Despite a proud soccer pedigree, it took Texas – a state bigger than many countries – a full 77 years to send a team to the Open Cup Final. Join ussoccer.com for a look back at a quarter-century of the Lone Star State’s flirtations with America’s oldest soccer trophy, from the Richardson Rockets and the El Paso Patriots of the 1990s to FC Dallas’s ups and downs in the 2000s.
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The ‘91 Rockets & ‘95 Patriots: So Close, Yet So Far
The Richardson Rockets (later known as the Dallas Rockets) were a top team in the early days of the SISL (later the USISL). Curtis Partain, a local speedster and UCLA Bruin, who got his first taste of the game on the Dallas area’s bumpy YMCA fields, was the first player signed by the club. He remembers playing more 70 games a season both indoor and outdoor. “One year, I collected the Do Not Disturb signs from our hotels and I think I had 52 from 52 weeks!”
(The Rockets were the first team from Texas to reach a Final, but the Brooklyn Italians - above - won in 1991)
Partain, now 50, and his Rockets raced through the 1991 Open Cup with wins over amateur and semi-pro stalwarts of yesteryear like Atlanta Datagraphic, FC Galveston (8-2) and a tight 1-0 Semifinal over the New Mexico Chiles that the ex-striker remembers as a “bloodbath.” It might have been an ominous sign when the Rockets’ plane was struck by lightning on approach to JFK airport the day before the Final, but they still considered themselves favorites against their hosts, the Brooklyn Italians. It wasn’t meant to be on that hot August day on the primitive AstroTurf at Brooklyn College that got so hot it forced Partain and his teammates to play in flats lined with heavy-duty aluminum foil to keep their feet from burning. “They were a proper team [the Italians] and they beat us and deserved it. We played and we lost – and that’s just how it goes.”
What Partain remembers best of that day wasn’t the 1-0 loss on a sixth-minute breakaway by Ernest Inneh or playing a man up for most of the game after the ejection of Brooklyn’s Bill Manning. His most vivid memories are of the celebratory dinner that followed the game. “The Brooklyn Italians invited us to this restaurant out on Coney Island (Gargiulo’s – opened in 1907 and still operating today) and we had like 40 people between the players and our staff and everybody. It was one of the greatest moments of my career and my life,” said Partain, his voice rising with the recollection of a party for the ages. “We’re just kids in our 20s and none of us packed a suit jacket and you can’t go into this place without a jacket, so they provided us with these maroon sport coats. And when I say it was the world’s greatest Italian meal, it was just ridiculous. It couldn’t be replicated. All those courses – salad, sorbet, seared scallops and seafood, pasta and it just kept coming. All these years later, I still remember it.”
(Brian O'Haver of the El Paso Patriots went head-to-head with Richmond Kicker Rob Ukrop in the 1995 Final)
By the time the party ended – seven courses, four hours (and more than a few glasses of wine) later – the Rockets hardly remembered the loss. “I won an NBA championship ring with the Dallas Mavericks [Partain went on to have a career as a sports executive], but to this day there’s still nothing like that celebration on Coney Island after losing the Open Cup Final. It was the greatest thing in the world!”
Four years later, in 1995, the El Paso Patriots had their own chance to become the first team from Texas to lift the Open Cup. A semi-pro side out of the USISL A-League, they drew the long straw to host the Richmond Kickers, a gaggle of recently graduated top college talent, many of whom would go on to play in the early days of Major League Soccer. It was only the second-ever Open Cup Final hosted in Texas (The New York Pancyprian Freedoms won their third title by beating St. Louis Kutis at 12,000-seat Delmar Stadium in Houston in July of 1983), but the first with a Texas team taking part.
“Our team was really unique – we had our own stadium – and even though we weren’t the most skilled team in the world, we beat teams that were better than us because of our togetherness,” said Brian O’Haver, the right back who joined up with the Patriots one summer on break from the University of Rhode Island. “My folks were living in El Paso at the time and we saw these articles in the local newspaper about a new pro soccer team, so I just went down to training and told them I wanted play. They let me train and before I knew it I was on the team.”
(The Dewar Cup - the original Open Cup trophy - held by a Texas team for the first time in 1997)
The Patriots were named after the Patriot missile, a nod to El Paso’s Fort Bliss, which is home to the U.S. Army’s 1st Armored Division. They trained in high altitude and high temperatures and were loaded with talented players, a core with experience in Mexico’s top professional division. The Final was played in extreme heat, which should have given the home side the edge. But even after going a man up and suffering through 120 minutes and a penalty shootout, the Patriots came up short despite having former Veracruz and Chivas striker Salvador Mercado in the side. “He [Mercado was amazing] said O’Haver, now a 48-year-old design executive in his native North Carolina. “He had something none of us college guys did. A professionalism and a mental toughness.”
