and a trophy’s on the line. You have to try to manage that and stay focused. And once the whistle goes, that’s all gone. It’s just game time. 

(Jim Curtin - top - after winning the Open Cup in Chicago)

While you’ve talked about how important the input of young players can be in a Cup run, Veterans are always needed as well.
WC (HD):
It’s always good in the locker room when you have guys like DaMarcus Beasley, Philippe Senderos and Oscar Boniek Garcia. These are the kind of guys that know about winning in Finals and they’ve been there before. Any good team is guided by players like that. They can express what it’s like and communicate it to their teammates, and it’s easier for them to do it than it is for coaches like me. The veterans have the relationship of teammates to the young players and those young players respect what they’ve done before. They can rely on their advice and they can learn the lessons of the guys who’ve been there before.

JC (PU):
I can’t stress enough what a guy like Alejandro Bedoya has meant to us in this Open Cup run. He scored an early goal in a tough Quarterfinal game against Orlando City. What you need in this competition is to have your best players be your best players. That’s not always doable even if it sounds simple. But we’ve found a way to have our best players – guys like Bedoya, [Haris] Medunjanin, [Bořek] Dočkal – really thrive in this competition. Now in the Final, you’ll see the best from these players again.

(Wilmer Cabrera was capped 50 times for Colombia in his playing days)

The Final will be in Houston. What does that mean? Does it make a difference?
[Houston have played all of their 2018 Open Cup games at home and so have the Union].
WC (HD): It’s wonderful for us. It’s another home game for us. But you still have to win at home. You don’t get anything just because you play at home. It’s great to have the draws go your way, but you also have to put it in on the field. We’ve done that so far and hopefully we’ve got one more in us.

JC (PU): There’s always a little more pressure on the home team. We felt that the two years we hosted the Final [2014 and 2015]. At home, you’re a favorite in some ways. You’ve got that feeling of being at home and there’s a little bit of expectation and pressure because of it. Hopefully that will help keep us loose on the road. But Houston is a tough place, historically, to go play in our league. There’s a lot of travel and it’s hot and they have a good team who are well coached and organized. In that way, your margin of error shrinks.

(Curtin's Philadelphia Union have an outstanding record in Open Cup play, but two Final losses in 2014 and 2015 still linger)

Your opponent won’t be a mystery. Houston Dynamo and Philadelphia Union play often in Major League Soccer. How do you measure up to your opponent on the day?
WC (HD):
Philly is a very good team with a lot of talent. Last time they came here they beat us 3-1. Right there we have something to overcome, but every game is different. They are at a very good level right now and this is their third Open Cup Final in five years. Maybe that means that they’ll have a little more pressure on them to win it. For us, it’s good and we’re at home and they’ll just want to go and win the Final. That’s something that’s maybe a little tricky for them.

JC (PU): Houston are a tough team. I think their front-three is one of the most dangerous in our league. When they get out in open space – [Alberth] Elis, [Mauro] Manotos – who is just so underrated – and Romell Quioto are just unreal. These are real weapons. It’s a Final, and we know they’ll be up for it. We’re going to get their best punch in their building. The key to the game will be who controls the tempo. If it turns into an end-to-end, wide-open game, we have no chance. We have to take that part of the game away from them. We have to know when to slow it down and when to speed it up. It will be a fight for control of the game and we can’t let them sit deep and then counter-attack.

(Cabrera and his Dynamo are one more win away from the club's first U.S. Open Cup crown)

What would a trophy, the Open Cup, mean to your club?
WC (HD):
This is the most important thing. It’s hard to put into words what it would mean for the club, the city, the fans and the players. You don’t win trophies every day. And the fact that we haven’t won one in a while [their two MLS titles came in 2006 and 2007] is proof that things have changed and become more difficult. But now we have the opportunity. Hopefully we can continue performing well. We are waiting and preparing now and our goal is to get the Cup.

