Sun, sea, color, sound, strong coffee, stronger cocktails – there’s always a buzz in Miami. Always something going on. It’s a neon-lit crossroads of Latin America and the Caribbean, making those scores of failed attempts to bring stability to the city’s soccer scene a mystery for the ages. But today, as ever, a fresh hope emerges: amateurs Miami United FC host Major League Soccer’s Orlando City SC inside the limits of Miami-Dade County for a 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Fourth Round showdown. And locals, famous lovers of a good party, have every reason to celebrate.
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“This is the new era for Miami United,” said founder and CEO Roberto Sacca. Born in Sicily, he started the club in 2012 with big ambitions. “People thought I was crazy at first because so many teams have failed here before, but little by little we’ve grown and brought a lot of passion and enthusiasm here.”
(Just sustaining themselves as a club was a major achievement for Miami United FC - the rest is gravy)
With teams founded and folding in South Florida at a rapid rate, there’s always talent on hand. And after experimenting with importing big names from abroad – none bigger than former Brazil star Adriano and Honduras internationals Wilson Palacios and Rambo de Leon (who scored 13 goals in 13 games with the club), Sacca settled on a policy of grooming local talent. The results speak for themselves. Miami United were unbeaten in NPSL league play in 2015 and 2016 (20 games in total) and have lost only once in six games so far this season. “We’ve grown and we’re sticking around,” said Sacca, who beams with pride when he talks about the club. “You learn from your mistakes and now we’re facing the biggest game that Miami United could have every possibly imagined.”
A Team Built for Attack
In their most Miami of kits – hot pink and aqua-blue horizontal stripes – the team brims with attacking talent. No one shines brighter than Colombian striker David Ochoa, 26, who’s got five goals so far in the 2018 Open Cup. Venezuela-born Gabrielle Privitera, still in his teens, also seems destined for a bigger stage if he keeps up the kind of form he’s shown so far. And they’re all led by a lively head coach in Gerardo La Vieja Reinoso. He was a star with Independiente in his native Argentina in the 1980s and today he stalks the touchline at Miami United games burning roughly as much energy as his players on the pitch. Sacca’s belief in his team’s quality is understandably unshakable considering recent results and what he sees every evening in training, “In our squad, I think we have at least ten players who can play in MLS some day.”
“We still can’t believe we’re about to play an MLS team here in Miami,” said Ezequiel Tejera, the team’s 30-year-old captain and a dogged holding midfielder. He’s been there since the first year and he’s watched it all grow from those disorganized, crazy early days to a well-oiled soccer machine threatening to make a go of it in a city where teams rise and fall like the warm tides lapping the shoreline. “We’re going to make the game hard for Orlando. We have a small squad, but we go to war every time we step on the field. Nobody has an easy day against us and in the Open Cup, when you win or you die, that can really come out.”
(Gabrielle Privitera is still just 19, but he's making his mark for Miami United in NPSL & Cup play)
Tejera suffers on the pitch. He’s the ball-winner, the one who stays at home, in a Miami United side built for speed and attack. They’re designed to entertain and it’s no surprise they’ve scored ten goals in their three 2018 Open Cup games so far. “We’re not just happy to have come this far,” Tejera added, clearly ready for more than just a one-off party at Ted Hendricks Stadium on Wednesday night. “I know it sounds funny, but we want to win! We know it’s hard, and there’s a lot against us, but we go into every game thinking we can win. We don’t care who’s in front of us.”
That spirit more than makes up for the small squad and limited budget at the club. Players work days and train nights. It’s a frightful grind, but it galvanizes Miami United FC. “We chose the name United for a reason,” said Sacca. “It’s the best name you can have in soccer because it’s about bringing different kinds of people together as one. And when we got out on the field we’re not scared of anyone. It’s tough: we’re playing Wednesday, Sunday, Wednesday, Sunday, but we’ve come this far and we believe it now. Why not?”
Granitto – Hometown Hero
Robbie Sacca holds the club together with his vision, ingenuity and spirit – and Tejera with his ferocity in the midfield. Thomas Granitto, on the other hand, provides a little bit of the flavor. That spice, the panache and swagger you need to turn a good team into something special. “I always wanted to play in my hometown, in the city where I grew up,” said the attacking midfielder who scored one of the best goals of the tournament last week in a 2-0 stroll on the road against the Jacksonville Armada.
“The first thing that came into my mind was: shoot,” said Granitto, born in El Salvador and raised in Miami, about his vicious dipping shot from way out that only had eyes for the top corner. “It was one of those ones that I knew was going in as soon as I hit it. I made the right kind of contact and I knew the goalie had no chance for it.”
(Captain Ezequiel Tejera is the grafter in midfield for the Miami club)
It was a piece of magic, and Miami will need more of that conjuring to see off Orlando City. The visitors are a full professional side from the top level of the American soccer pyramid. They have the likes of Dom Dwyer and Sacha Kljestan, Open Cup runner-up from last year with New York Red Bulls. They also have Stefano Pinho, a striker with Miami connections, who finished top scorer in Miami FC’s run to the quarterfinals of the 2017 Open Cup. Long story short, Orlando have resources to burn and a deep squad of top talent who live and breathe soccer. They make their living at it. But Granitto’s not fazed. And by the sounds of it, no one at Miami United sounds worried. “We want to keep making history and keep this streak alive,” said Granitto, who spent last year with the Portland Timbers II of the USL and lined up for El Salvador’s youth national team. “I try to tell my teammates to ‘give everything you have. This could be the last game, so leave everything you have. Don’t be scared.’ If we do this, we have a shot.”
“It’s going to be an incredible experience, especially for the city of Miami,” added Granitto, slowing down a little to take in the scope of the occasions beyond his own locker-room. “This is an MLS team coming to play in Miami – coming to play us – and we have a lot of pride about that. We also have a lot of confidence because we’ve been playing well [Miami United are currently in second in their NPSL conference and no team has scored more than them in this year’s Open Cup]. Yes, they’re an MLS team and yes, they have very good players. We know that, but we want more.”
Taking on the Big Boys
The buzz is real. It’s no fraud, no fly-by-night success. Miami United FC are into the Fourth Round of the U.S. Open Cup. Big boys Orlando City are coming to town and there will be a winner on the night. The spirit in the home team’s camp is, justifiably and defiantly: why not us? “We’re not just going in to defend a tie and drag them to penalties,” said Granitto, still 24 and with hopes of playing in MLS someday. “We’re going in to win and we have belief. This isn’t a friendly; it’s a Cup game and the buzz has started. We won’t hold back.”
(Tomas Granitto - far right - in action at the FIFA U-20 World Cup with El Savaldor)
“We’re not scared of anybody,” added founder and visionary Sacca, shaking his head with his lower lip pushed out. But the final word goes to the long-serving captain, Tejera, who’ll have to hold the door shut. He’s been there from day one and he knows the value of fighting tooth-and-nail for this club. He’s got a sparkle in his eye that should worry Orlando City, who lost at this very stage to Miami FC in last year’s Open Cup. “Obviously, they’re a better team. They have everything. So if they lose, it will be weird. Us? We’ve got nothing to lose.”
With nothing to lose, all on the line and everything to gain, Miami United FC are ready to go all out. They’re motivated too. You can count on that. And as for a possible upset, well, weirder things have happened. This is the Open Cup after all.