A look down the list of matchups between lower-league sides and MLS clubs prior to the Fourth Round of the 2015 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup might have given a glimmer of an upset or two.
Perennial U.S. Open Cup powers Rochester Rhinos and Charleston Battery looked the giant-killing type as they took the Philadelphia Union and Orlando City SC respectively to penalty kicks. Defensively solid Louisville City FC kept the Chicago Fire scoreless for 116 minutes and Saint Louis FC held two-time champions Sporting KC to a conservative 1-0 win in front of a sell-out crowd of 19,298 away at Sporting Park.
While all of those clubs made things difficult for their MLS opponents, only one USL side – maybe the most overlooked – pulled the “Cupset” over their Division I rivals as first-year Charlotte Independence used a stunning 55th minute half-volley from Jorge Herrera to dispatch the New England Revolution 1-0 in Boston.
On the surface, perhaps looking past Charlotte was understandable. To that point, they’d lacked consistency, winning just three matches in their inaugural league campaign and sitting second to last in the USL’s Eastern Conference. According to head coach Mike Jeffries, bringing together and gelling a group of guys that hadn’t played together before has presented a welcome challenge – one that might have set his side up well for the “Cupset”.
“We’re learning things along the way and we kind of felt like we’d split the season up,” Jeffries told ussoccer.com. “The first part of the season we hoped it wouldn’t be difficult, but we felt it might be. The middle third, we wanted to be playing good soccer and make a final push and set ourselves up for the final third and make the playoffs. The first part of the season we played good soccer, but couldn’t find results. Now I think we’re doing a bit better finding ways to win and closing out games. We feel good about that and for being a new group that didn’t know each other at all to now they’re developing a little more confidence and belief and knowledge of each other.”
While it took some time to get the group playing in a way that they’re comfortable with, a glance down the roster shows that Jeffries had assembled a talented set of players.
Charlotte head coach Mike Jeffries has deep roots in the American soccer landscape as both a player and coach cultivated over 30+ years.
The center piece of his side is captain Herrera – a long time member of USL predecessors Charlotte Eagles, who sold their franchise rights to the Independence as they dropped down to the Premier Development League in 2015. The Colombian midfielder is joined by former Polish international forward Tomasz Zahorski as well as 13 players that have varying levels of experience with MLS squads – among them leading scorer Ryan Finley, midfielder Alex Martinez, defender Mechack Jerome. Charlotte has also benefited from the play of Ben Newnam, John Berner, Caleb Calvert and Carlos Alvarez – loanees from MLS affiliate Colorado Rapids.
The team’s entry into the 2015 U.S. Open Cup provided a confidence build as Zahorski bagged a hat trick in the side’s 4-2 Second Round victory over the NPSL’s Upward Stars on May 20.
“The Upward Stars game was a good run for a lot of guys that hadn’t got a game to keep themselves sharp. That was very important for us and the mentality of the team and guys continuing to compete with each other. We have a group that’s extremely competitive – that was good and just getting the confidence to win games.”
The win setup a bigger challenge away to the NASL’s Carolina RailHawks on May 27, when the Independence used an 81st minute goal from Ryan Finley to earn the side’s first road win of the season.
“The Carolina RailHawks game was huge,” Jeffries continued. “To that point we hadn’t had a lot of success on the road and it was important for us to develop a decent way of playing away against a very good team. It was nice for us, we defended really well throughout the game and limited chances and were still able to move the ball and create a bit.”
While Jeffries said his team has taken things a game at a time, the chance of getting a shot at an MLS team proved as big motivation for his group of players that have previously graced the U.S. top-flight.
"That means a lot to the guys – a lot of them are on the cusp of MLS. They were in it recently and are trying to get back or want to get there. For the players in that situation, they want to do well against an MLS team. That as much as anything is a big factor for us in terms of approach to the game and finding ways to win." - Charlotte head coach Mike Jeffries
The confident, veteran group of former MLS players headed to Boston to play 2014 MLS Cup finalists New England Revolution in the Fourth Round. Perhaps most overlooked heading into the match was the Charlotte coach himself.
