Hidden Stories of the Open Cup: Last Four Edition

The Open Cup isn’t all about the glamor of the later rounds – join us for a look at some the players and coaches from this year’s Semis who’ve made their mark at various levels in previous tournaments
By: Jonah Fontela

A tournament that’s open to all – from the humblest amateur to the peak of MLS’ elite – will always have its share of juicy anecdotes and crossovers. Scratch the surface of our current Final Four – featuring Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami and a trio of MLS big dogs (FC Cincinnati, Houston Dynamo and Real Salt Lake) and you’ll find tales of the old days and memorable early-rounders that make our competition – founded way back in 1914 – unique in American sports.

Let’s poke around a little, shall we?

  • Corey Baird is a solid MLS pro at the Houston Dynamo. The former NCAA champion at Stanford has been lights-out in the Texas club’s run to this year’s Semifinal, bagging his first first pro hat-trick in a Round of 16 win over Minnesota United. And he's also got his underdog bona fides in order. Back in the 2015 Open Cup, as part of amateur outfit PSA Elite, he got the chance to play David to LA Galaxy’s Goliath in the Fourth Round. He and the rest of the SoCal-based youngsters even had reason to believe in a biblical outcome after Michael Salazar (currently with USL Championship side Miami FC) put PSA 1-0 up against the five-time MLS champions (and two-time Open Cup toppers). “But unfortunately Robbie Keane started for them that night,” Dynamo man Baird, facing a Semifinal at home against Real Salt Lake on August 23rd, told usopencup.com. “We had some reason for hope, but it didn’t last long [Keane – 2014 MLS MVP – scored three in a 6-1 reverse].” 

    READ: Up-and-Down Dynamo on the Open Cup’ Golden Road

  • It’s hardly the Dynamo’s only brush with the Open Cup’s rich history of underdoggery. “We had chips on our shoulder and we were such a unified group” said the club’s current GM Pat Onstad, who in 1999 was the outstanding goalkeeper for the Rochester Ragin’ Rhinos that beat four MLS teams to become the only lower-league club in the modern era to lift the Open Cup trophy.  “No matter what we shot at that goal, it wasn’t going in that night…we could have played for four hours,” said former USMNT star Marcelo Balboa – a loser that September night with Colorado Rapids – about Onstad’s performance in the 1999 decider.

    READ: ‘99 Rhinos – ‘If You Can’t Join ‘Em, Beat ‘Em’

  • Let’s not forget 2018 USOC- champion Dynamo’s head coach Ben Olsen. Back in 2013 when he was just 35 and fresh from his playing days – he led the worst MLS team of that year (D.C. United) to the unlikeliest of Open Cup crowns. “The Open Cup kept us together that year when everything was spiraling out of control – it was our north star.” And who did that D.C. United team beat in that 2013 Final on the back of a stunning performance from man-of-the-match Bill Hamid who calls Olsen “a master motivator”?

    Real Salt Lake – in Sandy, Utah.

    READ: Ben Olsen Wants ‘One More Night of Glory’

  • That 2013 Real Salt Lake side was one of the top teams in MLS at the time and aiming for a League and Cup double. They didn’t win either of those trophies that year despite reaching both Finals (and they haven’t won anything since). Two members of the current technical staff – head coach Pablo Mastroeni and assistant Nick Rimando – also know what it feels like to get to an Open Cup Final. Mastroeni, known to all, including RSL team captain Damir Kreilach, as “all about passion and fight” has felt the sting of so-close-yet-so far misery in our Cup.

READ: Damir ‘King’ Kreilach – RSL’s Humble Monarch

  • It was in 2000 with the MLS club from Miami. Wait, you say. Hold on now. Inter Miami was only founded by David Beckham and the Mas Bros and Co in 2020. How’s it possible? Well, young friends, there was another MLS team in Fort Lauderdale a while back, and they were known as the Miami Fusion (they even played on the same patch of earth where the megastars of Inter Miami – one of this year’s Open Cup Semifinalists – play their games). Know what else?  Come in close and we’ll tell ya’. That Fusion team was coached by Ray Hudson (yes, that Ray Hudson – the Magisterial One himself). “We were a happy pirate ship,” the coach-turned-commentator said about his team that reached the 2000 Open Cup Final (only to lose out to Chicago Fire). “We loved that living-on-the-edge feeling you get in the Cup.”

    READ: Messi’s Miami in the Footsteps of Ray Hudson’s Fusion
  • That Miami Fusion run to the Final almost ended before it started with a tough game that needed penalties after a 3-3 draw on the road in Saginaw against the Mid Michigan Bucks. “We played at a high school field and we almost lost!” remembered Hudson. So who were/are these swashbuckling amateurs from the Great Lakes State?
  • Only Open Cup heroes, that’s who! Fearsome Summer-Leaguers and giant-killers. They’ve beaten pro teams ten times (and two MLS teams among those) in their USOC history as the Mid Michigan Bucks and the Michigan Bucks (now they’re known as the Flint City Bucks). Houston Dynamo’s current goalkeeper Steve Clark played with them from 2006 to 2009 while on summer breaks from Oakland University. And there’s another former Buck in this year’s Semis. It’s Scott Caldwell, of Real Salt Lake, who was on the field when those amateurs beat four-time Open Cup champs Chicago Fire of MLS 3-2 in the 2012 Open Cup.

    READ: There’s Only One Ray Gaddis – FC Cincy’s Unsung Hero
  • Ray Gaddis is one of the best lockdown defenders in MLS history. But his record in Open Cup Finals isn’t what he’d like it to be (he’s lost all three he’s played – 2014, 2015 and 2018) Coaxed out of retirement by FC Cincinnati, the former Philadelphia Union hero has a chance to set the record straight. “It’s why you play the game – to have a chance to win a championship,” said Gaddis, not mad at getting close and coming up short. The outstanding journeyman, who once played in the Cup’s lower reaches with amateur outfit Reading United, has another Semifinal to prepare for…

    READ: Brandon Vazquez & the Waiting Game
  • Let’s round out our discussion of hidden stories of the Open Cup with Brandon Vazquez. Everyone knows him as the colossus target man for the USMNT and FC Cincinnati. But did you know he also won an Open Cup back in 2019? He did. Vazquez was only 20-years-old and living in the wide shadow cast by Atlanta United super-striker and teammate Josef Martinez. But his four goals in two early-round games that year made sure the Five-Stripes survived long enough for Martinez to take over in the money-rounds and lift the Cup. And wait, could it be? Really? Yes, Martinez and his one-time understudy will meet again and head-to-head in this year’s Semifinal at TQL Stadium in Ohio. Yeeesh.

So, there you have it. We’re sure we’ve missed a few. But that should do for now. Enjoy the Semis, folks. You can watch them live in English on CBS Sports Golazo Network and Paramount+ and in Spanish on Telemundo, Universo and Peacock – you can even tune your dial to Futbol de Primera to listen along to all the action.

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