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. The Round of 32 of the 2023 competition tossed up a good few of those between May 9 and 10. Join usopencup.com for a look back at eight moments of note from the 16 games in which 14 Major League Soccer teams moved through alongside a pair of USL Championship clubs – including the Pittsburgh Riverhounds who pulled off the rarest kind of Cupset.
Few, if they're honest, would say they had the Pittsburgh Riverhounds traveling to New England and beating the Revolution. The Revs, cruising at the top of MLS’s eastern conference, are strong contenders for the top-flight’s top prizes this year. When Bob Lilley’s second-division outfit arrived at the cavernous Gillette Stadium the outcome seemed a foregone conclusion. The Revs haven't lost at home this season and they’ve never lost a home game to a non-MLS team in the Open Cup. But when Danny Griffin snuck in behind the defense to score just before the half, a belief began to brew. Revolution boss Bruce Arena had seen enough by the 60th minute and brought on stars like Ema Boateng, Brandon Bye and, in a signal of ill-temper and obvious intent, 2021 MLS MVP Carles Gil. But by then the gods were interested in the game, and the fate of these brave Riverhounds. Reality had changed and even Gil, the pass-master and one of the best players ever to play in MLS, didn’t have the keys to unlock Pittsburgh’s resistance. It was to be the Road Cupset – rarest of Open Cup animals. And on to the Round of 16 the Riverhounds stride.
It’s the farthest they’ve ever gone in our Cup. Next up, a home game at Highmark Stadium on the banks of the Monongahela River. It’s against the Columbus Crew, who, as we’ve come to find out, have little patience for Cup Magic or underdogs…
One of the Open Cup’s winning qualities is its ability to make us dream. Fresh and new each spring we arrive here believing, down deep in our hearts, that the kind of magic conjured up in Foxborough by the Riverhounds is possible. Hope was alive, drifting on the aroma of blooming cherry blossoms in Leesburg, Virginia, when Loudoun United’s young forward Tommy Williamson had an early chance to take a lead against the visiting Crew. It was the first time an MLS club had come to little Segra Field. It was the first time the local second-division team was playing in an Open Cup. And it seemed, in that moment, that the dream could turn real. How quickly, though, hope can turn to horror. Yaw Yeboah scored first. Then a poor decision and a moment of panic saw home defender Gaoussou Samaké sent off. Then all was gloom as Loudoun’s big night out became a chastening – a 5-1 mauling that was over, definitively, after 20 minutes. If ever there was an Anti-Cupset, this was it.
LAFC Teens Flip the Script
Keeping with a theme, something happened out West worth considering. Let’s call it the Reverse Cupset. LAFC, defending MLS champs otherwise concerned with the business of the upcoming CONCACAF Champions League Final, sent children (literal ones) to Seaside, California for their Round of 32 contest with Monterey Bay FC. Six starters were pulled from the side’s academy team and, in all, eight teenagers took part in a game that needed extra-time and penalties to settle it. It became clear, through the course of the game, that the LAFC kids were both hugely talented and, in some strange way, suddenly the underdogs against a second-division pro outfit on the road. Sure, they were wearing the shirts of MLS royalty, “maybe the best team in the league’s history” according to Philadelphia Union boss Jim Curtin, but they were fighting from the bottom. In the end, LAFC pulled off the win. Their anchor and leader – 39-year old goalkeeper Eldin Jakupovic – rolled back the years. He saved (and scored) a penalty in the shootout. Sometimes the right mix is all you need for the perfect cocktail.
Old Chicago Turns Out
Let’s turn to Chicago, shall we? That City of Big Shoulders has a long history in our tournament. All the way back to their first champions (Sparta in 1938) up to the modern-day Fire, who won their first of four Open Cups in 1998 thanks to the late intervention of one Frankie Klopas. He came on to score the winner at Soldier Field in the Fire’s famous Double year. And so it was somehow fitting that this very Klopas, now 56, stood in as head coach for the Fire’s 2-1 win over MLS debutants St Louis City SC. The Fire, in trouble in the league, had sacked previous coach Ezra Hendrickson just hours before the game and that’s how the spotlight came to fall on Klopas – the city’s favorite soccer son. And he wasn’t alone on the night as a former Cup hero in attendance. Jesse Marsch, Chris Armas and Logan Pause – all winners for the Fire through the years – were on hand to witness (just maybe) a Chicago Cup renaissance.
We’ll not bother much with the numbers here. Leave all that to others better suited to parse out expected goal ratios and successful dribbles. We’re more concerned with the magic alive in our Cup. We saw 49 goals fall. It’s a number we can get behind and keeps up a trend of more than three goals scored per game (per round) in this 2023 Open Cup. A full 6 of the 16 games produced four or more goals and, especially out West, those goals just seemed to tumble out of the sky. Here’s another number: 20. That’s the difference in age between LAFC’s opening goal-scorer Christopher Jaim (19) and hero goalkeeper Jakupovic (about to turn 40). That’s what you call an Open Cup generation gap.
Night Time the Right Time#OpenCupAfterDark was coined years back by Josh Hakala and the gang over at theCup.us (follow them on twitter @usopencup if you don’t already). It was born of fun foggy minds, over-tired at getting the weird gospel of the Open Cup out to the masses. And we can’t remember a more entertaining late-shift than this Round of 32. After Memo Rodriguez – ballboy-turned-Open-Cup-winner with Houston Dynamo in 2018 – scored twice in a 3-1 LA Galaxy win over the Seattle Sounders, Real Salt Lake just edged the Timbers in Portland 4-3. Young Andres Gomez’s (Real) screamer was the highlight of that match – as entertaining as any ever played on any field in any competition. And on Tuesday, the late-night fare opened with the Colorado Rapids’ 4-2 win over our 2022 underdog runners-up Sacramento Republic. And it was followed by the Monterey Bay - LAFC thriller (2-2 after extra-time – thanks to a pair of last-gasp equalizers and decided via marathon shootout).
Legion go Deep in the CupThe USL Championship side from Birmingham, Alabama have wind at their backs. And sprinkled in among the club are folks with a deep history in our tournament. Head coach Tom Soehn was twice an Open Cup winner with the Chicago Fire as a player. Club president Jay Heaps lifted the trophy in 2007 with the Revolution. Out on the field now is striker Juan Agudelo – who scored one in the 3-0 win over Memphis 901 to book a place in the next round. He’s a player who didn’t fulfill his massive potential after bursting onto the scene as a teen with the USMNT and the Red Bulls. When he scored two early goals in the 2016 Open Cup Final for the New England Revolution, he thought the trophy was in his hands. But circumstances, and FC Dallas, had something to say about it. He finished that day a runner-up. But now he has a chance again – at 30 and in the leafy autumn of his career – to make a little more Cup Magic.
A Fond FarewellEvery round, every year, requires a goodbye. And we mean it when we say it’s never easy. It’s more fun when you’re all out there chasing windmills. But reality, hard and sharp-angled, imposes itself. So we’ll just say thanks and see y’all soon to Memphis 901. We’ll not forget your Cupset on the road over Atlanta United. And adieu too to New Mexico United, trail-blazers from the Southwest. Our friends from the Northwest, the Timbers and Sounders both, we’ll meet again. And St Louis City – and Monterey Bay and Sacramento Republic – we’ll see you all soon, and in renewed spirit too.
We’re exhausted and invigorated. Join us for a Round of 16 full of promise and hope and all good things.
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.