The Great Eight (Round of 16): A Legion Masses & Hounds Roar as the Double Cupset DominatesThe 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.
Fans of the 110-year-old Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup (now in its 108th edition) live by its magic moments and unique essences. And the Round of 16 of the 2023 competition tossed up more than its share on May 23 and 24. Join us for a look back at eight moments of note from a slate of eight games defined, in the main, by a pair of sparkling Cupsets in Pittsburgh and Birmingham.
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Highmark’s High Marks
Highmark is magic. That little stadium, on the banks of the Mighty Monongahela and home to Pittsburgh’s second-division Riverhounds, stands for something. Grit? Yeah. Fight? Yup. A proud history, going back to 1999? Yes. But mostly for all the possibilities. The setting sun turns the rushing water and downtown buildings the color of spun gold at Highmark. A passing train toots a friendly ahoy to Bob Lilley’s boys. Most of them, young dynamo Danny Griffin or striker Albert Dikwa, work one-year contracts. There’s no guarantees in these lower leagues. Many are still trying to break into the ranks of Major League Soccer – or have put those ambitions to one side by now. At Highmark, these men often play the game in the shadows. But not this Tuesday night. Oh how the sun shined down. The top-tier Columbus Crew never summoned the will to win. They went home in a manner consistent with their performance. Quietly. And those Hounds, roared on by a record crowd and worth every nickel of their 1-0 win, roll on having put a second MLS team to the sword. Pittsburgh, we see you.
Home in Old Alabama
Right as the magic spell was breaking in Pittsburgh, it was taking hold in Birmingham – some 700 miles south and to the west. A red card, shown to Adilson Malanda in the 51st minute, had a strong Charlotte FC (of MLS) in big trouble against the hometown Legion. That red meant the home team, playing in front of an electric club-record crowd of over 12,000 crazies, had something to hold. The writing was on the wall. Enzo Martinez, the midfield bastion “outworked by no one ever,” according to Legion Boss and five-time Open Cup winner Tom Soehn, snarled and won every ball. He looked, always, to feed striker Juan Agudelo, once an MLS and U.S. national team starlet whose career stalled before he found a home in Birmingham. In the end, Prosper Kasim – a Ghanaian with a penchant for magic – scored a goal worthy of the world’s brightest stages. And that was that. A Double Cupset. A famous night. Onward the Legion marches, growing in strength and with a first-ever Quarterfinal in a few weeks. And it will be right there in Alabama too, with the shadow of the old football lines burned into the turf by sun and heat, against David Beckham’s MLS glamor boys from Miami.
While this modern hunger for raw stats is an unendurable waste of time, we’ll dust off a few numbers worth considering. Eight. That’s how many teams are still alive in our tournament. Six are MLS teams and two more from the second tier. One of those USL Championship strivers, Pittsburgh's Riverhounds, became the first lower-league team of the Open Cup’s modern-era to record two straight shutouts of MLS opponents (New England Revolution and Columbus Crew – away and home respectively). That’s a number worth caring about, especially if you’re FC Cincinnati, the Hounds’ opponent in the Quarterfinals. Here’s another number: 18. That’s how many goals fell in the Round of 16, keeping up an honest trend of more than two goals per contest. And we’ll finish off with the Chicago Fire – one of only two away teams to win in the Round of 16. They’ve now reached a 15th Quarterfinal to put them just one off the modern-era record (since 1995) set by FC Dallas/Dallas Burn.
Olsen’s Dynamo and Klopas’ Fire on Revival Hunts
There’s something worth considering when the Chicago Fire meet Houston Dynamo in next month’s Quarterfinal. The four-time champions from the Windy City and the 2018 Open Cup toppers from Texas are both keen to revive the fortunes of once-proud MLS clubs on decade-long skids. “We want to get back to a culture of winning – and trophies help,” said Houston boss Ben Olsen after his young striker Corey Baird caught fire and scored three to help beat ten-man Minnesota United (4-0). Another former USMNT man, Frank Klopas, was recently installed as head coach in Chicago and he’s desperate to take the club back to the wonders of the late 90s and early aughts. Scorer of a famous Open Cup-winning golden goal in 1998, and a beloved son of the city, he’s off to a good start with a convincing 0-2 win on the road in Austin to book a place in the Quarters. These two coaches met once before in an Open Cup. The Semifinal in 2013, when Olsen’s unlikely D.C. United won the whole thing despite finishing last in MLS.
