The Great Eight (Round Two): Heavy Weather, Championship Flex & a Tulsa Tall Tale as Old as Time

The latest in our Great Eight Series, where we take a light-hearted Round-by-Round look at some of the quirkier moments and happenings 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 Second Round of the 2023 competition tossed up a good few of those between April 4 and 6. Join for a look back at eight moments of note from the 29 games in which 105 goals were scored, a Cupset in Tulsa shook the foundations of American soccer and the USL Championship sent a resounding message to the MLS big boys entering in the next round.

Underdogs Emerge in Oklahoma

We begin, as we must, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Hicks Park off South Mingo Road. There, with dust kicking up off the dry ground, and an early spring sunset welcoming the two teams, it was Tulsa Athletic – local amateurs from the NPSL – who stunned their so-called betters. It always happens, and we always know it will, but we’re never not thrilled. Defender KB Harris scored the lone goal as these part-timers bested FC Tulsa – all paid-up pros in the country’s second tier. We don’t need to embellish the meaning of the result to those winning players, proud in their loud pink jerseys woven through with images of Open Cup’s past. They smiled and embraced after the game. They fell into the arms of loved ones who’d come along to see what might happen. They wore smiles and shouted in ways that will echo forever, in their own lives and somewhere in our own history too. It is, cliche as it sounds, the Magic of the Cup. And that same scene was repeated, in less dramatic ways, in Colorado Springs, Nebraska and Statesboro, Georgia. Third-division sides Union Omaha (who reached our Quarterfinal last year), Northern Colorado Hailstorm (who knocked off MLS’ Real Salt Lake last year) and South Georgia’s Tormenta all beat opponents from the USL Championship – a world above them. 

Warning Shots Fired From USL Championship 

That’s not to say the USL Championship didn’t make an impact over two days of Second Round play. Quite the contrary. The men from the second-tier professional league showed up. And the Major League Soccer (MLS) teams – who live like lords above all the rest in our American game – would do well to take note. Let’s count them off, shall we? Teams from the Championship won 20 out of 22 games (that’s a major uptick from last year, when only 15 of 23 Championship teams bridged the gap from Second to Third Round). So when many of them (lucky 13 in fact) become the underdogs in the next round – up against the big clubs of MLS – let’s just wait and see what’s in store. Should be fun.

Sacramento Republic of the USL Championship in the 2022 Open Cup Final

A Sacramento Effect?

Where’s all this muscle-flexing from the USL Championship coming from? Could it be that Sacramento Republic and their run to last year’s Open Cup Final, shook something loose? Has belief come to be allied with the knowledge, firm and full, that if the Republic could do it, well hell, so can we? No Championship team lost on the first day of the Second Round. All but four won out the next day. But it’s a funny thing that the Republic, the very side that went toe-to-toe with eventual champs Orlando City for 70 minutes of last year’s Final, were nearly toppled in their 2023 opener. The amateurs from way out in Washington State, Crossfire Redmond, showed up to Heart Health Park – where Sacramento beat two MLS clubs last year – ready to scrap. They were up by two inside 15 minutes. The game, from there on out, turned to something like a dream. 120 minutes and nine goals. And in the end, after wild extra-time, the Republic held by 5 goals to four. But they’ll know, as we all do, they were in one hell of a fight.

What’s With the Weather?

The Open Cup’s early rounds arrive, always, in early spring. We see the whole country wake up and stretch. Championship Stadium in Irvine was, as it often is, bathed in a kaleidoscope sunset as Orange County SC opened up on Capo FC – the grassroots amateur club from San Juan Capistrano. It was a sight. Much like the dying somber glow over the dry patches of grass in Tulsa, where so much magic happened. But with all that beauty comes the rain. Clouds gather. Lightning sizzles and the thunder rolls. We had several games delayed by rain and threatening weather – none more so than the one at Richmond, Virginia’s old City Stadium. The players waited in the locker room, and the fans in their cars, for nearly three hours to kick off. And then, after a goal from Kickers hero Emiliano Terzaghi, they went off the field again as electricity lit up the sky around the ground. Out again an hour later, Cleveland stormed back to make a fist of it near the end. The game, scheduled to start at 7pm, finished at 12:48am – with the Kickers shading it 3-2. Bless those fans who stuck it out. 

