The Great Eight (Round One): High Country Heroes & House Delights as the Cupsets Loom

The return of the U.S. Open Cup also marks the return of our Great Eight Series, where we take a light-hearted Round-by-Round look at some of the quirkier moments of America’s favorite soccer tournament.
By: Jonah Fontela

Fans of the 110-year-old Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup (now in its 108th edition) live by its magic moments. And the First Round of the 2023 competition tossed up a good few of those on March 21-23. Join for a look back at eight moments of note from the 14 games in which 35 goals were scored, definitive proof of the existence of Sasquatch was provided – and 14 amateur teams booked dates with pro opponents in the Second Round.

Chicago House’s Big Shoulders

Some stand up, and out, when it counts. Tony Halterman is one of those. Chicago House AC’s goalkeeper is tall and wide, a man who works long days and still makes it out to play for nothing more than the love of it. “I can’t even describe it,” he said after reaching the Second Round, smiling with an ancient pride. “We’re moving on.” Mist gathered around the field’s floodlights, making a dream-feel of the moment he led his team – Chicago House AC, first-timers in our old tournament – past the mighty Bavarians from Milwaukee. He was there from the beginning, protecting his House, through three rounds of hectic Qualifying in the Fall which culminated in a shootout in near-total darkness after the lights at Randolph High School, off in faraway Massachusetts, failed to come on. He sniffed out the ball then, sensed it, and got his huge frame between it and elimination. It was the same, under the soft glowing lights up high in Elmhurst, west of Chicago, a rowdy home crowd on hand. In the dying seconds, with his team hanging on to a fragile 1-0 lead, with the whole dream under threat, he refused to let that ball pass. The first save, a header inches out, was worthy of the brightest stages. The second, well, that was just for good measure.

There’s something cooking up in the mountains

Impossible in the High Country

Think of those woods of the High Country, in Appalachia around Boone, North Carolina. Thick and foreboding. It’s no wonder there’s talk of ape-like beasts who walk among the trees, their giant feet thudding the pine duff. It’s a myth, right? The Sasquatch. We’d have seen one, definitively, by now? Right? Well we’ve seen one. It was there, in and around the bleachers up the mountain at Ted Mackorell Soccer Complex, when Appalachian FC won their first-ever Open Cup game in front of nearly 2000 home fans. It was something impossible. Oh hell, folks, not the Sasquatch. That’s just some poor volunteer sweating it out in a halloween costume. No, no. We’re talking about Appalachian FC – a club born of failure, when the nearby college folded up its soccer program during the pandemic. A club, planted in the grassroots, and taking on steam – away from boardrooms and zillion-dollar stadium deals. No one gave them permission to exist. But here they are. Doing the impossible.

Cracks Let the Cup Light In

The Open Cup’s First Round, for those with the right kind of eyes, is magic. Where some see only the rag-tag and the gridiron lines, we see the dreams and roads ahead. Those behind too. Did you chuckle into your fist when the 9 on the back of Jacksonville Armada defender John Bolt’s shirt fell off and he became, in a flash – mid-game, No15? Did you laugh, later, after 90 minutes of play and 30 more for good measure, when Miami United FC’s goalkeeper, Peterson Occenat, danced and smiled – waving up to family and friends among the crowd of 3500 from his goal line before the penalty shootout? He’s 33 now, but once, in an earlier life, he made 10 ten appearances for Haiti’s national team.  What these men are doing demands our applause – and our attention. The scoreboards don’t always work right. Numbers fall off shirts. Games start late and they can run long. The vans break down and life, always, interferes. But this is the Open Cup. And, as a wise man once said, it’s the cracks that let the light in.

Shamir Mullings’ Road (Back) to Hartford

Shamir Mullings’ pro career ended at Hartford’s Trinity Health Stadium in 2021. It was there, after a decade in the English lower leagues, that he paid cash money to try-out for Hartford Athletic of the USL Championship. “I couldn’t believe it,” the Englishman laughed about being charged for the chance, a common practice here in the States. Visa issues, and a lack of interest in a player closer to 30 than 20, saw Athletic pass on the big target-man. The train ride back to Yonkers, his new home in America, was a sad one. The clack-clack of the rails beneath him beat out something like it’s over again and again. So he joined up with a men’s league team, took up running their youth academy, and started the workaday grind the rest of us call life. And what of the dream? Of a little while longer where it matters? Dead, right? Nope. That men’s league team he joined was Lansdowne Yonkers, and Mullings helped them off Hartford City – amateurs from the Nutmeg State’s capital – in the First Round at that very stadium where he left his pro days behind. And, with a poetry only our Cup can provide, he’ll return on April 4 with a chance to beat the very team that couldn’t see the value to invest in an old striker looking for his third act.

