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Three starters in Los Angeles FC’s first-ever Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup game had either won the tournament or played in a recent Final. Latif Blessing, Lee Nguyen and Walker Zimmerman were all in from the start – and all Open Cup finalists within the last two seasons. Add in Bradley’s own experience in the Cup (five Finals under his belt) and a two-time winner, an assistant coach, in Ante Razov, who lifted the Cup three times as a player and Benny Feilhaber, ready to come off the bench as an impact-sub, and you’ve got some serious firepower, talent and Cup wisdom. One thing is clear, as it always is in Bradley-led teams: Open Cup matters.
(LAFC playmaker Benny Feilhaber won an Open Cup last year with Sporting KC)
First Trophy on Offer
“You play any sport at a high level because you want to win trophies,” Lee Nguyen, a losing Finalist with New England Revolution in 2016, told ussoccer.com. “This is a big opportunity for us to put some silverware in our cabinet. It’s our first chance to win something as a club, and a club like ours, with aspirations to win things and get to the CONCACAF Champions League, this is our first chance. We see the Cup as the start of something special.”
This thinking is straight from the Bob Bradley-playbook. The 60-year-old coach, a former USA, Egypt and Swansea City manager, recognized early on in his career the value of the Open Cup to players and fans and clubs just starting out. It’s a simple equation - trophies matter and there are only two available to teams in the American top flight. “At Chicago [Fire] we believed in the Open Cup. We had strong supporters and they cared about the Open Cup too. We decided early on that we needed to compete in it in the right way.”
(Between the coaching staff and players, LAFC are rich with Open Cup winners & recent Finalists)
The right way paid off for the coach. He won the 1998 Open Cup in his first year at the club and he repeated the trick again two years later – adding to the 1996 Open Cup title he picked up as an assistant coach to Bruce Arena at D.C. United. In addition to his three Open Cup crowns, Bradley lost a pair of Finals [1997 with D.C. United and 2003 with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars]. And it’s no coincidence that he’s assembled the team he has in LA now. For a first-year club like his, the Open Cup is a possibility and an attainable target. He’s got winners in his squad. And they know the way.
“It’s important at the end of the season to look back and have won a trophy,” said defender Walker Zimmerman, the U.S. international who was crucial in FC Dallas’ 2016 Open Cup title run. “For us, as an expansion team in our first year, the Open Cup is our first chance to win a trophy and lift it up. There’s a lot of focus on that from our side.”
Fresno & SacRep Down, Timbers Next
LAFC opened their Open Cup account with a simple win over USL second-tier pros Fresno FC in the Fourth Round. Latif Blessing, the young Ghanaian gem who starred for Sporting Kansas City in last year’s run to their fourth Open Cup title, got on the board with his third goal of the tournament in the space of two years. And the rest of Bradley’s Open Cup-tested campaigners also put in impressive performances.
“We’ve got guys who’ve been here before in the Cup,” added Zimmerman, who was a cool presence in the back against a spirited Fresno side that threw much into attack in the second half. “These guys know the simplicity of the Cup – in five games you can win a trophy. That leads to the concentration of making sure that you’re doing everything the right way, preparing the right way, because at the end of the day it may not be the easiest trophy to win, but it’s the shortest amount of games to play to win one.”
(Latif Blessing won an Open Cup last year in SKC and scored the winner for LAFC against SacRep)
It’s clear, talking to the players, that Open Cup was written on a whiteboard somewhere in the Banc of America Stadium early on after this team was assembled. Those two words were probably underlined twice and tapped with the marker. Having opened their account at home, they played there again in the Round of 16 against USL’s Sacramento – the highly motivated USL side that knocked out former champs Seattle Sounders in the last round. With a place in the Quarterfinals on the line, LAFC had to fight for it with Blessing sealing the deal with a last-second 3-2 winner. The win sets up yet another home game in sunny LA – this time against familiar MLS opposition, the 2015 league champion Portland Timbers. The two teams are separated by a handful of points and both contenders at the top of MLS’ Western Conference standings.
“Playing at home is massive,” said Feilhaber, who knows what he’s talking about after picking up the trophy at Children’s Mercy Park with Kansas City last year. He was crucial in the turning-point win against FC Dallas in the 2017 Quarterfinal that opened the door for another winning campaign. “It’s the kind of competition where you have to put your best effort in and go through any way you can. It doesn’t need to be pretty. Open Cup games are always tough. There’s a lot that makes this tournament different, but the first thing you have to do is put yourself in the position to win it by taking it seriously.”
(Walker Zimmerman won the Open Cup in 2016 with FC Dallas, beating LAFC teammate Lee Nguyen in the Final)
Open Cup: The Target
The Open Cup is job-one for this first-year club in the heart of LA, fittingly close to Hollywood and its dream factories. And it’s not just silverware and trophy-counts that inspire Bradley. He’s a stern and serious man, but there’s a little bit of the dreamer in him too – you can see it around the eyes when he talks about this Cup that’s meant much to him through the years. “I mean, it allows you to compete with clubs from all over the United States from all the levels,” said the respected manager. “We don’t have promotion/relegation in this country yet – maybe some day but not yet. And in the meantime the Open Cup is an opportunity for everybody, and I think when an MLS team treats it the right way, it ends up meaning a lot to the supporters of that club.”
No one knows better than Bradley and his band of Cup specialists, so many winners who know what it feels like to lift the trophy up on a warm Wednesday night in September and join rare and historic company. “We’re all pushing together for this – we agreed we’re going to go after it. We’re embracing it together,” said Bradley, as expansive as he allows himself to be in interviews. “It’s important to us and we’ve had enough of our great fans here at the stadium to know that it’s important to them too.”