Great players tend to shine when the spotlight’s brightest.
Whether that glare makes them stars or proves that they are, it's the big moments in big games that separate the good from the great. National Soccer Hall of Famers have been grabbing that spotlight in the U.S. Open Cup for decades on end. After all, what better place to shine than in a winner-take-all knockout tournament?
Join us for a look back at some of the great Hall of Famers who’ve sparkled on the Open Cup stage ahead of this weekend’s induction of the Class of 2023.
Landon Donovan, who joins the Hall this week as part of an illustrious class, had his Open Cup moment in 2006.
He and his LA Galaxy were looking to become the first back-to-back Cup winners since 1983, when the New York Pancyprian Freedoms grabbed their second straight and third in four years.
After sitting out the Round of 32 game, a 2-0 win over amateur darlings Dallas Roma, Donovan was spectacular in the Quarterfinal against the Colorado Rapids.
The plan was for Donovan to see as little action as possible because of an upcoming heavyweight league match against D.C. United. But with the Galaxy trailing 1-0, he had to be subbed in early due to an injury and nearly tied the game immediately when his header skipped off the hip of Rapids goalkeeper Matt Jordan.
Quavas Kirk eventually equalized to set the stage for Donovan’s heroics.
Just two minutes and 15 seconds into extra-time, Kirk sent a cross into the area. Alan Gordon missed the chance, but Donovan, unmarked at the far post, slipped the game-winner past Jordan.
He put the exclamation point on the win, and his own performance, with a second extra-time goal with just five minutes remaining, beating Jordan on a breakaway and sealing a 3-1 win for the Galaxy.
Donovan then went on to score his third goal of the competition in a 3-1 Semifinal win over the Houston Dynamo. But the Galaxy fell short of a repeat title, losing out to a Chicago Fire side that claimed their fourth (and last to date) Open Cup crown.
Of Donovan's six Open Cup goals for the Galaxy, three came in that 2006 campaign.
Way Back in the Inky Past
Nearly 80 years earlier, American soccer’s first big star, and a member of the first Hall of Fame class inducted in 1950, put his mark on what was then known as the national Challenge Cup.
Archie Stark, whose 253 goals in the American Soccer League (ASL) remain a U.S. pro soccer record, became the first player to register a hat-trick in an Open Cup Final.
There was no bigger stage and no bigger spotlight for that 1926 game, which was played at Ebbets Field, the legendary home of baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers, in front of a crowd of 15,000.
It was a familiar venue for Stark, and one where he’d already scored in bunches, putting home four goals against Canada a year earlier in his first of two games with the U.S. National Team.Stark gave Bethlehem Steel a lead before the St. Louis Ben Millers could even break a sweat. Inside eight minutes, he got on the end of a corner-kick and tucked the ball home.
Before twenty minutes had elapsed, Stark made it 2-0 for Bethlehem, dribbling past two defenders before putting the ball into the net from two yards out. With his team up 3-1 eight minutes into the second half, Stark scored again, beating three defenders and falling away as the shot left his foot. The Steelworkers then went on to win their fifth Cup handily (7-2).
By scoring three goals that day in Brooklyn, Stark accomplished a rare feat in an Open Cup Final, one that has been repeated only a handful of times through the tournament’s 110 years.
Bert Patenaude, a 1971 Hall of Fame inductee who registered the first hat-trick in FIFA World Cup history in 1930, did Stark two better with his performance in the first leg of the three-game Final in 1931 with the New York Yankees at the Polo Grounds.
The native of Fall River, Massachusetts had one of the greatest individual games in American soccer history.
Just three minutes in, he got on the end of a cross from Tec White and outjumped Chicago Bricklayers goalkeeper Vic Neale to head in his first. Late in the opening period, on a play started by fellow legend Billy Gonsalves, Patenaude took a pass from Alex McNab and sent a low shot into the net. Just minutes before the end of the half, he gave the Yankees a 3-0 lead when he broke in and scored another with his head.
The Brickies pulled two back early in the second half before Patenaude took over again, grabbing control of a loose ball and sending it past Neale for a 4-2 edge. He added a fifth as the Yankees went on to win 6-2.
The teams played to a 1-1 draw in the return match at Mills Stadium in Chicago. But Patenaude scored the game-winner in the third leg, a 2-0 win at Sparta Stadium in the Windy City in which the Yankees played the entire game reduced to 10 men.While teams from the original North American Soccer League (NASL) of the 1970s and 80s didn’t participate in the Open Cup, Hall of Famers from that league and era still managed to make an impact on the competition.
NASL Holdouts & a Mythical ‘Billy’Willie Roy, a 1989 inductee and best known as a goal-scorer and two-time Soccer Bowl-winning coach for the NASL’s Chicago Sting, turned in a stellar performance in the 1965 Open Cup for Chicago Hansa. Roy, who was also – for a time – the U.S. National Team's career scoring leader, almost singlehandedly put his team into the Final.
LINK: Chicago Hero Willy Roy
For the first of his three goals in the 4-3 win over defending champion Los Angeles Kickers-Victoria at LA’s Wrigley Field, Roy knocked in a rebound after LA goalkeeper Volker Bauerle blocked his first shot. Roy then headed in a free-kick from Cornell Krieger before his third goal came on a 40-yard breakaway.
Extraordinary Open Cup performances by Hall of Famers aren’t just limited to players. Gordon Bradley, who was inducted in 1996 and was the only man to coach legends Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff, is also the only coach to win an NASL title and an Open Cup crown.
In 1971, while coaching New York Hota, Bradley was named the first coach of the NASL's expansion New York Cosmos. He retained his position with Hota, juggling the two teams' schedules for the remainder of the season. On April 17, with Bradley at the helm, the Cosmos defeated the St. Louis Stars 2-1 in Missouri.
The coach, along with five players who also played for Hota in New York City’s German American League (now the Cosmopolitan League), then hopped a flight for a game in Taunton, Massachusetts. There, they defeated the local club 4-1 in double overtime.
That’s two victories in about 16 hours.
Hota then won the Open Cup championship with Bradley on the sidelines, defeating the San Pedro Yugoslavs 6-4 (again in double overtime). At the same time, the Cosmos (sans Bradley) played to a 2-2 draw in Toronto against the Metros.No account of Hall of Famers and the Open Cup would be complete without mention of Adelino William “Billy” Gonsalves. The 1950 Hall of Fame inductee didn’t “own” a single Cup Final, but rather took up residence in almost all of them for more than a decade.
Another son of Fall River, Massachusetts, he played in an incredible 11 Open Cup Finals between 1930 and 1944, collecting a record eight winners' medals, including six in a row from 1930 to 1935. Starting with his hometown side Fall River Marksmen in 1930, then again with the same team (but known as the New York Yankees) and the New Bedford Whalers in 1932 and 1933, Gonsalves had two strings of three straight championships with two clubs.
Moving west to St. Louis he won two straight with Stix, Baer & Fuller and another for Central Breweries with essentially the same team. After two straight Final losses with the St. Louis Shamrocks and another with Chicago Manhattan Beer, he won two more titles with Brooklyn Hispano in 1943 and 1944.
In 11 Cup Finals, Gonsalves scored 13 goals -- including tallies that decided the championships in 1932, 1934 and 1943.
It’s unlikely, even if given another 110 years, that Gonsalves’ accomplishments in the Open Cup will ever be matched of neared. But we do look forward to the trying.
Charles Cuttone is a writer/author, historian and three-time winner of the National Soccer Coaches Association writing award.