The Great Eight (Quarterfinals): Miami Messi Mania Beckons as Underdog Dreams Die

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 unique essences. And the Quarterfinals of the 2023 competition tossed up more than its share on June 6 and 7. Join us for a look back at eight moments of note from a slate of four games defined, in the main, by the loss of our last two battlers from the second division (Pittsburgh Riverhounds and Birmingham Legion) and the looming presence of a global icon who might well have a say in our Last Four.

The Dream is Dead (Riverhounds)

It’s a hard road for the lower-leaguers. The challenges greater, more numerous, are usually insurmountable. And still we salute the striving every year. The Cupsets and Dreams. Teams – like the Pittsburgh Riverhounds – who stand up to the established order. Coach Bob Lilley knows the obstacles. Decades in the second division have made him an oracle. This year he got the better of Bruce Arena, the New England Revolution and 2021 MLS MVP Carles Gil, helping his outstanding players like Danny Griffin and Albert Dikwa believe this might be the year a team from outside of MLS’ gated walls go all the way. They beat the Columbus Crew too, making an unforgettable spectacle of the riverbank and dazzling a record crowd at their Highmark Stadium. Sure, it came apart on the road in Cincinnati, where a third MLS team, baked through with top talent and big dollars, did exactly what the norms demand. But the Hounds never rolled over. Tola Showunmi’s stoppage-time goal, consolation in a 3-1 defeat, stands as a lesson to all. Keep pushing. If it’s not this year, maybe the next.

FC Cincy Hit the High Road

It’s easy to paint FC Cincinnati as the villain. Top of MLS. Living the high life and stomping the earnest efforts of those below like some Midwestern Godzilla. But what’s ever that simple? In 2017, down in the USL Championship where those Riverhounds have toiled since 1999, they shoved their way as heavy underdogs into an Open Cup Semifinal. It wasn’t at their flashy new digs of TQL Stadium, but at a previous home called Nippert. It was built for the other football and fans there bounced and fired smoke bombs and perched over New York Red Bull keeper Ryan Meara like weird birds. It seemed the world had turned upside-down when they led Jesse Marsch’s Bulls by two with fifteen minutes to go. But the world – the real and damn cruel one – had its say in the end. Cincy lost to a deeper team and a top-tier talent – Bradley Wright-Phillips – that only top clubs can afford. So many of the fans of today’s FC Cincinnati – members in good standing of MLS’ Tribe of the Haves – were there. Now they have a Lucho Acosta and a Brandon Vazquez. And a road to the Final is open with their side as favorites. The explosion of joy from those fans when Alvaro Barreal hit the net with a volley for the ages – worthy of any stage anywhere in the world – seemed to signify something big. Perhaps, their year is here.


Long Live the Dream (Legion)

Let’s consider the Birmingham Legion. They’re a five-year-old second-division side from Alabama building an unlikely soccer stronghold in college-football country. They drew a record crowd of 18,418 in hopes of seeing a second Cupset in a row against MLS’ Inter Miami, who, frankly, lack something on the field in their current iteration. And this was the very same day Inter signed Lionel Messi. Rub your eyes and read it again. He wasn’t at Alabama’s Protective Stadium on the night, but his aura was. The humble Legion, never more aware of their status, made a firm fighting fist of it. Any assertion that they were the better team on that day wouldn’t meet with argument here. Led by Enzo Martinez and Juan Agudelo, they gave as good as they got for 90 minutes of a slim 0-1 loss. Inter Miami – soon to be the toast of the soccer universe for reasons beyond the field – can consider themselves lucky to have escaped the real world of Open Cup possibilities with their heads still attached.

Messi in the Open Cup?

Let us talk some more of kings. Like it or not, they have a major influence on our lives. Messi is coming. The greatest player to ever play (with deference to slight variants of opinion). MLS has moved heaven and earth to bring him here to American shores where it’s hoped he’ll enlighten the masses and bring harmony to all living things. And what might that mean for our little corner of the game? The old tournament, played out by amateurs and pros and everything in between, through the last 110 years? What we can say is this: Messi, brought in to win things and to inspire all of those lucky enough to see him perform his symphonics in person, will very likely be eligible to play in our Semifinal (scheduled for August 23rd, with his Miami on the road in Cincinnati, Ohio). Could ours be the first trophy Messi lifts on North American soil when the final whistle goes on our Final on September 27th? It’s a tantalizing maybe. So let’s find out together, shall we?

