The Great Eight (Round One): The Open Cup Goes Green as King Kljestan Returns a Menace

The latest in our Great Eight Series, where we take a open-hearted Round-by-Round look at some of the quirkier moments and happenings and thematics of America’s favorite soccer tournament.
By: Jonah Fontela

Fans of the historic Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup live by its magic moments. And the First Round of the 2024 competition tossed up a good few of those between March 19 and 21. Join for a look back at eight moments of note from the 32 games in which 88 goals were scored, a new pro league debuted and seven amateur teams – led by Burlington-based history makers Vermont Green FC – bested their betters.

The Wildflowers of Burlington

Green. A word with so many meanings. The color, of course. It’s also shorthand for a kind of earth-saving crusaderism – respecting the limits and vulnerabilities of our shared planet. Vermont Green FC, with their hearts on their 100-percent recycled sleeves, embody this. They embody, too, another meaning of Green. Not quite ripe. Full of that breezy vim of youth – unencumbered by the knowledge that what they’re doing is impossible. Burlington, Vermont, through the arteries of our historic Open Cup, is the sudden epicenter of American soccer. There, the grassroots find purchase in earth still frozen from punishing Northern winters. The scenes we saw around last Tuesday’s first Open Cup game in the state’s history are rare, to be sure, and we should treat them as the miracles they are. Cold as it was (and it was that) warm smiles abounded. And if you followed from afar, the vibrations of amateur side Vermont Green FC’s 4-3 win over the professionals of Lexington Sporting Club – and their iconic Cameron Lancaster, who scored twice and did his all to villain the home party – worked like some footballing photosynthesis. Powerful, ungovernable forces became energy. Charged particles sped up and something beyond our understanding began to grow. Go Green and Green Energy. It all means something new now. Something’s blooming around Virtue Field, everyone. There’s something in the air up there.

Seven Heaven for Amateur Underdogs

Those Green scenes up in Vermont sent wildflower spores spreading out through the rest of the country too. There’s nothing complex about amateur players beating a pro side, but doesn't it just do something to repair the soul? There were seven upsets in our 32 games. Seven elements? Seven colors in the rainbow? Seven musical notes? Seven, folks, it’s the number rumored to carry the energy of the mystics! And on the first day of spring no less. A poetic coincidence? We can’t be sure, you’d have to ask our Open Cup’s Commissioner, busy, as always, about his business of building. Let us salute these underdogs – and honor their days off work and long van rides and shared hotel rooms – for they do it all for the feeling it gives them. And we get some of that too. Bobby Sacca’s men, Miami United FC, notched the first big shock. And the goal that did it, 30 yards out from Jhon Pajoy, will give you goosebumps (it ended up on Sports Center’s Top Ten the next morning). Other surprise winners were FORO SC of Texas who had to fight through four rounds of grueling Qualifiers in the fall to even reach this First Round. Reduced to ten men, they found a late equalizer and beat Austin FC II on penalties. The Lubbock Matadors and El Farolito and South Carolina United Heat, they all conjured Cup Magic of their own and now take a deserved center-stage place on the eve of our Second Round. 

El Farolito Have Been Here Before (and More)

Let’s take an extra moment for El Farolito. As so many of the storylines in our Cup tend to do, their quirky backstory caught the waves. The team, sponsored by a chain of Mexican restaurants with a fan club known as the Burrito Brava, were destined, at some stage, to be an internet sensation. And good for that. But let’s step back and look a little closer. This club – born in a dark bar at 24th/Mission in San Francisco that does so happen to be the birthplace of the mission-style burrito – has more history than that. It’s a kind of history the youngsters of MLS NEXT Pro – like Portland Timbers 2, who lost out to El Faro 1-2 on the night – would do well to recognize. Because before all of those young Timbers were born, these San Francisco amateurs lifted the Open Cup. They won the whole damn thing. They did it under their then name C.D. Mexico in 1993 when American soccer – far from the dream academies and slick fantasies of today – hadn’t recovered from the demise of the old NASL nor had it yet reaped the rewards of the 1994 World Cup. The only teams playing in the Open Cup then were semi-pros and amateurs – those dreamers you sometimes need to sustain life through dark days. El Farolito, far from a footnote or a mere meme, are Open Cup heroes, bonafide. Once and for all ways.

Return of King Kljestan

Ask Manny Schellscheidt about Sacha Kljestan and watch his 83-year-old eyes go bright. He won our Open Cup twice in 1970 and 1972 with Elizabeth SC of New Jersey, fresh off a boat from his native Germany. When Kljestan, skin-and-bones lanky, came to play for him at Seton Hall, the coach knew right away he’d found something special. “He always knew how to find the game,” Schedllscheidt told us, smiling. “There’s no field where he’d be out of place.” It wasn’t just his cultured right foot and eye for spaces on a field not yet seen – there was something about the quality of the young man too. Schellscheidt saw the future for Kljestan. The National Team, Olympics, MLS All-Star status, the Champions League and five seasons still remembered warmly by fans in Anderlecht. Kljestan, retired from the game and not having played in over a year, joined a club with a proud name going back to 1994 that was having trouble fielding an XI. He joined an amateur team to play in the First Round of the 2024 Open Cup, a tournament that’s had its share of troubles in recent months too. The Des Moines Menace is far from Kljestan’s home and roots in Southern California, but, as the gods do sometimes arrange it, their first game was to be played nearby in San Juan Capistrano. Kljestan – with a few ex pros in tow that he tapped to come join in the fun, like Euan Holden and Brian Rowe – lined up with the amateurs against Div III pro side Capo FC. It wasn’t a publicity stunt for Kljestan, who’s got a job as an analyst for MLS games. It was a chance to help. He played 120 minutes – registered a trademark assist from deep in midfield – and didn’t shirk his duties in the shootout after the game ended 2-2. He led the all-amateur Menace to victory. It was a victory, it should be noted, that makes the Iowans the winningest amateur team in Open Cup history.

