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The Great Eight Semis Edition: Home Cooking, Philly’s Holy Trinity & an Unhappy Hat-Trick

Fans of the 105-year-old Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup live by its magic moments. And the Semifinal Round of the 2018 competition tossed up a good few of those on August 8. Join ussoccer.com for a look back at eight moments of note from those two games, in which “3” became the Philadelphia Union’s favorite number, lively Latif Blessing and LAFC suffered the cruelty of a shootout for the first time and Houston Dynamo set yet another home date – this time in their first-ever Open Cup Final.

Home Sweet Home
Like Dorothy said, triggering her return from the Technicolor dreamscapes of Oz, there’s no place like home. It’s especially true in the 2018 Open Cup. Houston Dynamo have played (and won) all four of their games at BBVA Compass Stadium. They now face an Open Cup Final – a first in the club’s history – to cap a run in which they haven’t had to board a bus or a plane, haven’t had to sleep in a strange bed and could eat cereal from their favorite bowl on matchday mornings before driving to the stadium in their own cars. The Dynamo’s opponent on Sept. 26, Philadelphia Union, also benefited from home cooking, playing all of their games so far at Talen Energy Stadium on the banks of the mighty Delaware. Theirs is a more complicated relationship with home, and they might be happy to be heading away for the Final, having lost two straight (in 2014 and 2015) in front of their own fans under the halo of the Commodore Barry Bridge. “You need a few home games in a good Cup run,” said Jim Curtin, Union coach since 2014 and a two-time winner of the Open Cup as a player (once at home and once away). “But you don’t have to be at home to win a final…”

(Cory Burke soaks it in at Talen Energy Stadium, where the Union played (and won) all of their Cup games this year)

Say it Ain’t so, Latif
Of all the players to suffer the agony of missing a crucial penalty in LAFC’s Semifinal shootout loss in Houston, it shouldn’t have been Latif Blessing. Anyone but him. The tiny attacker from Ghana, still 21, is full of life and always smiling. He scored an unlikely header in last year’s Open Cup Final with Sporting Kansas City, and his lively dance routine with the trophy – nearly as tall as he is – was one of the highlights of the 2017 Final celebrations. The first thing he did after signing for LAFC this year was promise the fans in SoCal an Open Cup crown. He was as good as his word to the bitter end, with lively performances and a pair of goals en route to the final four. An avowed advocate of the Open Cup and its glories, who better than Blessing himself to take the crucial eighth penalty? He telegraphed his spot-kick and a rangy, athletic ‘keeper like Joe Willis was always going to jump all over it. Little Latif fell to the pitch and stayed there, like something discarded, while the Dynamo pounded the ground around him in celebration.

Three’s a Charm for Philly
The number 3 has power. There’s a certain weight to it. The Holy Trinity, three sides to a triangle, three rings in a circus. There’s three wise men, three little pigs, blind mice, Musketeers, Amigos and Stooges. It’s a number that means something to the Philadelphia Union too. They scored three in their shutout win over Chicago in the Semifinal – their third win over the Fire this year. It was the win that put the Pennsylvania club into a third Open Cup Final in the space of five years (and it’s been three years since their last appearance in 2015…). Still haunted by a pair of losses in their previous Finals, the Union and their fans will be hoping it’s a matter of third-time lucky and that this magic number can lead them to an all-important first Open Cup crown and a first trophy for the club that was founded in 2010. Come to think of it, one’s a good number too and Philly’s only conceded a single solitary goal in their four games.

(Latif Blessing is consoled by his LAFC teammates after missing the crucial PK)

Two Games – Nine Goals
With a whopping nine scored in two Semifinal games, the penultimate round produced an average of four and a half goals per game, a full goal more than the approximate average of the competition so far and a half a goal more than the Quarterfinal round. We’re sorry to see LAFC go as their run-and-gun approach to their first Open Cup campaign had fans on the edge of their seats. They scored 11 goals in four games (conceding seven). Houston Dynamo, not to be outdone, matched the LA men goal-for-goal and scored one extra in the shootout. Philadelphia Union, after riding a third-minute winner in a tense Quarterfinal against Orlando City, sprang to life with a trio of second-half goals in the Semifinal courtesy of Cory Burke (2) and CJ Sapong. That leaves Chicago Fire as the lone Semifinalist not to find the back of the net as, for once, 2017 MLS top-scorer Nemanja Nikolic wasn’t wearing his shooting boots. Chicago’s lack of finishing aside, the nine-goal round puts paid to the theory that Semis are too often too-cautious affairs.    

