On August 23rd the Final Four MLS clubs will compete in the 2023 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Semifinals with a place in the September 27th Final on the line. Cinderella-turned-powerhouse FC Cincinnati host one of the hottest teams on the globe in Inter Miami CF while former champs Houston Dynamo (2018) welcome Real Salt Lake to the Lone Star State.
Prior to those high-profile affairs, however, the first two teams to officially qualify for the 2024 Open Cup Proper will be determined on a stage with a far dimmer spotlight.
The United States Adult Soccer Association hosts its National Amateur Cup Finals this weekend (August 4-5 in Bettendorf, Iowa). The four teams competing are the four champions of USASA’s four nationwide regions. At stake is the Fritz Marth Amateur Cup trophy (the National Amateur Cup) and prize money.
For the fifth straight tournament, the National Amateur Cup champion will also earn a First Round spot in the following year’s U.S. Open Cup. They’ll join teams from national amateur leagues (like the National Premier Soccer League & USL League Two) and those that advance through the Open Qualifying Rounds this fall. And, for the first time, the National Amateur Cup champion will be joined by the national champion of the Spring United Premier Soccer League (UPSL) season (who will also be determined this weekend, with the UPSL’s final four taking place in Loudoun, Virginia).
The four teams competing in Iowa (Newtown Pride, RWB Adria, Tobacco Road FC and MesoAmerica-San Carlos FC) all have their own stories. But interestingly enough, despite thousands of miles separating them, three of their histories intersect at River Grove, Illinois. The site of the 2019 National Amateur Cup Finals.
Region I - Newtown Pride FC
From: Sandy Hook, Connecticut
League: Connecticut Soccer League (CSL)
No. of National Amateur Cup titles: 1 (2019)
No. of U.S. Open Cup appearances: 0* (2020, 2021)
Newtown Pride FC is living a movie. From having the chance at the bigtime taken away, to bouncing back and winning one million dollars – and now once again being on the precipice of national glory.
Founded in 1998 by father-and-son duo Mike and Matt Svanda, Newtown Pride FC has grown into one of the Northeast’s top amateur teams. They’ve won the Connecticut Soccer League an unprecedented 10 years straight and are regulars in USASA Regional competitions. That isn’t even mentioning the work the team does in the community. Following the tragedy that beset Sandy Hook in 2012, the club has continued to organize charity efforts, including matches against professional teams, to raise funds for Newtown Youth and Family Services.
The Pride truly entered the national stage in 2019 by winning a first Region I Amateur Cup and moving on to the national finals. In the Chicago suburbs, the team beat two-time national champion RWB Adria in the semis before claiming the title over Horizon FC (Texas) 4-0. That win should have secured the team a spot in the 2020 U.S. Open Cup tournament, however the COVID-19 pandemic spoiled that chance.
A return to the regional final in 2022 ended in a penalty shootout loss for the Pride.
But 2023 has been a resurgent year for the club. Newtown Pride was one of the first teams announced for The Soccer Tournament (TST), a 7v7 soccer competition featuring teams from around the world. And the Connecticut-based club went on to win the whole event in Cary, North Carolina, beating teams such as Borussia Dortmund and Hapoel Tel Aviv F.C., to win the one million dollar prize live on national television.
The group that won that tournament was made up mainly of indoor soccer league players, but also included a few Newtown regulars. Tavoy Morgan and Gabriel Ganzer have been with the club for many years, with the former scoring the final goal for his team’s national title in 2019.
Before even getting to Cary, Newtown had already reached a third Region I Amateur Cup final in five years. It started with a late quarterfinal win (3-2) over three-time U.S. Open Cup champion New York Pancyprian-Freedoms, with Ganzer scoring twice. A scoreless semifinal against GPS Omens of Massachusetts ended with a 5-4 penalty kick win.
Just under two weeks removed from winning a million bucks, Newtown played SureSports FC in the regional final. Ganzer contributed on every one of his team’s seven goals. He scored five and assisted on two in the Pride’s 7-0 win.
“Winning a second Amateur Cup would put Newtown in the history books,” said Ganzer. “Every member of the team has worked hard to get in the finals and we are going to do everything possible to make this happen.”
The question now becomes will the movie continue? Can Newtown once again beat RWB Adria in the national semifinals? Can they finally make their U.S. Open Cup debut four years after having their opportunity cruelly taken away? Can the team who helped a community rise together through tragedy rally for two more wins?