JC (PU):
We’ve been in this position before, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I wanted that trophy a little more for guys in the team like Ray Gaddis, Fabinho and Andre Blake – guys who were a part of those teams that lost in 2014 and 2015. But we’ve got guys in the team who’ve never won trophies – guys with experience – and I want them to have that special moment that I had as a player [Curtin won two Open Cups in 2003 and 2006 as a player with Chicago Fire]. Of course it would be so important to the fans too, and that’s critical. Being in a Final is a big opportunity for a player, and I want to have that feeling of handing out the rings to my players. And I’d give my own medal away. For me now it’s more about getting that feeling again, of winning, and passing it on. It’s not about the physical hardware for me anymore.

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U.S. Open Cup Sep 17, 2018
US Soccer

From Rockets to FC Dallas: 25 Years of Texas & the Open Cup Final

Despite a proud soccer pedigree, it took Texas – a state bigger than many countries – a full 77 years to send a team to the Open Cup Final. Join ussoccer.com for a look back at a quarter-century of the Lone Star State’s flirtations with America’s oldest soccer trophy, from the Richardson Rockets and the El Paso Patriots of the 1990s to FC Dallas’s ups and downs in the 2000s.

The ‘91 Rockets & ‘95 Patriots: So Close, Yet So Far
The Richardson Rockets
(later known as the Dallas Rockets) were a top team in the early days of the SISL (later the USISL). Curtis Partain, a local speedster and UCLA Bruin, who got his first taste of the game on the Dallas area’s bumpy YMCA fields, was the first player signed by the club. He remembers playing more 70 games a season both indoor and outdoor. “One year, I collected the Do Not Disturb signs from our hotels and I think I had 52 from 52 weeks!”  

(The Rockets were the first team from Texas to reach a Final, but the Brooklyn Italians - above - won in 1991)

Partain, now 50, and his Rockets raced through the 1991 Open Cup with wins over amateur and semi-pro stalwarts of yesteryear like Atlanta Datagraphic, FC Galveston (8-2) and a tight 1-0 Semifinal over the New Mexico Chiles that the ex-striker remembers as a “bloodbath.” It might have been an ominous sign when the Rockets’ plane was struck by lightning on approach to JFK airport the day before the Final, but they still considered themselves favorites against their hosts, the Brooklyn Italians. It wasn’t meant to be on that hot August day on the primitive AstroTurf at Brooklyn College that got so hot it forced Partain and his teammates to play in flats lined with heavy-duty aluminum foil to keep their feet from burning. “They were a proper team [the Italians] and they beat us and deserved it. We played and we lost – and that’s just how it goes.”

What Partain remembers best of that day wasn’t the 1-0 loss on a sixth-minute breakaway by Ernest Inneh or playing a man up for most of the game after the ejection of Brooklyn’s Bill Manning. His most vivid memories are of the celebratory dinner that followed the game. “The Brooklyn Italians invited us to this restaurant out on Coney Island (Gargiulo’s – opened in 1907 and still operating today) and we had like 40 people between the players and our staff and everybody. It was one of the greatest moments of my career and my life,” said Partain, his voice rising with the recollection of a party for the ages. “We’re just kids in our 20s and none of us packed a suit jacket and you can’t go into this place without a jacket, so they provided us with these maroon sport coats. And when I say it was the world’s greatest Italian meal, it was just ridiculous. It couldn’t be replicated. All those courses – salad, sorbet, seared scallops and seafood, pasta and it just kept coming. All these years later, I still remember it.”

(Brian O'Haver of the El Paso Patriots went head-to-head with Richmond Kicker Rob Ukrop in the 1995 Final)  

By the time the party ended – seven courses, four hours (and more than a few glasses of wine) later – the Rockets hardly remembered the loss. “I won an NBA championship ring with the Dallas Mavericks [Partain went on to have a career as a sports executive], but to this day there’s still nothing like that celebration on Coney Island after losing the Open Cup Final. It was the greatest thing in the world!”

Four years later, in 1995, the El Paso Patriots had their own chance to become the first team from Texas to lift the Open Cup. A semi-pro side out of the USISL A-League, they drew the long straw to host the Richmond Kickers, a gaggle of recently graduated top college talent, many of whom would go on to play in the early days of Major League Soccer. It was only the second-ever Open Cup Final hosted in Texas (The New York Pancyprian Freedoms won their third title by beating St. Louis Kutis at 12,000-seat Delmar Stadium in Houston in July of 1983), but the first with a Texas team taking part.