Memo to Remember
Last year, Memo Rodriguez was just another talented hopeful looking for a route out of the Rio Grande Valley Toros (USL) squad and into the Dynamo first team. But coach Wilmer Cabrera knew this local kid had something special. He kept him around, kept him hungry and began to give him minutes with the big boys in MLS play and the Cup in 2018. Rodriguez, still only 22, bagged two goals in the Open Cup Fourth Round against NTX Rayados and showed that he was up for the big occasion. “
When opportunity opens, he’s ready,” said Cabrera, who mentored Memo from the Dynamo academy, through the Toros and all the way to the top of the heap. “And that’s the key.” Memo proved he was ready once again, scoring in the Semifinal just three minutes after entering the game as a substitute. With the backing of his coach, a nose for crucial goals and an appetite for the big day, there’s no telling how far young Memo can go.

(Mauro Manotas - Houston's all-time top-scorer in Cup play - is a goal behind Diego Rossi heading into the Final)

Old Philly Hero Looms Large
Sebastian Le Toux retired from professional soccer last year, but he still looms large in Philadelphia and the Open Cup. Talen Energy Stadium is adorned with his image, 20 feet tall, and his name is splashed across the top of the north stand – a distinction of honor reserved for this, the first player inducted into the club’s hall of fame. In eight Open Cups with the Seattle Sounders (where he won one) and the Union (where he didn’t) and others, the wily French striker/midfielder scored 16 goals. This ranks him as the top goal-getter in the so-called Modern Era (1995 to present) of the 105-year-old tournament. His affection for the City of Brotherly Love is as strong as Philadelphia’s for him. He makes his home there, married a woman from there and, at this point, Seba’s as Philly as scrapple. “I hope the fans stay behind them,” said the club icon, who played in the Union’s two losing Finals in 2014 and 2015. “I hope that this year they can go to the Final and win the trophy.”

Rossi on Top; Manotas one Back
While LAFC are out of the running, there’s still a chance for one of their own to take something home from the 2018 Open Cup. Uruguayan striker Diego Rossi, just 20, has five goals in the tournament, including a gritty hat-trick in the Semifinal loss to Houston Dynamo (he’s only the second player in the tournament’s long history to score a hat-trick and end up on the losing side). Even if it is an unhappy hat-trick, it tangles Rossi at the top of the scorer’s table beside David Ochoa of SoFla amateurs Miami United FC. That’s enough for a share of 2018’s top-scorer honors. But Dynamo ace Mauro Manotas might still have his say in the Final on September 26. The Colombian striker is just 22 years old and already, with seven goals, the club’s all-time top-scorer in Open Cup play. He’s currently on four, one behind Rossi and Ochoa, with a chance to add to his goal tally when the Dynamo host the Union in the Final. It would be unwise to bet against him.  

(Sebastian Le Toux, the Open Cup (Modern Era) top-scorer, is all over Philly's stadium)

A Fond Farewell
Losing in a Semifinal is no easy thing to swallow. “There’s something about a semifinal -
in a way, there’s more tension in the Semi than in the Final,” said Bob Bradley, coach of LAFC and a twice-Open Cup winner with Chicago Fire. He and his attack-minded squad are heading for home, and it’s hard not to wonder what a Final at their brand-new stadium in downtown LA might have looked like. Oh well, gentleman, there’s always next year. And Chicago, we won’t forget you. You remain giants of the Open Cup pantheon, with your four titles between 1998 and 2006. But it’s been twelve years since you’ve won a trophy (any trophy), so we’ll meet you back here in 2019 while you hunt an elusive fifth and that little piece of Open Cup history we know you crave.

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