Region II - RWB Adria
From: Chicago, Illinois
League: Midwest Premier League (MWPL)
No. of National Amateur Cup titles: 2 (2011, 2013)
No. of U.S. Open Cup appearances (since 1995): 6 (1996, 2007, 2008, 2013, 2014, 2015)
RWB Adria was founded in 1959 by Croatian immigrants. The team has grown over time into a club with a strong national profile. Their achievements include multiple national titles and two runs to the U.S. Open Cup Semifinals in its all-amateur and semi-pro days (1978, 1991).
Team manager Ante Loncar, who’s been with the club since 1977 (working up from carrying uniforms as a child), knows how important the club is to folks of Croatian heritage in the Midwest. Before independence and the national team regularly medaling in Men’s World Cup tournaments, Croatia’s troubled past hung heavy on the heads of its American immigrants.
“We were a people without a country. You have a flag, you have a language, but somebody looks up [Croatia] in an encyclopedia, there's no such thing. You're not a real country,” said Loncar. “I think that mindset of being a nobody to be somebody, what a better way to promote a game [and] your country than when you have your flag on your uniform.”
That red and-white checkered insignia has continued to inspire success through the years. After finishing last season runner-up in the Midwest Premier League’s Western Division, the team joined three other clubs in getting byes in the 2022 USASA Region II Amateur Cup. Beginning in the quarterfinals the team needed penalty kicks to beat Czarni Jaslo Chicago 2-2 (5:3 on PKs) in their first game. A crushing 4-0 win over 1927 SC (Fort Wayne Sports Club) put the team back in the final for a second straight year.
It's no surprise that the Region II Amateur Cup came down to a particular two clubs: defending national champion Bavarian United SC and Adria. They’re two of the biggest ethnic-heritage clubs in the region with decades of soccer clashes between them. To Loncar, it’s the best amateur rivalry in the country.
“It's always evenly matched. We're very blessed when we play Milwaukee because the Croatian community comes out and shows support for us,” he explained. “We got a lot of people banging and yelling and cheering for us, which is always cool when you're on the road.”
The two sides have played in three finals since 2019 and the road team has won every time. Vlado Zadro, a former Bosnia and Herzegovina youth international, and former USL Championship star Qudus Lawal, both scored in the 4-2 win this year.
RWB’s roster includes a plethora of talent from different backgrounds. But many of them, no matter if they have professional pedigree or are still in college, are linked through local soccer – especially the indoor game.
“They're all friends,” said Loncar. “They all play in the other tournaments, and get a couple bucks. But that's [indoors] where most of our guys are from.”
RWB last reached the national finals in 2019, beating Bavarians in the regional final. That tournament ended with them losing both the semifinal to eventual champions Newtown Pride and the third-place game to MesoAmerica FC. But even with the chance to slay past demons Loncar knows it isn’t about that.
“You know, the way I look at it, Newtown's obviously a favorite. They're on fire. They won that million dollar tournament (TST),” he said. “They have one championship, we have three [two amateur, one Hank Steinbrecher Cup]. Mesoamerica hasn't won one. They've been going to a lot of tournaments.
“Yeah, it'd be sweet [to beat them]. But the way I look at it, you gotta win your games.”
Region III - Tobacco Road FC
From: Durham, North Carolina
League: Triangle Adult Soccer League (TASL)
No. of National Amateur Cup titles: 0
No. of U.S. Open Cup appearances: 0
Tobacco Road FC reached the national finals via potent attack. The young Toros won their first Region III Amateur Cup in June scoring 35 goals in five games over three days. It was a major accomplishment for a club still less than ten-years-old.
The regional tournament in Plano, Texas saw the squad up against nine other clubs from across the South. While the club mainly competes in USL League Two, Tobacco Road’s team from the Triangle Adult Soccer League took part as a USASA representative. Head coach Cedric Burke explained the 2023 regional was a chance for him and his staff to try something different. Especially after two runner-up performances (2017 & 2022 after a disqualification) and a third-place finish (2018) in recent memory.
“We took a younger group this year than we traditionally have. Typically our amateur tournament group has been a little bit older, usually composed of USL 2 alums that have aged out of that competition level,” said coach Burke. “By the time we went to Texas, they had been in camp for six weeks together, playing together every day…We started forming a family.”