Along with winning the Hermann Trophy as the nation’s top collegiate player at Duke in 1983, Jeffries is a two-time U.S. Open Cup winner as an assistant coach with the Chicago Fire, a former head coach of the Dallas Burn and scout for U.S. head coach Bob Bradley at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. A solid, veteran side combined with the knowledge and experience obtained by Jeffries in big matches over the years combined for the perfect storm in Charlotte’s 1-0 win the biggest upset of the round.
“We defended a fair amount as you’d expect, but there were stretches where we moved the ball pretty well and you could see us developing more confidence and belief.”
As the game wore on, Charlotte picked their moments going forward. Finally in the 55th minute, Alex Martinez lobbed a ball to Herrera just outside the box on the left. The Colombian chested down and then volleyed a magnificent strike into the opposite top corner to give the Independence a 1-0 lead.
“I try to shoot as much as I can from everywhere,” Herrera told ussoccer.com. “When I hit it and the ball started going down, I felt it was going in. It was nice and it was in the right moment.”
Charlotte's Jorge Herrera (right) battles with a Carolina RailHawks defender during the teams' Third Round USOC match up.
Photo by Rob Kinnan.
“After the goal, we knew New England would pour on the pressure, but we showed our ability to close out a game,” added Jeffries. “Winning tight games on the road is important.”
Watching the U.S. Open Cup draw intently the following day, random chance would send Charlotte to a Round of 16 date with the Chicago Fire, a place where Jeffries made his best coaching memories.
“Being a part of the Fire from 1998-2000 gave me a tremendous appreciation and enthusiasm for the Open Cup, which I carry forward to this day,” he said. “We had a great group of players, extremely competitive and winning the tournament was important to us as a new franchise who wanted to establish themselves by winning trophies. Being able to be a part of the team which won the 1998 Open Cup in front of our home fans a week after winning MLS Cup was truly special for me.”
Jeffries would have two more stints with the club, returning as an assistant coach under Denis Hamlett in 2008 and 2009 and following his stint as a World Cup scout, Jeffries served as the club’s Director of Player Personnel from 2010-2012.
“We’ve heard about coach Jeffries and Chicago in the past,” said Herrera. “He’s very pumped to go up there and bring his new team and we are too. We are amazed at the opportunity we have in front of us to get out and play, do our best and try to put together a really good effort and why not get the win? On my mind every time I play a game, I go to win. We have to recognize our a good opportunity – our team is ready and it will be nice if we have a good game that Tuesday and make just not our coach, but everyone with the club proud to get a result.”
Charlotte head coach Mike Jeffries and the Independence are looking forward to playing yet another MLS team in the 2015 U.S. Open Cup.
Photo by Jonathan Aguallo.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say [the game] was a nice opportunity for me,” said Jeffries who still has a house in the Chicago area. “The Open Cup is about the guys and I want them to succeed, but it’s always nice to go home where I’ve been for a long time. It’s special to play the Fire and be back playing at Toyota Park for a night.”
And just as Jeffries helped the first-year Fire to an improbable Open Cup title in 1998, perhaps he has a view of doing the same with Charlotte in 2015.
“The focus really just is the game and trying to figure out a way to beat a good MLS team. We’re competing in a prestigious tournament and we want to push ourselves along and win every game.”
Touching tributes poured in on social media from all corners of the soccer community as news spread that Hall of Fame coach Sigi Schmid had passed away on Christmas Day 2018. And amid the sadness shared by so many who knew him, the messages also provided the rest of us a glimpse into the kind of man that Sigi was, and reminded everyone of the influence Sigi had on the American soccer landscape.
For newer fans of the game, Sigi will be remembered as one of the greatest of MLS coaches, leading the Columbus Crew, Seattle Sounders and LA Galaxy to multiple trophies each. Older fans may recall the soccer factory he created while coaching UCLA to numerous NCAA Championships in the 1980 and ‘90s, churning out future U.S. Soccer legends like Cobi Jones, Brad Friedel, Paul Caligiuri, Joe Max-Moore, Frankie Hejduk, Eddie Lewis and Chris Henderson, among others.