Manhattan SC took down 2022 high-flying FC Motown

New Blood and Old

There’s beauty in variety, friends. Some of our historically most reliable early-rounders did exactly what we expected them to do. Des Moines Menace, who hard-traveled for nearly 700 miles, made easy meat of Nashville’s newest sensation, Beaman United FC (3-0) – even with former MLS man Kwadwo Poku in the home side. Ocean City’s Nor’easters blew into West Chester and joined their USL League Two mates from Iowa in the Second Round – where both teams have previously made a habit, over the past three decades, of pulling off Cupsets against pro teams. But hold on now – there’s room for the new blood too. Nothing is carved in stone tablets. Who had Manhattan SC beating FC Motown – last year’s farthest-reaching amateur side – in the First Round? Not many. But that’s just what went down in the Bronx, where a pre-game sunset over the Hudson teased a thrilling 2-1 win for the big-city young boys. And let’s not forget, over in Las Cruces, on the edge of the Chihuahuan Desert, we had the freshest blood of all making a mark. UDA Soccer of New Mexico are the first college-affiliated team to reach the Open Cup’s Second Round since the modern era of our tournament began way, way back in 1995.
Des Moines Menace get it done (again)

The Numbers

The Open Cup lives not in the mundane numerical numbness of statistics. We should scratch deeper for meanings. There’s music down there somewhere under the obvious. So let’s see if we can't just find some numbers that guide us where we want to go. There were 35 goals scored in 14 First Round games – and that’s more than two and a half per. A good start. The right kind. Goals are the basis of what we do here. Not a single game ended regular or extra-time tangled in the worst kind of draw: goalless and cowardly. For this we applaud our teams. Hurrah to them for their wild spirit and go-forth attitude. One round of penalties ended 3-0 – curious – and another ended 9-8 – raucous! All 14 of our all-amateur First Round winners now move on to face professional teams in the Second Round. And though we have no mathematical basis to say so, using history as our guide, one – or more – of them will beat their betters.

Second Round Cupsets in Waiting

And how we wait for that/those moment(s). The Second Round. The traditional start to what we, around here, like to call Cupset Season. Some of the contests to savor include hero Halterman and his Chicago House traveling to Wisconsin to meet USL League One side Forward Madison – who just so happen to be founded by House’s very own founder and chief number-one fan, Peter Wilt. Manhattan SC aim to keep the dream alive on the road in Rochester against NISA’s Flower City Union, while UDA’s college-kids head to USL Championship side New Mexico United, who reached the Quarterfinals of the 2019 Open Cup. The 1993 Open Cup winners, El Farolito, founded by Bay Area burrito icon, the late Salvador Lopez, will take on Oakland Roots of the second-division as Appalachian FC – and their Squatchy gang of outsiders – head down to Charlotte to take on the Independence, who, not to jinx anything here, have made a habit of spilling the beer against lower-league teams in recent years.

And that’s just the beginning.

A Fond Farewell

It’s that time. Goodbyes are never easy. But such is the nature of our Open Cup. For all its romanticism, it’s also merciless. Every smile has a tear beside it. Fourteen huzzahs bring 14 quiet rides home, through the dark, full of thoughts about how else it could have gone. So let’s salute those we lost here at the opening hurdle of the 2023 Open Cup. Milwaukee’s Bavarians, that century-old club linking us back to the old days and the old ways. NC Fusion, we remember how you shocked pro side Charlotte Independence last year, but a High Country shootout proved too much this time. It was a hard one for West Chester United too, finally with a home game after a heroic, all-away Qualifying campaign. And FC Motown, last year’s farthest-reached amateur side, we know we’ll see you again soon. And we hope we will too, poor Hartford City, forced to ponder a second straight First Round exit at home.

None of it’s easy, so we salute all your efforts.

Fontela is editor-in-chief of Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.