That bond was best exemplified by recent addition Forster Ajago, who met Burke eight months ago during a college recruiting trip and joined the team this summer. He scored 14 goals in Texas, most of any player across the country in any regional tournament. That includes two in the extra-time semifinal win over Sharks FCA (Florida) and one in the Region III Amateur Cup final against Tulsa Athletic (Oklahoma). Yes, that’s the same Tulsa Athletic that played MLS’ Sporting Kansas City in this year’s Open Cup and walked away with $25,000 as the amateur team that reached farthest in that competition.
Tobacco Road are buoyed by being in one of the best areas for college soccer in the country. Burke himself is a Duke University alumnus and keeps a close connection with the men’s soccer program there. It’s one reason why Drew and Cameron Kerr, sons of Duke head coach John Kerr, Jr., play for Burke.
“That [relationship] has really been a vital part of our composition and who we are as a club,” said Burke, who played soccer at Duke between 1999 and 2003. “As a club we strive to help young men advance in life through the game of soccer.”
One famous Tobacco Road success story is current New York Red Bulls star Peter Stroud. The midfielder spent part of the summer of 2022 with the USL League Two team while also playing at Duke. He believes Burke’s ability to connect with his players is what makes him great at working with young talent.
“He's super close with all his players,” Stroud said of Burke. “It makes them wanna go out and fight for him.”
A win this weekend would be TRFC’s biggest accomplishment to date. It would also secure them a spot in the U.S. Open Cup Proper for the first time. The team dipped a toe in Open Cup Qualifying last year, but lost in the Third Qualifying Round to South Carolina United Heat.
Region IV - MesoAmerica-San Carlos FC
From: Los Angeles, California
League: Liga Deportiva Morazan (LDM)
No. of National Amateur Cup titles: 0
No. of U.S. Open Cup appearances: 0
MesoAmerica-San Carlos FC is no national powerhouse. It’s safe to say they’re the outsiders among the four-team field in Iowa. A team that primarily competes in recreational and semi-pro leagues around the city of Los Angeles, they do have a 2019 National Amateur Cup third-place finish to their name. And they’re hungry for more.The club won the Cal South Men’s Adult State Cup this February to qualify for the USASA Region IV tournament. That included a semifinal win over rival and last year’s Region IV champion Los Ángeles Strikers.
Forward German Alfaro has spent time with the club since 2013. However, after stepping away from the game to focus on mental health, he only returned earlier this year just ahead of the state cup tournament.
“I came back and it just meant everything to me,” said Alfaro. “The experience was great, starting from [on] the field to the organization. Meso had the opportunity to be [in nationals] and we’re so close to now having an opportunity again.”
Alfaro was able to reward his team for their patience and welcoming him back during the Region IV Final. Against National Premier Soccer League side Napa Valley 1839 FC he scored both his team's goals en route to a 2-0 win and the trophy.
This is Alfaro’s third trip to the national finals since 2019. The former Pasadena City College player was with Meso the last time they won Region IV in 2019. In the subsequent nationals he and the team lost to Horizon FC (Texas) in the semifinal but beat RWB Adria 6-2 in the third-place game. He also reached the national final with Open Cup legends Cal FC in 2021 (Cal fell to Lansdowne Yonkers FC 2-1 that year).
“I always had the goal to win that championship,” Alfaro explained. “I just love that experience. I love the fact that you can participate in this championship and be able to expose your talent out nationally.
He’ll be joined in Iowa by a team funded by small businesses around Los Angeles. From an income tax company to a tow truck service, Meso’s owners have deep connections in the Hispanic community around Los Angeles. Players with Open Cup experience like Julio Perez (Cal FC) will help guide the younger players who’ve been given a chance by the club.
“We're just hungry to put our game out there,” said Alfaro. “There are [players] that fall in those cracks, that don’t get seen or don't have the resources to go to college and become pros. I think the Final Four gives us the opportunity to develop more as a person on and off the pitch.”
Semifinals - Friday, August 4, 2023 (Both at 7 PM Central)
MesoAmerica-San Carlos FC (CA) vs Tobacco Road FC (NC)
TBK Bank Complex - Field 8
RWB Adria (IL) vs Newtown Pride FC (CT)
TBK Bank Complex - Field 7
(Stream to be provided by New Logical)
Final - Saturday, August 5 (7 PM Central)
TBD vs TBD
TBK Bank Complex - Field 7
(Stream to be provided by New Logical)
Michael Battista is an award-winning journalist and regular contributor to TheCup.us, Hudson River Blue, & New York Sports Nation. Follow him at @MichaelBattista on Twitter.