Riqui’s Revenge in El Trafico (Lite)
We love a little chaos. The messier the better. But now and then we need to take our hat off to the unadulterated star power. The top-level, cash-money, juice-is-loose big stuff. Riqui Puig (somehow pronounced Pooch) arrived in LA from Spanish giants FC Barcelona to much fanfare. But the Galaxy, since then, have spiraled into dead-last in the MLS’ western conference. He’s been criticized, heavily on occasion, which perhaps led to his star-turn (and pointed celebrations) on Tuesday night. He sent a warning shot early over 39-year-old LAFC keeper Eldin Jakupović, then had a penalty saved. But he sprung back to score one of the top goals of the round with a mazy run and finish that revived echoes of his old teammate Lionel Messi. Now, it’s worth noting, Puig was playing against LAFC’s deep reserves, thus making his decision to remove his shirt and display the name on the back of it to the crowd (a la that very same Messi) something of an odd choice. But we’re here for it – and for a Galaxy revival too.
FC Cincinnati fans from the beginning know the club started life outside the bright glow of MLS and their current whizbang home of TQL Stadium. It all began in the USL Championship and old Nippert Stadium. It was there, on August 15 of 2017, that they took on the New York Red Bulls of Jesse Marsch, Sacha Kljestan and a baby-faced Tyler Adams after upsetting Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire to reach a Cinderella Semifinal. The city went nuts. So did the team. Corben Bone and Austin Berry scored to give the home side a 2-0 lead in front of over 33,000 fans. And they held it all the way up to the 75th minute. The road to a Cup Final was open. But NYRB’s legendary Bradley Wright-Phillips had other ideas, scoring twice in an eventual 2-3 turnaround. Beating those Red Bulls – with only one player (goalkeeper Ryan Meara) holding over from the 2017 squad, was a first step for the Ohioans. But the wound won’t fully heal until the Cup goes up. The now-MLS version of FC Cincinnati host former USL rivals the Pittsburgh Riverhounds in the upcoming Quarterfinal for a place in another Last Four.
Colossus Coronel in Fresh-Pressed Red
You know an indelible Open Cup moment when you see one. We had that at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey. It wasn’t Dante Vanzier’s volleyed equalizer at the death, or that same man missing the first penalty of the shootout he helped force. Nope. It came when a huge dude, clearly a goalkeeper but wearing a field-player’s jersey, stretched on the touchline ready to enter the game in the fading seconds of extra-time. With veteran keeper and the day’s starter, Meara, on a yellow and in danger of possibly being sent off in the upcoming penalty shootout, Red Bulls coach Troy Lesesne opted for insurance. He sent kit man Sean Ruiz down to the club shop to fire up the pressing machine, and in came the 6foot4 giant Carlos Coronel as a field player (his number still warm from the press). In the end, he wasn’t needed – in the goal or at the spot – as Cincy hit all five of their kicks to win.
* You can enter to win Coronel’s signed jersey HERE – an instant piece of top-level Open Cup memorabilia.
A Fond Farewell
The Cup can be rough. It’s not all generous romanticism. The emotion and the energy build and the road becomes clear and then, suddenly, an end. The final whistle is incontrovertible. So let’s, as we must, say goodbye to those NY Red Bulls and MLS juggernauts LAFC, who did show us some glimpses of future twinkling stars among their reserve ranks. Nashville SC, we know you’ll find your rhythm one of these years. Same goes for y’all down there at Austin FC, your energetic fans deserve a deep old run in this thing one of these days. And to the Columbus Crew, our champions from 2002, it’s a second-straight exit to a lower-league team. Hurts, sure, but next year’s another chance to dance.
Be sure to join us for a Quarterfinal Round (June 6 and 7) full of new hope and all good things.
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.