Despite his successes off the field, O’Haver still remembers a missed opportunity that day in El Paso. “It was the beginning of the second overtime session and Mercado put the ball right on my foot in the penalty area. We made eye contact and I had it, but I made a cardinal sin: I was already thinking about the celebration before I put the ball in the net,” said O’Haver of the miss that would have ended the game – that year’s Final having taken place in the Golden-Goal era of sudden death overtime. “It still haunts me a little.”
The Burn/FC Dallas Days: USOC Success in the MLS Age
It wasn’t until 1997 – 83 years deep into the Open Cup – that Texas finally grabbed her first title. The Dallas Burn (later FC Dallas) roared through the New Orleans Riverboat Gamblers, the Chicago Stingers and a tight 2-1 golden-goal Semifinal win over the MetroStars. They went on to beat D.C. United – the reigning Open Cup champs at the time, who were hunting a league/Cup Double that year – in a tense Final that finished 0-0 and needed penalties to decide the winner.
“It was a chance to win some silverware; that’s always what it was like in those early MLS days. We weren’t worried too much about the Concacaf Champions Cup, but we wanted to bring a trophy home,” said Dante Washington, the Burn’s top-scorer that year in Major League Soccer with 13 goals. “We had a really good team. One thing I really remember about that Final was it was a really cold day in Indiana. [The game that year was played on Oct. 29, late for an Open Cup Final].
(After feeling the pain of a pair of losses, Oscar Pareja returned to the Final to win as head coach of FC Dallas
It was a day of high emotions in the Burn locker room as goalkeeper Mark Dodd’s mother had passed away only a few days before the big game. “As a team, you rally around your teammate – your friend – in moments like that,” said Washington, a speedy and powerful striker with a nose for goal who had previous experience in the Open Cup with D.C. area men’s league regulars the Greek Americans. “We really felt it and he went on to have an incredible game, and came up big in the penalty shootout.”
Washington, who starred for the Radford Highlanders at the collegiate level, was spared having to take a penalty on the day. “I was next up, waiting at midfield. I was the next shooter when Jorge Rodriguez scored the winner for us,” recalled the player who went on to win another Open Cup with Columbus Crew in 2002. “Any time you can lift a trophy, it’s something that stays with you. I still remember the feeling.”
The Burn, now FC Dallas, would win in 2016 too. But there was suffering to do before that trophy went up again. Oscar Pareja was a player in 2005 and an assistant coach in 2007 when they lost a pair of Finals, before coming good and winning it all as head coach in 2016. “I really wanted to win something for my club,” said Pareja, who was born in Colombia and spent six seasons with FC Dallas as a cultured midfielder. “As a player I wanted to get that trophy because my career was winding down and you’re not going to get more chances.”
(The Dallas Burn were back - as a renamed FC Dallas - in 2007)
Pareja, suffering from knee injuries that would eventually end his playing career, was unable to lift the trophy as a player (or as assistant coach). “After so many years as a professional you have to learn how to wash your pain,” he said of the disappointment of losing to LA Galaxy in Carson, California in 2005 and the New England Revolution at home in Frisco, Texas in 2007. “It was a great opportunity to win something and I do remember the pain of it. But win or lose, you have to move on.”
A Last Title for Texas
And move on he did. Pareja was named head coach of FC Dallas in 2014 and he channeled the pain of losing two Finals into making sure he wouldn’t come up short in 2016. Again against the New England Revolution, he orchestrated an impressive 3-2 win that sent fireworks up into the Dallas sky for the first time – a first time a Texas team had won the Open Cup on home soil. The celebrations were lively and well earned, and went a long way to scrubbing away the memory of past failures. “In 2016 we had that same feeling of responsibility – to win something for the club,” said Pareja, who has his team on top of the MLS standings ahead of the 2018 playoff charge. “After many years of not winning it, I had it in front of me again. I couldn’t let it go. As a coach, as a player, I wanted to win it. And I was lucky to be in charge of a group of guys full of energy and desire in 2016. It was a moment that was so valuable for our club.”
(2016 was the last time a team from Texas won a U.S. Open Cup)
This year, on September 26, Houston Dynamo have the chance to become only the second side in the 105-year history of the Open Cup to win a title in the great state of Texas. Up against Philadelphia Union – who, like the Dynamo, have never won an Open Cup – they have a chance to add their name to the short list of Open Cup champs from the Lone Star State.