The 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup has reached its culminating moment. The trophy is polished and resting, the stage is set at BBVA Compass Stadium in South Texas, and one of the two Finalists on Sept. 26th will be crowned champions for the first time. Philadelphia Union were twice-beaten runners-up in 2014 and 2015, while Houston Dynamo, two-time MLS champions, are playing in the big game for the first time in their history. Join ussoccer.com for a look back at how they got here and what to expect on Wednesday when the curtain raises at 7 p.m. CT (ESPN2, UDN).
Both sides opened their Open Cup account with lopsided 5-0 victories at home in the Fourth Round; the Union beat second division pro side Richmond Kickers of the United Soccer League (USL), while Houston scored all of their goals in the second half against impressive amateurs and Open Cup regulars NTX Rayados out of North Texas. From there on, both teams played all of their games at home, showing for good and all just how important the hosting coin-flip can be to a successful Cup run. The Dynamo slipped past Minnesota United (MLS) in the Round of 16 by a slim 1-0 scoreline before knocking out the defending champ Sporting Kansas City (MLS) 4-2 in the Quarterfinals. Their Semifinal against tournament debutants LAFC (MLS) ended 3-3 a.e.t. and needed a penalty shootout to put the Dynamo into their debut Open Cup Final.
(Young - Mauro Manotas - and old - Philippe Senderos - have been making an impact for the Dynamo)
The Union followed up their opening-day rout of the 1995 Open Cup champion Kickers with a pair of one-goal results against New York Red Bulls (MLS), 2-1, in the Round of 16 and Orlando City (MLS), 1-0, in the Quarterfinals. The Semifinal, the fourth straight game at their Talen Energy Stadium on the banks of the Delaware River in Chester, Pa., was their best performance of the competition so far. They scored all three goals of the 3-0 win vs. the Chicago Fire (MLS) in the second half of a game that not only sent them to the Final of the Open Cup for a third time in five years, but changed their momentum in the league. They are now right on the cusp of qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
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Offense vs. Defense
The numbers don’t lie. Houston have reached the Final, in large part, because of their dynamic offensive play. Alberth Ellis, Romell Quioto and, perhaps most importantly, Mauro Manotas form a three-pronged counter-attacking machine that saw the Dynamo score no fewer than 13 times in the space of just four games. Colombian striker Manotas, still 22, is in line to become top scorer of this edition of the tournament with a goal in the Final – and a brace would likely see him win the top-gun prize outright, outpacing LAFC’s Diego Rossi and David Ochoa of Miami United FC on four goals each. In case that were not enough in the achievement department for the lean, leggy Dynamo No. 9, he broke Houston’s all-time single-season scoring record across all competitions this year and holds the enviable record of being the Dynamo’s top all-time scorer in Open Cup play. “I allow myself to dream about lifting the Cup this year,” Manotas, who only broke into the Starting XI at the start of this season, told ussoccer.com. “In this life you have to dream in order to win, and you have to keep working too.”
- READ: No Looking Back for Houston’s Boniek
- READ: Senderos, Manotas & the Dynamo’s Alchemy
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While Houston rocketed to the Final by virtue of their impressive attacking array, Philly arrived at this stage by being stingy. While they scored 11 goals, they conceded just one over the course of the campaign. It’s a fact not lost on head coach Jim Curtin, a former defender who won the tournament twice as a player with Chicago Fire. “Our defense starts with Andre Blake [the Union’s Jamaican international goalkeeper who’s had an outstanding competition]. The way he’s been playing allows our defenders to be aggressive and to take chances,” said Curtin, who was in charge in the two consecutive Final losses in 2014 and 2015. “That’s a powerful feeling for a defender to have and it filters through the team. That said, we still conceded one goal so we could have defended better.”
(Union captain Alejandro Bedoya - center - has experience overseas and at the 2014 World Cup)
While Curtin sets an impossibly high standard for his backline, he knows full well the threats posed by a high-flying Houston Dynamo in the attacking third. “It’s a Final, and we know they’ll be up for it. We’re going to get their best punch in their building,” he said. “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.”
On the other side of the technical area, Wilmer Cabrera, a 50-times capped Colombian international who knows all about the big day, is hoping home field counts for something in this, the Dynamo’s fifth consecutive 2018 Open Cup contest at BBVA Compass Stadium. “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.”
Both teams have been through the fires and are now one win away from lifting a trophy. There will be nerves on the day and it will be down to the respective team leaders to calm the troops with everything on the line. “It’s OK for guys to be a little nervous. That’s natural,” said Union captain Alejandro Bedoya. “But you just need to go through your routines – take your walks and your naps and get ready like you do. In the end, there’s a trophy on the line and that’s all the motivation you need.”
While Bedoya leads a team that has relied on youth and Homegrown talent out of PA, The Dynamo has a raft of old campaigners in the locker room, wise old veterans like DaMarcus Beasley (36), Philippe Senderos (33), a former FA Cup winner with Arsenal in 2004-05, and Honduran international Oscar Boniek Garcia (34). “You need guys like this,” said Boniek on the eve of his first championship game since losing an MLS Cup Final in 2012. “These are the kind of guys who’d played in big games and won trophies and they can show the way for the younger guys.”
(Whoever wins it will be making history for their club - a first Open Cup title)
In the end, the winner will make history. The winning team’s picture will hang on the wall in either BBVA Compass Stadium or Talen Energy Stadium for as long as the clubs shall live. Houston are alive with the possibilities in their first Open Cup Final and Philly Union are looking to banish the ghosts of Finals past. “We’ve still got guys in the team like Ray Gaddis, CJ Sapong, Andre Blake and Fabino who were here for those losses and it would be extra special for them to win it this year,” said Union boss Curtin. “Being in a Final is big for any player and I want my guys to know that feeling of winning a trophy.”
Cabrera is aware of the same stakes. At home, there might even be a little more pressure on his men in orange. “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.”
Whoever wins will be doing it for a first time, and they will join a list of winners going back to 1914 to where the oldest soccer crown in American history. All will be known on Sept 26th in South Texas.