There’s a path to glory for the up-and-down Houston Dynamo.
And it’s the 2023 U.S. Open Cup.
“With new players in the group it was always going to take a little time to come together,” said striker Corey Baird of a side with eight wins, ten losses and five draws across 23 MLS games (at the time of publication) and sitting in the 9th place slot that divides the league’s playoffs from an early vacation.
“But we’re keeping things going in the Open Cup,” added the 27-year-old former Stanford player. “You have to when you’re only a few steps from winning a trophy.”
Indeed it's been in the blood and thunder of the U.S. Open Cup we’re the club – champions of U.S. Soccer's oldest tournament as recently as 2018 and now in its Semifinals – have found momentum, consistency, goals and hope.
Coach With Keen Cup Past
Head Coach Ben Olsen, who came on board at the start of the current season, knows the Open Cup like the back of his hand. The ups and downs. The chaos. And, of course, the glory.
“It’s all about keeping on keeping on. Moving on. Surviving,” said the Houston Dynamo boss – a former Open Cup winner as a player and a coach with D.C. United. “It’s always a wild ride and no matter what, if you want to win, you have to hang in there.”
“It’s always interesting,” Olsen added with a sigh.
That’s a word the coach uses a lot. And it seems to contain an infinity of meanings. Especially when talk turns to how he and his D.C. United won the Open Cup in 2013, mired in last place in MLS, to salvage what would have been an irredeemable season of misery.
“Winning it [the Cup] in 2013 saved my job,” said the 46 year-old Houston Dynamo boss about his famous run a decade ago as a young coach. “It was a horrible season. Everything spiraled away from us. But the Open Cup kept us together as a group and gave us a north star during really, really tough times.
“It adds up when you have so many losses in a row,” he said about a season he calls “fascinating” and his “most valuable” as a leader. “The Cup kept us from imploding.”
“He [Olsen] was the master at motivating players,” remembered Bill Hamid, a young goalkeeper for D.C. United in that Cup-winning year who was named Man of the Match in the Final – played away at Real Salt Lake and won 1-0 by the visitors. “He’s got that heart of a lion.The coach is hoping his master-class motivational skills can help provide a similar pay-off this year for Houston Dynamo as he uses the Open Cup as his north star yet again. It’s something that’s important to him. It was as a player, as part of the all-conquering D.C. United sides of the late 90s and early 2000s, and it remains so to this day.
“Trophies talk,” said Olsen, whose side were recently knocked out of the Leagues Cup in the Round of 16. “When the fans see you holding a trophy, it’s special.”
Olsen’s Dynamo have had a varied 2023 Open Cup so far. There was a win away at lower-league opposition (Tampa Bay Rowdies) “that could have gone either way” and two more at home in games influenced by red cards (1-0 down a man over Sporting KC and 4-0 up a man over Minnesota United).
That Winning Feeling
“But that feeling, that winning feeling, doesn’t go away,” he added, having seen his Houston side put in their best performance of the four-game run with a 4-1 rout of Chicago Fire in Bridgeview, Illinois in a June Quarterfinal.
Baird, a durable striker always up for the dirty work, has scored four goals in four Open Cup games so far this year – including his first pro hat-trick. And he’s seeing Olsen’s motivational acumen up close. “He’s great at keeping us looking ahead,” he said of his boss. “Even when things aren’t going our way.”
The striker, with seven goals in all competitions, smiles when asked about his earliest flirtations with the Open Cup. It was with Irvine-based amateur club PSA Elite in the Fourth Round in 2015. “We got to play LA Galaxy [MLS] and actually went up 1-0 on them early,” he said. “But unfortunately for us, Robbie Keane started up top for them that night – so that hope didn’t last too long [the game ended 6-1 to the Galaxy and Keane scored three times].”
Open Cup Romance Top to Bottom
“I’m romantic about the Open Cup,” admitted Olsen, who now faces a third home game in this year’s tournament when Real Salt Lake come to downtown Houston. “It could be improved, but I’d hate to see it go away.”
Fans of the Dynamo also know the distinct charms of the Open Cup. Not long ago, in 2018, they watched their veteran captain DaMarcus Beasley lift one final trophy into the hot air around Shell Energy Stadium with a rookie-year gleam in his eyes.
“You hear a lot about how that team won the Open Cup in 2018,” said Ibrahim Aliyu, the Dynamo’s Nigerian winger who scored twice in this year’s Quarterfinal win at Chicago. “It’s a big opportunity for us and everyone is giving everything in every game to bring the trophy back to these fans.”
The 2018 Open Cup title saved then-coach Wilmer Cabrera’s job in a season in which the Dynamo missed the playoffs. It also gave the club’s fans a taste of winning something for the first time since 2006 and 2007 when they claimed back-to-back MLS titles.
Creating a Culture
It’s no surprise then that Olsen – a man who uses the word glory considerably more than some of his other favorites – sees an opportunity in 2023. “They’ve experienced it here [the fans, winning the Open Cup] and so it resonates for them. They know what it’s all about and what it means.”
Now, having survived the required “wild ride” of the early rounds, the competitive instincts always alive in Olsen take over on the cusp of a place in another Final. “We’re in the business of winning. We’re competitive people and we can smell an opportunity to raise a Cup.
“You only get so many chances for that in a career, if you’re lucky,” added Olsen, giving a low-gear glimpse of that motivating bluster he’s known for. “A lot of players go their whole career and never get the chance for that one night of glory.”
- READ: REWIND - Houston Dynamo’s 2018 Open Cup Glory Run
“It’s rare,” he concluded, with his team a game away from an Open Cup Final where they’d be huge underdogs on the road against Lionel Messi’s revamped Inter Miami or MLS leaders FC Cincinnati. “I’ve been lucky enough to have a few of those nights, and you don’t want to let them slip away.”
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.