It’s also important to highlight the impact he had with two teams he coached for shorter time frames: the U.S. U-20 MNTs that participated in the 1999 and 2005 FIFA U-20 World Youth Championships, each time advancing to the knockout stage while facing the likes of Argentina, England, Germany, Spain and Italy.
Seven players from those U-20 teams would go on to represent the MNT at senior FIFA World Cups, while many others also had solid pro careers. And if not for Schmid, we may never have known some of those players. We caught up with a few from each team:
1999 FIFA U-20 World Cup Championship:
While at UCLA, Sigi also assisted the MNT at 1994 FIFA World Cup and coached the following year’s Pan-American Games. In 1997, he was also coaching the U-18 MNT when he went to scout a player who had just played in the U-17 FIFA World Youth Championship and was playing for his high school in Southern California. However, as Carlos Bocanegra tells it, there was a mistake on the published schedule and the team that Sigi went to see was not playing. Sigi stuck around anyway, and watched the promising football wide receiver, Bocanegra, play soccer for his Alta Loma High School.
“I think about that all the time,” the two-time World Cup veteran Bocanegra told ussoccer.com this week. “That was my break. That was my chance. He gave me the opportunity and I was able to take that opportunity. That’s how I was able to kick-start my soccer career – pure coincidence that he was watching my game that got mixed up and he saw me play.”
Schmid invited Bocanegra, a junior at the time, to a U-18 camp. The next year he continued his pursuit of the talented defender and recruited Bocanegra to join him at UCLA. Their bond strengthened when Schmid took over the U-20 MNT and made Bocanegra a key member of the USA’s 1999 FIFA World Youth Championship side in Nigeria.
That team also included fellow future senior World Cup players Tim Howard, Steve Cherundolo, Nick Rimando and Chris Albright, as well as long-time pros Danny Califf, Nick Garcia, Cory Gibbs, John Thorrington and Taylor Twellman, who became one of the most prolific American goalscorers in the pro ranks.
“That World Cup, playing with Sigi, had a massive impact on me and ultimately convinced me that I needed to go pro,” said Twellman, who at the time was also contemplating if his future would be in baseball, where he also excelled.
At the tournament, the USA defeated an England side that featured Ashley Cole and Peter Crouch, fell to Shinji Ono’s Japan, and defeated Cameroon in group play before falling by a score of 3-2 in the Round of 16 to eventual champions Spain that included Iker Casillas and Xavi.
In the lead up to that tournament, Sigi broke from the past and brought the team overseas for training, including to Morocco for two games and on a two-week fitness camp in Germany, where the team stayed at a bed-and-breakfast.
Bocanegra in action vs. Argentina in 2003, a few short years after graduating from Schmid's tutelage.
“He really tried to give us good experiences that he thought would help us later in our career,” said Bocanegra. “He always tried to set trips up around where we could watch games at a higher level and get experiences to challenge ourselves in different ways than was maybe common practice. He always wanted the best for the group and to give us the best experiences to try to better ourselves, not only on the field but in life and to become well-rounded in the game.”
As a reward for the hard work in Germany, Sigi brought the U20s to France to attend the 1998 World Cup match between the USA and Germany.
“Sigi had such a feel for the game of soccer, domestically and globally,” said Chris Albright. “He always communicated that we were putting on our nations colors and flag, representing the country. He drilled that in us that this was not to take it for granted, that it was not to be taken lightly.”
Like Bocanegra, Sigi introduced Albright to the National Team scene. Later he helped pick him up when things were not going well at D.C., trading for him in LA. At the suggestion of then MNT coach Bruce Arena, Sigi helped convert Albright from a forward into a defender, a move that later landed Chris on the 2006 World Cup team.
“He had an excellent ability to teach multiple positions; he could make me a better forward, wide midfielder, defender,” Albright said. “He could teach principles of different positions to help each player grow, and that teaching element in developing us at that time was unique.”
Twellman scored four goals in the tournament, good for third overall, thus becoming the first American to capture a scoring award (Bronze Boot) in a FIFA World Youth Championship.
Twellman accepts the Bronze Boot alongside then U.S. Soccer president Dr. Robert S. Contiguglia.