“Our team was really unique – we had our own stadium – and even though we weren’t the most skilled team in the world, we beat teams that were better than us because of our togetherness,” said Brian O’Haver, the right back who joined up with the Patriots one summer on break from the University of Rhode Island. “My folks were living in El Paso at the time and we saw these articles in the local newspaper about a new pro soccer team, so I just went down to training and told them I wanted play. They let me train and before I knew it I was on the team.”

(The Dewar Cup - the original Open Cup trophy - held by a Texas team for the first time in 1997)

The Patriots were named after the Patriot missile, a nod to El Paso’s Fort Bliss, which is home to the U.S. Army’s 1st Armored Division. They trained in high altitude and high temperatures and were loaded with talented players, a core with experience in Mexico’s top professional division. The Final was played in extreme heat, which should have given the home side the edge. But even after going a man up and suffering through 120 minutes and a penalty shootout, the Patriots came up short despite having former Veracruz and Chivas striker Salvador Mercado in the side. “He [Mercado was amazing] said O’Haver, now a 48-year-old design executive in his native North Carolina. “He had something none of us college guys did. A professionalism and a mental toughness.”

Despite his successes off the field, O’Haver still remembers a missed opportunity that day in El Paso. “It was the beginning of the second overtime session and Mercado put the ball right on my foot in the penalty area. We made eye contact and I had it, but I made a cardinal sin: I was already thinking about the celebration before I put the ball in the net,” said O’Haver of the miss that would have ended the game – that year’s Final having taken place in the Golden-Goal era of sudden death overtime. “It still haunts me a little.”

The Burn/FC Dallas Days: USOC Success in the MLS Age
It wasn’t until 1997 – 83 years deep into the Open Cup – that Texas finally grabbed her first title. The Dallas Burn (later FC Dallas) roared through the New Orleans Riverboat Gamblers, the Chicago Stingers and a tight 2-1 golden-goal Semifinal win over the MetroStars. They went on to beat D.C. United – the reigning Open Cup champs at the time, who were hunting a league/Cup Double that year – in a tense Final that finished 0-0 and needed penalties to decide the winner.

“It was a chance to win some silverware; that’s always what it was like in those early MLS days. We weren’t worried too much about the Concacaf Champions Cup, but we wanted to bring a trophy home,” said Dante Washington, the Burn’s top-scorer that year in Major League Soccer with 13 goals. “We had a really good team. One thing I really remember about that Final was it was a really cold day in Indiana. [The game that year was played on Oct. 29, late for an Open Cup Final].

(After feeling the pain of a pair of losses, Oscar Pareja returned to the Final to win as head coach of FC Dallas

It was a day of high emotions in the Burn locker room as goalkeeper Mark Dodd’s mother had passed away only a few days before the big game. “As a team, you rally around your teammate – your friend – in moments like that,” said Washington, a speedy and powerful striker with a nose for goal who had previous experience in the Open Cup with D.C. area men’s league regulars the Greek Americans. “We really felt it and he went on to have an incredible game, and came up big in the penalty shootout.”

Washington, who starred for the Radford Highlanders at the collegiate level, was spared having to take a penalty on the day. “I was next up, waiting at midfield. I was the next shooter when Jorge Rodriguez scored the winner for us,” recalled the player who went on to win another Open Cup with Columbus Crew in 2002. “Any time you can lift a trophy, it’s something that stays with you. I still remember the feeling.”

The Burn, now FC Dallas, would win in 2016 too. But there was suffering to do before that trophy went up again. Oscar Pareja was a player in 2005 and an assistant coach in 2007 when they lost a pair of Finals, before coming good and winning it all as head coach in 2016. “I really wanted to win something for my club,” said Pareja, who was born in Colombia and spent six seasons with FC Dallas as a cultured midfielder. “As a player I wanted to get that trophy because my career was winding down and you’re not going to get more chances.”

(The Dallas Burn were back - as a renamed FC Dallas - in 2007)

Pareja, suffering from knee injuries that would eventually end his playing career, was unable to lift the trophy as a player (or as assistant coach). “After so many years as a professional you have to learn how to wash your pain,” he said of the disappointment of losing to LA Galaxy in Carson, California in 2005 and the New England Revolution at home in Frisco, Texas in 2007. “It was a great opportunity to win something and I do remember the pain of it. But win or lose, you have to move on.”