Real Salt Lake v LA Galaxy in Utah drew 20,712 fans – breaking a single-game Quarterfinal attendance record from 2019

The Numbers

Well, here’s a number: 150,000,000. It’s the approximate amount of dollars Messi stands to make playing his soccer/football here in the good ol US of A (and Canada and, we guess, Mexico too). It’s a lot and there’s the promise of many more millions (billions? zillions?) lurking in the fine print. We, here at the humble Open Cup, never thought a number could make us blush. But you learn something every day. Let’s pick out some more-terrestrial numbers and see if they can’t tell us something vital. 15. That’s the number of goals that fell in our four Quarterfinal games (nine alone on the first day of play). It keeps up a tradition this year of high-scoring with nearly four per contest. Also kept up was our tradition of no-nonsense as all four games of the Last Eight were decided in regulation time. Sure, shootouts are fun. But who needs the fuss? This year is the first time since 2019 that the Final Four is composed of only MLS teams. In fact, since 2017, it’s only the third time we haven’t had a lower-league representative in the Semifinal round. So here’s to return to Cupsets and chaos in 2024, huh? One more numeral we like: 63,255. That’s the number of fans who came out to this year’s Quarterfinals (an average of 15,814 per game that crushes the previous record from last year).

Dynamo Catching Fire

We’ll continue with the numbers – and a closer look at Houston Dynamo. Struggling in MLS league play, they’ve recently become irresistible in the Cup. The Texas men have scored eight goals in their last two Open Cup games (four on each night). Former Stanford man Corey Baird lit up the Round of 16 with a hat-trick over the ten-men of Minnesota United (4-0) and Ibrahim Aliyu got two in a 4-1 Quarterfinal thrashing of Chicago Fire on the road. Could it be that Houston – without much to shout about over the last decade – are shaping for another famous Cup year like they had in 2018? A closer look at their fearless leader  Ben Olsen, who still stalks the touchline like a madman, provides some clues.

Ben Olsen (L, of the Dynamo) and Frank Klopas (R, of the Fire) are former Open Cup winners

Lone Holders & RSL’s Score to Settle

Houston are the only Open Cup champion left in contention as the LA Galaxy (twice USOC toppers) went out against Real Salt Lake in Sandy, Utah. So the Dynamo’s venue and opponent in the Semifinals will be quite familiar to Olsen, a decade older and wiser by now. It was at Utah’s own America First stadium – then called Rio Tinto Stadium – that his famously unfancied D.C. United, spurred on by a heroic goalkeeping performance from a rookie Bill Hamid, beat then high-flying Real Salt Lake 1-0 in the Final before going on to finish dead-last in MLS play. “They don’t say he’s [Olsen] got the heart of a lion for nothing,” Hamid told us recently. “No one motivates players like Ben. He’s the master.”

It should be noted that, if RSL beat Houston, they’d host the Open Cup Final for a second time with a shot at making amends for what 2013 keeper Nick Rimando remembers as “not a very good night at all.”

The Pittsburgh Riverhounds beat two MLS teams in 2023 before going out

A Fond Farewell

It’s that time again. We say goodbye to our second-division heroes, the Riverhounds and the Legion. It’s a farewell to the possibility of more Cupsets too. Disappointment is normal, but we can’t wait to see what you cook up next year. Same for you, LA Galaxy. You’ll find your way back to those long-ago glories somehow – as will you, Chicago Fire. You’re in safe hands with Frank Klopas, our hero of 1998.

And so now we breathe. We’ve been through six rounds (98 games) of the Open Cup Proper in five months – and the Semifinals won’t come until August 23 with the Final set for September 27. All three remaining games will be LIVE for you on CBS Sports platforms (details to follow).

In the meantime, visit us @OpenCup on twitter where we’ll chat about things wonderful and possible.

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