Cracks Let the Light In

Kljestan – who donated $500 to amateur darlings Christos FC via GoFundMe in 2017, the same year he captained Jesse Marsch’s NY Red Bulls to the Final – knows the bumps and grind of our tournament. “I love the Open Cup” he’s said several times. And he doesn’t just love the good – the winning – because he’s never won it. Kljestan likes the chances it offers. Opportunities. For the underdogs and the overlooked. He likes it for what it is, and maybe, what it can be. It’s the reason why, when kickoff of his First Round game with the Menace, played on a high school field in the middle of nowhere with football lines, was delayed because of local kids playing lacrosse, he didn’t storm off in a huff or roll his eyes in a grand display of dismay. He stayed warm, kept his muscles loose. You can’t control everything. The ball is round. A kid’s head might block the broadcast feed for a minute out in Asheville, where an amateur team is making a proud debut. The grounds around the brand-new stadium in Statesboro – home to USL League One’s South Georgia Tormenta – may look like the lunar surface. Brockton FC United’s goalkeeper might race 40 yards out of his box in Chattanooga on a hope and a prayer. And a youngster, yellow-carded for taking off his shirt at a college field in New Jersey, might just try to get his money’s worth with a little dance for the cameras. It’s the Cup, folks, and you get it all. So soak it in. 

What Comes NEXT?

This year we have a whole new league involved in our Open Cup. MLS NEXT Pro. The third division pros from MLS’ development league sent 11 teams to this year’s tournament. There’s no need to rehash the whys and hows of it. Our tournament has some new first-time faces and some missing old ones. We’ll carry on making magic with who we have. But when MLS NEXT Pro’s first three contenders fell to amateur underdogs on the first day of a three-day First Round, some took a kind of overheated joy in it online and beyond. It’s called schadenfreude and it’s not really us at our best. It’s the Open Cup because it’s open, right? To all. And when the second day’s crop of NEXT Pros, led by New York Red Bulls II and Chicago Fire II, fought back to win big, we’d do well to applaud that too. It’s worth mentioning that a few of these Next Pros – seven winners out of 11 teams sent – won out in some style too. We’re looking at you, Carolina Core and MNUFC2.

Adams Family Connections

When Dylan Sullivan scored the first of five for the NYRB II youngsters, the connections from the tip-top of soccer in the U.S. to its humblest roots became visible. Sullivan is the younger brother of National Team captain Tyler Adams – who’d go on to get minutes the next night in the USMNT’s Nations Cup Semifinal win over Jamaica. Older Brother Tyler himself played, as an academy-graduate, for the New York Red Bulls in an Open Cup Final (in 2017, under captain Sacha Kljestan). On the other side of the field in this 2024 First Round were the Hudson Valley Hammers. This UPSL amateur team’s Technical Director is one Tyler Adams (and his whole family is intimately involved in the running of the new club, started to offer kids from places way out in New York State – like both Adams and Sullivan who hail from faraway Wappingers Falls – an opportunity to play the game in their own backyard). It’s about openness and access. And giving something back. The Hammers were dramatically overmatched in a 5-1 loss, but they’re a part of our tapestry now too. And who’s to say what they’ll do with a few years under them. 

Tulsa Athletic weren’t able to make Cup Lightning strike twice at Hicks Park

A Fond Farewell

Always the hard part. We do grieve those who gave everything in losing efforts – for they’re as much a part of this Open Cup as those who peel off in celebration. So let’s take a moment to say thanks to Christos FC and Larry Sancomb. He was the coach in 2017 too when the Baltimore sunday-leaguers – headquartered out of a local liquor store – made a sensation in our Cup. Ballard FC, USL League Two amateurs, fresh to the scene and already national champions, put on a show at the historic Memorial Stadium under the Space Needle with James Riley – the man who’s won the most Open Cups in Modern-Era history – holding the reins. In the end, the Cup is cruel. One mistake. One late lapse and poof, it all goes away – but we have a feeling we’ll see these Ballard boys again. Vereinigung Erzgebirge, you unpronounceable amateurs tucked away in the pine forests of PA, you gave a good account of yourselves on your return. As did you, Duluth FC and debutants Asheville City and FC Folsom from way up north in California. We wave a fond goodbye to Chicago House AC and their captain AR Smith, and Tulsa Athletic too – who both caused sensations in last year’s tournament and who we hope will come to celebrate with us again soon.

So that’s that. Let’s take a breath, gather ourselves and go again – for a Second Round between April 2 and 3. It’s right there around the corner. That constant tomorrow. The promised rise behind every sunset.

See you soon, friends.

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