A Last Title for Texas
And move on he did. Pareja was named head coach of FC Dallas in 2014 and he channeled the pain of losing two Finals into making sure he wouldn’t come up short in 2016. Again against the New England Revolution, he orchestrated an impressive 3-2 win that sent fireworks up into the Dallas sky for the first time – a first time a Texas team had won the Open Cup on home soil. The celebrations were lively and well earned, and went a long way to scrubbing away the memory of past failures. “In 2016 we had that same feeling of responsibility – to win something for the club,” said Pareja, who has his team on top of the MLS standings ahead of the 2018 playoff charge. “After many years of not winning it, I had it in front of me again. I couldn’t let it go. As a coach, as a player, I wanted to win it. And I was lucky to be in charge of a group of guys full of energy and desire in 2016. It was a moment that was so valuable for our club.”

(2016 was the last time a team from Texas won a U.S. Open Cup)

This year, on September 26, Houston Dynamo have the chance to become only the second side in the 105-year history of the Open Cup to win a title in the great state of Texas. Up against Philadelphia Union – who, like the Dynamo, have never won an Open Cup – they have a chance to add their name to the short list of Open Cup champs from the Lone Star State.

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No Looking Back for Dynamo’s Boniek

Oscar Boniek Garcia landed in Houston with a bang in the summer of 2012. While mid-season arrivals usually need an adjustment period in a new country, a new league and a new club, the Honduran winger started turning defenders inside out inside his first week. “It took him basically two practices to settle in,” said then Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear. Six months later, Boniek was named the team’s top player, MLS’ best newcomer, and he’d helped drag the Texans, league champions in 2006 and 2007, into a second straight MLS Cup Final.

Boniek and co lost that Final to an LA Galaxy side sparkling with stars like Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and David Beckham. But with a remarkable first season under his belt, the wide player with pace, agility and penetration power had announced himself in a big way. “In Garcia you have a player that’s different,” said Bruce Arena, the former U.S. National Team coach and LA Galaxy boss in that 2012 trophy showdown. “He’s creative and dynamic with the ball at his feet. He’s a goal threat and a set-up threat.” 

(Coach Wilmer Cabrera leans on Boniek Garcia as a Dynamo team leader)

Anyone with a betting bent would have been justified in letting some dough ride on him winning silverware in Houston in the future. But fast-forward six seasons, Boniek and Houston don’t have anything more to polish in the trophy cabinet. Their upcoming Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final date with Philadelphia Union is the club’s first appearance in a Final of any kind since coming up just short back then in 2012. It’s also safe to say that Boniek – a veteran now and staring down an inevitable end to his playing career – is desperate to go out making the same kind of impact he did coming in.

Must-Win for Dynamo
“When you go to a Cup Final, you have to win it,” Boniek, who knows better than some the pains of losing at the last hurdle, told ussoccer.com. “We need to win it so that we can feel the satisfaction that we’ve done something good this year. An Open Cup title would do that. We’re playing at home in front of our own fans and we have their support, so we need to do our best to make sure we get our hands on that trophy.”

Boniek was in his late 20s when he arrived at the club. Now he’s 34. Gone are the days of his electric pace and single-handed panic-causing runs down the flank. Now he plays fewer minutes and picks and chooses when and how to exploit the wide positions and take on his opponents. He’s joined in the current Dynamo side by a raft of fellow old-timers, all deep in their thirties, who act as mentors and guiders of young starlets like striker Mauro Manotas (23), Homegrown up-and-coming midfielder Memo Rodriguez (22) and Alberth Elis (22).

(In among the likes of Philippe Senderos and DaMarcus Beasley, Boniek Garcia brings much experience to Houston)

“It’s very important to a have a core of experienced players to show the young guys the drive they need to win. We have those players – guys like DaMarcus Beasley and Philippe Senderos,” said Boniek, who’s father gave him his unusual middle name in honor of one of his favorite players, Zbigniew Boniek of Poland and Juventus fame. “Thankfully we have guys like this and Adolfo Machado, Leonoardo and yes, myself too. We are experienced. We’ve won trophies and it’s our job to make sure the young ones know that this is their opportunity for a trophy too.”

