NCFC's Sarachan & The Cup's Ups & Downs

By: Frank Dell'Apa

Last December, Dave Sarachan was about to be presented as head coach of North Carolina FC when someone noticed the backdrop included a banner showing his former team, the LA Galaxy, being upset in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

“They asked me if they should take it down,” Sarachan said recently. “I said, ‘No, keep it up. It’s a good reminder’.”

“They made us travel to Raleigh to play three times,” Sarachan recalled. “They were a bogey team for us. We couldn’t get over the hump.”

Back in the Open Cup

Now, after a 22-year stint that included stops throughout MLS and the U.S. Men’s National Team, Sarachan is coaching North Carolina FC in the USL Championship (the cdountry’s professional second division league) and preparing for an Open Cup contest against lively amateur side Florida Soccer Soldiers on Wednesday, May 29 at Koka Booth (Field 2) at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C. (7 p.m. ET).

Sarachan made the subject of Cupsets part of preparations for North Carolina’s 4-1 Second Round win over the Richmond Kickers last week. “I said to my team, this is why the tournament is so great and we always root for them,” Sarachan said of the Cup’s underdogs. “Except when we play them.”

“The message when we played Richmond was you can’t assume anything, whether it’s the best in MLS or an amateur team you’re playing,” Sarachan went on. “You can lose any time if your mentality is not right on the field. And the message won’t change [for the Soccer Soldiers] – they’ve beaten two good opponents on the road. They’re playing with house money. They have some high school guys, some semipro guys, they’re well-coached and they have some ability.”

Chicago '03 Dream Team

Sarachan experienced immediate success as a coach in the Open Cup. In his first season as Fire head coach, the team swept to the Open Cup title, taking a 1-0 win over the then-NY/NJ MetroStars at Giants Stadium on Oct. 15, 2003.

“I met with the leaders of the team – Chris Armas, Jesse Marsch, C.J. Brown, Jim Curtin – all the senior guys, and they all wanted to win the Open Cup,” Sarachan said. “Their philosophy aligned with mine. We wanted to win the MLS Cup but any time you have a chance to win a trophy you have to put everything into that. The mentality was excellent during those runs. Everything is compounded, with regular-season MLS scheduling, crazy travel. So, it’s MLS on weekend, Open Cup midweek, juggling lineups and figuring out how not to compromise – it’s challenging.”

The Fire’s history with the Open Cup dates to the team’s first season, when they won the MLS Cup/U.S. Open Cup double. Chicago also captured the 2000 Open Cup. “First of all they appreciated the tournament and what the Open Cup really means,” Sarachan said. “A number of guys had played in it and by winning the trophy in a [tournament] that included way more than MLS teams, that meant a lot.”

“So there was a lot on the line other than the soccer,” Sarachan recalled of the ’03 final. “It was a terrific, a really good game, despite being later in the year, and guys were weary. It wasn’t easy to play the Final there, it was on turf and a little cold, and that made it tricky. We had an experienced group of guys and each man was really competitive – Carlos Bocanegra, DaMarcus Beasley, Ante Razov, Evan Whitfield. Damani Ralph scored the goal and we just played well and got the clean sheet. Chris Armas was the best leader I’ve ever managed.

“At the ceremony, [former U.S. Soccer president] Sunil Gulati gave us the medals and it was a precursor to the MLS Cup final,” added Sarachan. “We didn’t win that but we did get the Supporters Shield.”

The meaning of the Open Cup to the Fire players hit home again with Sarachan after the season. “We had a banquet to kick off 2004, and word was that we were not getting Open Cup rings,” Sarachan said. “Chris Armas was our captain, and he went crazy. He said: ‘Wait a minute, what are you talking about?’ He made sure ownership knew why we did it – and it wasn’t for rings and jewelry.”

The Fire lost the ’04 Final, 1-0, to the Kansas City Wizards (now Sporting Kansas City) as Igor Simuntenkov scored a 95th-minute golden goal at Arrowhead Stadium.

Two years later, the Fire returned to the Final, this time taking a 3-1 victory over the Galaxy in Bridgeview, Ill., on Sept. 27, 2006. “Armas had been suspended, he got a second yellow against D.C., for nothing,” Sarachan recalls. “He was crying because that meant he would miss the final.”

But the Fire started strong, Nate Jaqua (10th minute) and Andy Herron (16th) opened the scoring. The Galaxy’s Alan Gordon cut the deficit in the 51st minute and Thiago rounded out the scoresheet via a Tony Sanneh assist in the 88th minute.

“There’s always a guy or two that emerges, for whatever reason, in the tournament,” Sarachan said. “In ’03 we had Dipsy Selolwane. Then, we had Andy Herron, and in year two he was on fire.”

But that would be it for Sarachan’s career as a head coach in the U.S. Open Cup. He had compiled a 14-2-1 record in the century-old tournament, but was dismissed by the Fire with the team in fifth place in the Eastern Conference in June of 2007.

Sarachan went to the Galaxy in 2008 and a rapid rebuilding project resulted in MLS Cup titles in 2011, ’12 and ’14, but Open Cup success has eluded Sarachan since ’06.

No Cup Luck in LA

In 2012, the Galaxy were in the midst of capturing successive MLS Cups when they visited the RailHawks for a Third-Round game in Cary, N.C. And the Galaxy took the lead on Pat Noonan’s 38th-minute goal. But Tiyi Shipalane equalized (75th) and Brian Shriver decided the match, heading home a Shipalane cross in the 88th minute.

The next year, current North Carolina captain Austin da Luz and Shriver converted in a 2-0 win over the Galaxy in another Third-Round match.

The teams met in the Fifth Round in 2014. The RailHawks blanked a forward line consisting of Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane and Gyasi Zardes, then took the lead on Danny Jackson’s 105th-minute goal. The RailHawks went on to lose 5-2 to FC Dallas in the Quarterfinals and finish fifth in the NASL standings that year. The Galaxy, meanwhile, ended up second in MLS’ regular season and went on to lift MLS Cup for a fifth time.

“There are upsets every year – semipro teams win,” Sarachan said, looking back in order to look ahead at his latest tilt at the Open Cup. “And that’s the other thing. As a coach you try and explain to guys and they’re like ‘whatever, yeah …’ Until you get a bit of a scare.”