“When people talk about Sigi, they talk about his love of the game,” Twellman said, who a few months later would leave Maryland to sign with 1860 Munich in Germany. “But he was also a gentleman and was kind off the field. Every single one of us on that team, if we saw Sigi 3-4-5-10 years down the road…he always watched our games, even when he was not our coach. He was always willing to talk to us, showed interested in us, asked us about our lives.”
Now the Technical Director of MLS Cup champion Atlanta United, Bocanegra draws from those early experiences under Schmid.
“Even though we were young, he really tried to instill the professionalism in us,” Bocanegra said. “The detail, structure, organization – challenging us. He always made time to make people feel important. He never stopped, through college, through pros, was always available. He was pretty special.”
2005 Under-20 World Youth Championship
A week after that 1999 U-20 tournament came to an end for the USA, Sigi also began his pro career, taking the helm of his hometown LA Galaxy for the next five seasons.
He returned to coach the U-20 MNT in October 2014, having only a couple months to scout and prep players for January’s U-20 Concacaf Championship.
Two years earlier, Schmid’s Galaxy had eliminated Kansas City and veteran National Team player Peter Vermes from the MLS Cup Playoffs. After the game, Vermes recalled this week, Schmid approached him and told him he’d like to have him on his staff one day.
Fast-forward to fall 2014, a since-retired Vermes called Sigi and reminded him of that conversation. Schmid held true and invited Vermes to a three-week U-20 camp. After a week of evaluating, Schmid told Vermes he had earned one of the assistant coach positions.
“It was a great opportunity for me just to be around somebody like him with as much knowledge and experience that he had,” Vermes said, who enters the 2019 season as the longest tenured MLS coach, having taken the reigns of Sporting KC in 2009. “I already knew I wanted to coach for a long time, but what those experiences give you is like anything – when you first want to do something, you’re excited, you’re ambitious, you’re motivated, you’re all those things. But sometimes you lack the confidence. For me, Sigi gave me a direction that I felt comfortable with because I had gotten a chance to see a lot of different things that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t get that chance to be with him and spend all that time, and the preparation, and everything. It was a great experience.”
Schmid’s first friendly was in November in Ft. Lauderdale. Due to College Cup, some would-be regulars were not available, so Schmid called in four new players, including UCLA speedster Marvell Wynne, who had never been called to any YNT camp before.
“I think I should have been more in the moment with everything that happened,” Wynne admits. “When I got called in I remember thinking ‘these guys are way better than me.’ But Sigi kept calling me back. When he said I made the team, I was definitely shocked.”
For a mid-December camp Schmid called in 30 players, including UCLA walk-on midfielder Benny Feilhaber, who also had never been on any Youth National Team. Like Wynne, Feilhaber also made a formidable impression.
Wynne and Feilhaber were instrumental in helping the USA qualify for the
2005 FIFA U-20 World Youth Championship three weeks later.
Let’s back up for a second. Sigi’s sons also played college soccer in the LA area around that era. And, family man that he was, he would always attend their games, first Kurt’s at UCLA, and later Kyle’s at UC-Irvine.
“It’s what jump-started my entire career,” said newly retired 12-year pro Brad Evans. “The only reason I made that U-20 team is because Kyle Schmid transferred to UC Irvine. Without Kyle transferring there was absolutely no reason for Sigi to come watch UCI play.”
Schmid had spotted Evans that fall at UCI, but it wasn’t until after the U-20s had qualified for the World Cup that he called in the versatile player to his first National Team camp at any level.
Vermes explained how Sigi gave the preliminary roster to rest of the coaching staff and told them that they could each make a case for one player to either be replaced or be added.
“A lot of guys in that position would never consult the rest of staff,” Vermes said. “I thought that showed a lot of security and confidence on his part, to know what his decisions were but also want to know what his staff’s decisions were, and ultimately to make the best decision. There’s no doubt that that has helped me, and I would say that a lot of the players that were identified are players that are still playing or who had great careers because they were identified correctly.”
Wynne, Feilhaber and Evans were on the final 21-player roster, along with Jonathan Spector, Sacha Kljestan, Lee Nguyen, Freddy Adu, Chad Barret and Eddie Gaven, among others who also had solid pro careers.
