Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin has led his side to the Final of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup for the third time in five years. On the other side stands Wilmer Cabrera, the former Colombia international and youth-team wizard who’s guided his Houston Dynamo to the Final for the first time in their history. ussoccer.com put the same six questions to both bosses as they chase the same trophy, and a place in their club’s history on Wednesday, Sept. 26th in Houston (7 p.m. CT; ESPN2, UDN).
- READ MORE: No Looking Back for Dynamo's Boniek
- READ MORE: REWIND - Texas Teams in USOC Finals Past
- READ MORE: FIVE Things to Know about #USOC2018 Final
- READ MORE: Le Toux: I Hope Philly Will Do Well
- READ MORE: #USOC2018 Final LIVE on ESPN2 & UDN
(Wilmer Cabrera worked through the youth coaching ranks with U.S. Soccer and Rio Grande Valley FC Toros - USL)
We’re here in the build-up to the 2018 U.S. Open Cup Final. Can you point to one game, or one moment, in this campaign that stands out as a turning point?
Wilmer Cabrera (Dynamo): It was the Quarterfinal against Sporting Kansas City. They were the reigning champions and we knew that if we got past them we’d really have the chance to go all the way. It required a lot of effort from us [4-2 win] because it was a tough game. It wasn’t easy, but I knew then that we had what it takes as a team to keep moving forward. Something clicked. Now we have one more game to go and we’re excited. This is the most important game of the competition, a Final always is, and we know it won’t be easy either.
Jim Curtin (Union): Definitely the turning point for us was the Chicago [Semifinal]. This was a catalyst for all the good things happening in our club right now. It really turned our season around. It got us into the Cup Final, obviously, but it also gave us confidence in the league. It got Cory Burke going [he scored two of three second-half goals in the 3-0 win]. You saw the leadership of our captain Alejandro Bedoya, who just took over the game. Since then, we’ve been on a great run of form in the league [MLS]. A game like that, depending on how it goes, can really make or break your season. If it goes the other way, it can be a heartbreaker and drag you down. But the players deserve all the credit for what’s happening. We’ve paid the Open Cup the respect it deserves and we’re here in the Final again.
(Jim Curtin won a pair of Open Cups with Chicago Fire as a player and has taken the Union to a third Final in five years)
In the Open Cup, you have to rely on the full spectrum of players available to you – young players, inexperienced players, sometimes players from the youth system. How did the young guns step up this year?
WC (HD): This year we really needed some of the young guys to step up in the early stages. You always want to play your top team in every game, but it’s not always possible. You have to use what you have and hope you get the balances right. So when we needed the young players to step up, because of our very busy schedule in June and July, they did it in a big way. We wouldn’t be in the Final today if they hadn’t done a job when we asked them to. They all stepped up, even guys from USL [Division Two United Soccer League affiliate Rio Grande Valley FC Toros] in our first two Cup games. They all played well, and some of them even scored important goals, and it leaves us with a feeling of pride doing a whole job as a club. We showed we have depth and everyone has played an important role when asked to.
JC (PU): Young players are really a big part of everything we try to do here at the Philadelphia Union. And in the Open Cup, early on, you really do have to rely on those younger players to step up. And when they do, you can feel that momentum build and that camaraderie grow with every win. Every game that you advance, it builds a little more. If you’ve ever been in a professional locker room before a game, there’s just a real tension that you can feel. And for young players, getting a taste of that is the best experience you can give them. You can’t recreate those types of moments and feelings in practice. You have to live with the agonizing defeats and feel those great highs for yourself. That’s the beauty of the competition, of the Open Cup, it can build confidence and your guys can show a strong mentality. You learn to not be scared. Guys really stepped up in those do-or-die moments you have in a knockout competition. And to be here at the Final is a real achievement across the whole club.
(Cabrera's Houston Dynamo have played all of their 2018 USOC games at home - the Final will be at BBVA too)
Would you say there’s a special psychology to a Final? Does it just feel different?
WC (HD): It’s important not to over-think it when you’re going into a Final. You just have to make sure you prepare the team in the right way. When the moment comes, the players will feel it and that will be all the motivation that they need. I need to be sure they don’t overcompensate because too much of anything is not good. Too much excitement is not good and too much relaxation is not good. You need to balance it so that the adrenaline is high but not too high. You can’t let that take control of your nerves. And, really, you have to enjoy it and believe that you’ll go out there and do your best.
JC (PU): To say ‘it’s just another game’ is BS. That’s just coach-speak and it’s not ever true. Everyone starts out at the beginning of every season wanting to play in a Final and win a trophy. Sure, you try to find ways to keep guys as loose as possible and you try to make it seem like it’s just another game, but there will be nerves. And there’s a build-up. You try to sprinkle in practicing penalty kicks and using the tournament ball, things like that. But at the end of the day, players know when a Final’s here and a trophy’s on the line. You have to try to manage that and stay focused. And once the whistle goes, that’s all gone. It’s just game time.