Forward Madison and Chicago House AC – both founded by legendary executive Peter Wilt – eventually played their weather-rescheduled game on April 11. It was a full week after the round opened but it was worth the wait as the amateurs from the Windy City pulled off a huge Cupset to book a date with the Chicago Fire (yes, the MLS club where Wilt used to be President/GM).

Flower City Union Flying the flag for Rochester – a special city in Open Cup history

Spring Flowers Bloom Anew in Rochester

The name of this windy city, frozen solid through harsh Upstate winters, stands out in the legend and lore of the Open Cup. The only team since 1996 not from MLS to win our old tournament was the Rochester Ragin’ Rhinos of 1999. It’s the magic we talk so much about, the promise of the highly unlikely and its potential. So we were as sad as anyone when those Rhinos – name-changed and rebranded, decked out in all-white and no longer Rhinos at all – forfeit their Second Round game and dissolved the club for the rest of the year. It left a hole. But it’s one happily filled by Flower City Union – the city’s third-tier pro team from NISA. They were, admittedly, favorites against young boys Manhattan SC at home at the Rochester Community Sports Complex when they pulled off a sturdy 3-1 win. But what’s important is that they kept the city's proud tradition in our tournament alive. For that, we’re grateful.

The Numbers

There’s something about stats and numerical breakdowns that don’t quite fit our Open Cup. This tournament lives in a world above the kind of truths that numbers tell. But we’re told people like stats, so we’ll try. Again. Here’s a number we like: 105. Nice, clean and spilling into triple digits. It’s the number of goals scored through four days of Second Round play – pushing past 3.5 per game. It’s a virtual avalanche of scoring. Among those 29 games there wasn’t a single one that went to a shootout – and only nine puzzles needed solving via extra-time. We had not not one goalless draw through regular or extra-time. We like that 0. But another of its kind troubled us – as zero was also the number of Cupsets on Day One of the Round. But the five that followed brought the smiles back. You know how many away teams won? Three. Home-field advantage is the real-real. Name the last away team to win an Open Cup Final. Give up? It was Sporting Kansas City, in Philly, back in 2015.

One Short and the Other Young

There was an odd one out in Texas. The reigning kings of the USL Championship, San Antonio FC, who haven’t lost at home in over a year, were heavy favorites on paper against NISA’s new Club de Lyon. That assumption became even more sound when the Floridians showed up with 12 eligible players – just one on the bench – and was compounded further when an injury forced that one sub on early to leave Lyon with no options. But this is the Open Cup and the outmanned visitors, with scores of regular players Cup-tied to an amateur team with the same name, scored first through Augustine Ortiz. San Antonio’s academy boys, with an average age on the day of 17.1, had to find a way. They were tasked with the heavy weight of not becoming the first SAFC squad to lose at Toyota Field since last March. And they were up to the challenge too. Dane Augustin and Roman Holt made sure the club – who Cupset MLS’ Austin FC in last year’s Open Cup – moved through to the Third Round and a date with Nashville SC.

Appalachian FC stood up strong in their first Open Cup

A Fond Farewell

This is the part that’s hard. Always is. Appalachian FC, the Squatchy outfit from North Carolina’s High Country, you got your first Open Cup win – and in some style too. Cleveland SC, you've still never lost a First Round game and remain a delight – full of scrap and talent and fight. You college kids of UDA, out of Las Cruces, New Mexico, didn’t deserve the hiding you got in the Second Round, and what you did to get there was magnificent. To those patched-together Ocean City Nor’easters, who stretched Maryland’s Bobcats to the breaking point, it wasn’t meant to be. Neither was it for Des Moines Menace, among our favorite underdogs here, who returned home from faraway First Round travel only to fall hard in a familiar setting. Crossfire Redmond, my goodness. You can bet the Sacramento Republic players (and their fans) won’t forget your name any time soon.

So we gather ourselves and we go again – for a Third Round between April 25 and 26. That constant tomorrow, always there. The promised rise behind every sunset. See you soon, friends.

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