The team shocked the world in the tournament opener, defeating Argentina 1-0 thanks to a Barrett goal assisted by Wynne. It would be the only loss and shutout suffered by the South Americans, who won their next six matches en route the lifting the championship trophy with future international stars Sergio Aguero, Lucas Biglia, Pablo Zabaleta, Fernando Gago and Golden Ball and Golden Boot winner, Lionel Messi.
Chad Barrett, who would go on to play professionally under Schmid in MLS, scored the game-winner vs. Argentina at the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship.
The 20s then played Germany to a scoreless draw and defeated Egypt 1-0 before losing 3-1 to Italy in the Round of 16. The experience and exposure provided opportunities to a number of players.
Feilhaber would soon sign with Hamburg, and later would score one of the best goals of the USA’s rivalry against Mexico, helping the MNT win the 2007 Gold Cup. And despite interest from international clubs, Wynne and Evans returned to school. Wynne became the top pick in the next MLS SuperDraft and Evans was selected 15th overall the following year by Columbus’s new coach, Sigi Schmid.
“He means more than I can really describe,” Feilhaber said, who along with Spector also made the 2010 FIFA World Cup roster. “Getting that opportunity with the 20s led to everything else in my life. I have no idea if I would have become a pro. I know I would not have been as successful financially, [and] going to Europe that early helped me immensely as a player. I don’t know if I would have ever played on the National Team let alone in a World Cup. I’m really grateful for Sigi having that keen eye and for giving me that opportunity.”
Sigi not only gave Evans his international debut and professional debut but would also bring him to Seattle on their way to spending 10 pro seasons together.
“He was the pivot for me in my entire career,” Evans said. “You have youth coaches, parents, but if you want to talk about the person who I’m able to talk about 12 years later and say I played professionally because of them…yes, it comes from within, but you have to have someone who pushes you and really believed in you, and Sigi was the guy for me.”
Sigi’s memorial took place on Friday, Jan. 18 in Los Angeles.
In March 2017, after more than 300 MLS games and having also represented the USA in the 2008 Olympics and 2009 Confederations Cup, Wynne’s career came to an end after undergoing a heart procedure.
When he came to from the operation, one of the first voicemails he listened to was from Sigi Schmid.
“Sigi was the reason I became a pro,” Wynne said. “He got me on to the scene, kept me there, had confidence in me and he kept me going. In terms of coaching, it was more, ‘get the basics right and perfect them.’ He was the first one to hammer that home, and if you ever saw my career, it was basic.”
A reflective Wynne made a special trip to an LA Galaxy game last year to meet up with his former coach.
“We talked about my heart situation, and caught up about everything,” Wynne said. “And I told him, ‘you’re the reason I went pro.’ I was able to tell him face to face, but I hoped he knew.”
“Yea, the opportunity, experience and all those other things were great, but the best thing for me, to be honest, was that he and I became friends after that 2005 Youth Championship,” Vermes said. “We always, always talked and kept in touch and spent time with each other. We had a very good relationship.”
“I sense that he knew what he meant to me,” Feilhaber said. “The way that we spoke was not in a way that most coaches to ex-players do. We were friends - he understood how much of an influence he had on me. We had respect for each other, and I’m going to miss him a lot, but it’s so important to have these memories about him.”
“We talk about a coaching tree a lot, but Sigi’s got the player tree, the coaching tree, the soccer tree really,” Bocanegra said. “So many people spiraled off the opportunities he gave them. Through soccer he gave so many people their start. But the biggest part that everybody remembers is that he cared about each and every person. He wanted to get the best out of them, and did not give up. He would give second chances, third chances - if you were his guys, and you worked for him he was going to his damndest to get the best out of you and make you a better player or person in general.”
“When I think back on it, especially the last couple of weeks, we always talked about getting the ‘Sigi shirt-tug,’” Evans reminisced. “Once he got a hold of your shirt and put his arm around you, there was no getting away from it. But I remember him being very honest with me in everything. He never blew smoke up my tail or thought that I was better or worse than I was. He always believed in me. We really trusted each other when it came to soccer and had an unspoken relationship that just worked. It’s something that I’ll cherish and remember forever.”Read more