(Jim Curtin - top - after winning the Open Cup in Chicago)
While you’ve talked about how important the input of young players can be in a Cup run, Veterans are always needed as well.
WC (HD): It’s always good in the locker room when you have guys like DaMarcus Beasley, Philippe Senderos and Oscar Boniek Garcia. These are the kind of guys that know about winning in Finals and they’ve been there before. Any good team is guided by players like that. They can express what it’s like and communicate it to their teammates, and it’s easier for them to do it than it is for coaches like me. The veterans have the relationship of teammates to the young players and those young players respect what they’ve done before. They can rely on their advice and they can learn the lessons of the guys who’ve been there before.
JC (PU): I can’t stress enough what a guy like Alejandro Bedoya has meant to us in this Open Cup run. He scored an early goal in a tough Quarterfinal game against Orlando City. What you need in this competition is to have your best players be your best players. That’s not always doable even if it sounds simple. But we’ve found a way to have our best players – guys like Bedoya, [Haris] Medunjanin, [Bořek] Dočkal – really thrive in this competition. Now in the Final, you’ll see the best from these players again.
(Wilmer Cabrera was capped 50 times for Colombia in his playing days)
The Final will be in Houston. What does that mean? Does it make a difference?
[Houston have played all of their 2018 Open Cup games at home and so have the Union].
WC (HD): It’s wonderful for us. It’s another home game for us. But you still have to win at home. You don’t get anything just because you play at home. It’s great to have the draws go your way, but you also have to put it in on the field. We’ve done that so far and hopefully we’ve got one more in us.
JC (PU): There’s always a little more pressure on the home team. We felt that the two years we hosted the Final [2014 and 2015]. At home, you’re a favorite in some ways. You’ve got that feeling of being at home and there’s a little bit of expectation and pressure because of it. Hopefully that will help keep us loose on the road. But Houston is a tough place, historically, to go play in our league. There’s a lot of travel and it’s hot and they have a good team who are well coached and organized. In that way, your margin of error shrinks.
(Curtin's Philadelphia Union have an outstanding record in Open Cup play, but two Final losses in 2014 and 2015 still linger)
Your opponent won’t be a mystery. Houston Dynamo and Philadelphia Union play often in Major League Soccer. How do you measure up to your opponent on the day?
WC (HD): Philly is a very good team with a lot of talent. Last time they came here they beat us 3-1. Right there we have something to overcome, but every game is different. They are at a very good level right now and this is their third Open Cup Final in five years. Maybe that means that they’ll have a little more pressure on them to win it. For us, it’s good and we’re at home and they’ll just want to go and win the Final. That’s something that’s maybe a little tricky for them.
JC (PU): Houston are a tough team. I think their front-three is one of the most dangerous in our league. When they get out in open space – [Alberth] Elis, [Mauro] Manotos – who is just so underrated – and Romell Quioto are just unreal. These are real weapons. It’s a Final, and we know they’ll be up for it. We’re going to get their best punch in their building. The key to the game will be who controls the tempo. If it turns into an end-to-end, wide-open game, we have no chance. We have to take that part of the game away from them. We have to know when to slow it down and when to speed it up. It will be a fight for control of the game and we can’t let them sit deep and then counter-attack.
(Cabrera and his Dynamo are one more win away from the club's first U.S. Open Cup crown)
What would a trophy, the Open Cup, mean to your club?
WC (HD): This is the most important thing. It’s hard to put into words what it would mean for the club, the city, the fans and the players. You don’t win trophies every day. And the fact that we haven’t won one in a while [their two MLS titles came in 2006 and 2007] is proof that things have changed and become more difficult. But now we have the opportunity. Hopefully we can continue performing well. We are waiting and preparing now and our goal is to get the Cup.
JC (PU): We’ve been in this position before, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I wanted that trophy a little more for guys in the team like Ray Gaddis, Fabinho and Andre Blake – guys who were a part of those teams that lost in 2014 and 2015. But we’ve got guys in the team who’ve never won trophies – guys with experience – and I want them to have that special moment that I had as a player [Curtin won two Open Cups in 2003 and 2006 as a player with Chicago Fire]. Of course it would be so important to the fans too, and that’s critical. Being in a Final is a big opportunity for a player, and I want to have that feeling of handing out the rings to my players. And I’d give my own medal away. For me now it’s more about getting that feeling again, of winning, and passing it on. It’s not about the physical hardware for me anymore.