Not in MLS, But Trophies Aplenty
While he’s yet to hoist silverware in MLS with the Dynamo, Boniek has more league titles from his days in Honduras than he knows what to do with. He picked up ten national titles with Honduran giants CD Olimpia, where he made his debut while still a teenager, and he knows what it takes to get the job done on the big day. Not to mention, he’s been to two World Cups (2010 and 2014) and has 125 caps for his national team in an international career spanning more than a decade. This is a man to watch in the Dynamo locker-room if you’re a youngster looking for the right way to do things.

“The best advice he gives is his example,” said Mauro Manotas, the 22-year-old Colombian thrust into a starting No. 9 role at the club following the departure of Erick El Cubo Torres at the start of the season. He’s eighth in the MLS scoring charts for 2018, tied with LAFC’s Carlos Vela on 13, one shy of finishing top-scorer in the 2018 Open Cup and he’s also the team’s all-time top-scorer in Open Cup history. Dynamo coach Wilmer Cabrera, who gave the veteran Honduran a contract extension last year, knows full-well Boniek’s worth from the other side of the touchline, “A team is guided by guys like this – guys who lead and who’ve been to Finals and won things.”

(Boniek Garcia won ten national titles in his native Honduras with Tegucigalpa giants Olimpia)

Boniek points to the team’s attacking flair as the main reason for the magnificent Open Cup run this year. They’ve scored 13 goals in four games, including four in a 4-2 Quarterfinal win against defending champs Sporting Kansas City that Cabrera singles out as the Dynamo’s turning-point in the Cup. “Our attack makes us dangerous,” Boniek said. “Between Mauro Manotas, Alberth Ellis, Romell Quioto, Ronaldo Pena and Memo Rodriguez and Arturo Alvarez we have very dangerous players and defenses have to respect that. We always have to take advantage of how powerful our attack is.” 

An attacking crew to be sure, it’s also an international cast in the Dynamo locker-room. Boniek is one of three Hondurans in a team that boasts players from Colombia (2), EL Salvador, Venezuela, Sweden, Panama, Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Switzerland and the United States. But for Boniek, the only flag that matters is Dynamo Orange. “All those cultural difference go out the window, they’re erased, when you throw a soccer ball into the mix,” said the player who followed the game, that same ball he talks about now, from the slums of Tegucigalpa and a childhood full of pitfalls. “The ball always brings the team together; it makes all the difference and we find ways to communicate with it.”

A Cup to Salvage a Season?
It’s no secret that things haven’t gone the Dynamo’s way in league play this year. They’re stuck in tenth in the MLS Western Conference standings and a full 13 points out of playoff contention with just five regular season games to go. Consistent results have been hard to come by and luck hasn’t been on their side. All the breaks they’ve gotten have come, however, in the Cup. The coin flips have been especially kind to them. The Final on Sept. 26th will be the side’s fifth home game of the competition – that’s every round since they started with a clash against amateurs NTX Rayados back in June.

(Boniek impressed in the Open Cup Semifinal against LAFC despite missing a penalty in the shootout) 

Playing at home was a massive boost for Boniek, especially in the Semifinal against LAFC which produced six goals (3-3) before going to penalties. “I was able to celebrate with my family after the Semifinal, when I had missed my penalty,” he said, having fluffed a fifth kick which would have won the game, before being rescued by goalkeeper Joe Willis in the end. “When I missed I knew my family was suffering with me, so my first thought was to go to them before going celebrating with my teammates and fans.” 

He’s reluctant to say so, but the 2018 Open Cup Final could well be Boniek’s last chance to lay his hands on a trophy. Wingers don’t go much past 35, which he’ll turn next September. And while his expiration date is open for debate, his desire to pick up a Cup before he’s gone is strong. “Maybe it will be the last chance or maybe it won’t,” he said, looking ahead to the big day and Houston’s first Open Cup Final. “You just have to enjoy the moment, no matter what your age, and make sure you do everything you can to win the Cup.”

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U.S. Open Cup Sep 17, 2018