Kwadwo Poku’s reputation was forged in the fires of the U.S. Open Cup. “Opportunities come in this competition that you have to be ready to take,” said Miami FC’s dynamic midfielder, among the best in the NASL, and crucial in the side's big win over Major League Soccer's Orlando City “It’s a chance to move up, to show what you’re made of. To prove yourself.”
That’s precisely what the Kumasi-born Ghanaian did three years ago when playing for second-tier Atlanta Silverbacks under Eric Wynalda, an avowed and unabashed advocate of the 104-year-old Open Cup and the magic it produces for clubs and players. “Eric saw that I had potential,” said Poku, who came to the States to chase a collegiate career before opting for the pro game. “He told me I could play at the highest level and he always stressed the Open Cup and how it was a place where I could prove who I was.”
The Silverbacks, then of the North American Soccer League, roared to the quarter-finals in 2014, beating big boys Real Salt Lake and Colorado Rapids along the way. Poku scored a last-second winner in the Fourth Round against RSL that had MLS scouts and coaches drooling. Both physically imposing and nimble, he could grab a game by the scruff of the neck and shake it hard. “The career he has now was born in the Open Cup,” said Wynalda, the former U.S. National Team ace, now a well-known TV analyst and head coach of talented amateurs L.A. Wolves.
Poku spent a season and a half at New York City FC, becoming a fan favorite in the club’s inaugural MLS campaign. But he returned to the NASL last summer, unable to refuse a huge salary – among the highest in the second division, it dwarfed what he was making in the first. It was also the chance to play for a club part-owned by Italian legend Paolo Maldini and coached by Alessandro Nesta. “Poku has a different speed, a different gear,” said Nesta, whose achievements at the top levels of the game include a World Cup crown and Champions League medals. It’s safe to say the Italian, an artful and artistic defender in his day, knows talent when he sees it.
An Extra Gear
“When he starts to run and change the pace, you’re in trouble,” added Nesta in a serviceable English still tinted with the syntax of his native Italian. “There’s no one who can run with him in our league. Maybe not in any league.” It’s high praise from one of the best players of his generation and proof of the kind of skill-set that led Wynalda to claim: “Poku’s the best player in the NASL and maybe too good for MLS.” Still just 25, Poku’s earned a cap for Ghana and sparked the interest of former USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann who encouraged him to seek American citizenship.
No longer an anonymous midfielder hungry for opportunities and hunting chances, Poku is back in the Open Cup again and he's eager to make a run deep. A win over a star-studded Orlando side away from home is a strong start on that road. The Cup still holds the magic of possibility for Poku and he was one of the best players on the field in the Fourth Round Cupset, same as he was in the Third Round against Tampa Bay Rowdies.
“The biggest thing about the Open Cup is that the whole team, every player, has to be willing to prove a point. They have to want to do that,” said Poku, his West African accent thinning with every day he spends in the States. “We want to show what we have. We have the players, the coaches and the ambition to go a long way.”
Miami FC find themselves in the curious position of being underdogs and favorites at the same time. With their huge budget and obvious ambition, they’re the first non-MLS team you’d pick to make a Cup run. “People say if an NASL team is going to go far in the competition, it’s obviously going to be Miami FC,” said Poku. “But it’s not that easy. No matter how good you are in the second division, or how much money or quality you have, you’re still the underdog when you play a top-flight team. We have great players in Miami, but you can’t compare it to MLS.”
Miami FC will host their Round of 16 clash with first-timers Atlanta United on June 28. “The excitement is already building with our fans,” said Poku. “They’re getting ready to fly the flag for us. It’s a game for bragging rights and to show what we’re doing in the NASL. There’s a lot on the line.”
“It’s 90 minutes, or 120 minutes, of knockout soccer,” said Poku, a man who knows better than anyone the stresses and strains of the Open Cup, but also its glories. “If we win this game, we end up in the pot in the Quarterfinals and from there it’s not far to the Final. We want to win. We want to show our pride and our identity; what makes us special. In this stage, people are paying attention.”
Poku is at a crossroads. He’s a favorite and an underdog. He’s raking in the big bucks, but in the second division. Expectation is high and the chance to make another deep Open Cup run is there for the taking, but most betting folks won’t pick Miami over Atlanta the same way they didn't pick them to beat Orlando. “No one expects us to win,” he said, his voice a little quiet. But knowing the magic of the Cup, being born in its flames, you get the sense that he does.