Sounders & Sporting KC Hunt 5th Star (& a Place Among the Open Cup Immortals)

Seattle Sounders and Sporting KC are racing to become the first MLS side to win five Open Cups – thus joining heroes of yesteryear like Bethlehem Steel, Maccabi LA and the Fall River Marksmen.
By: Jonah Fontela

Sporting Kansas City and the Seattle Sounders stand at the precipice of Open Cup history.

Today, in 2024 – the 109th edition of the country’s oldest and most historic soccer tournament, and the 27th year of MLS’ comparatively short life – the honor of having been named five-time champions remains the exclusive domain of clubs from yesteryear. But SKC and the Sounders, both of MLS, and both four-time winners with a tradition of prioritizing the Cup, stand on the cusp of that rarefied air.

Before the flash and buzz of today’s MLS, there was soccer in this country. It had its hard times to be sure, but it survived in booms and busts through the early years of the last century to this very bright, shining here and now. The Open Cup, formerly known as the National Challenge Cup, being handed out to the best team in the land every year beginning in 1914 is the evidence of a country with deep-lying soccer traditions and heritage.

Forged in Steel

The first club to claim five titles was Bethlehem Steel – the Pennsylvania outfit widely regarded as the first Super Club of American soccer. Playing at their Steel Athletic Field, this country’s first soccer-specific stadium, built long before any concrete was poured in Columbus, Ohio in 1998, they bullied the Teens and 1920s.

The team was built around the bulk and influence (and dollars) of the company of the same name that dominated shipbuilding and steel-making – a superpower in global commerce.

Fall River’s Bert Patenaude (stripes) leaps for a ball against Bethlehem Steel in the Open Cup

They won the first of their five Open Cups in 1915, sparked by the energy and talent of Bob Millar. This was a man known as much for his willingness to brawl (and his aptitude at it) as he was for scoring goals. Later inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame, he scored the Steel’s second in a 3-1 win over Brooklyn Celtic.

Millar would go on to win four Open Cup titles as a player (with three different clubs), before coaching the first Team USA to play in a World Cup to a third-place, semifinal finish (best, still, all these years on).

Bethlehem Steel soon won three more Open Cups (1916, 1918 and 1919) and sealed the last of their quintet in 1926 before shuttering in 1930 as a result, at least in part, of the era’s so-called Soccer Wars.

PA’s Bethlehem Steel blazed a trail in American soccer

The 1916 Final, played at Coats Field in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, was noteworthy for a major controversy. A penalty kick was called with ten minutes left. It sent the local crowd of 10,000 into hysterics feeling the (closer to)-home side, the Fall River Rovers, were being cheated, or at least mistreated. Tommy Fleming, another Bethlehem Steel legend the size of Millar, scored the only goal of the game from the spot to seal the deal for the Pennsylvanians. But not before, in the dying moments, a fan ran on the field and attacked the referee, who was further beaten by an angry mob before a local policeman, revolver drawn, dispersed the assailants.

Fall River’s Finest

Now’s a good time to talk about Fall River, Massachusetts. The same immigrant-heavy city that sent a side to the 1916 ‘Revolver’ Final, was home to another club that would go on to win five Open Cups.

The first of those titles for Fall River (who would at times wear the various names of Fall River Marksmen/New York Yankees/New Bedford Whalers) came in 1924 (the mill city in southern Massachusetts also had a team win the Open Cup back-to-back in 1917 and 1918).

Two legendary names of the Fall River team(s) are Adelino ‘Billy’ Gonsalves, who eventually won eight Open Cups, played in two World Cups for the USA and is generally considered one of the greatest this country ever produced. His attacking partner, Bert Patenaude, was known for a bloodhound’s nose for goal and aerial ability both. Born, like Gonsalves, in Fall River, he’s credited as scorer of the first hat-trick in World Cup history, with all the goals in the USA’s 3-0 win over Paraguay at the 1930 finals.

Fall River Marksmen with the Dewar Cup (the original Open Cup trophy)

Fall River’s remaining Open Cup titles came in 1927 and 1930 (again under the name the Marksmen), 1931 (as the New York Yankees) and, again, in 1932 as the New Bedford Whalers. The club, under its various names, boasted, in addition to Patenaude and Gonsalves, some of the best players of the era. Men like Archie Stark, Alex McNab and Fleming too.

Maccabees Rule Wild West

Many decades would pass between the early days of Bethlehem and Fall River glory and the next five-time Open Cup winner – but no less light should shine on the giants of those 1970s and early Eighties known as Maccabi Los Angeles. The story is too long to tell here (and too amazing not to read all about, so you can do so here). But this team, the only West Coast five-time winner, was founded by Jewish immigrants, some of them Holocaust survivors, and featured defender and Daytime Emmy Award winning actor Eric Braeden, who went by his given name Hans-Jörg Gudegast when playing.

One of the best of the Maccabees’ winning era was Benny Binshtock. A player of grace and power, who would later go on to become a toy designer, starred on the bumpy pitch at the Jackie Robinson Stadium that Maccabi called home. “You could put him [Binshtock] anywhere on the field and he could turn any game around,” said Braeden, famous for his decades-long turn playing Victor Newman on the soap opera The Young and the Restless.

Braeden and Binshtock both – and a number of their winning teammates – were VIP guests at the El Trafico derby between LA Galaxy and LAFC in the 2022 Open Cup.

Benny Binshtock (left) and the Dewar/Open Cup trophy in the 1970s

The Maccabees raised the old Dewar Cup in 1973, 1975, 1977, 1978 and 1981 in a time when the NASL teams of Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff refused to participate in the Open Cup. The competition had become largely an all-amateur and all-semi pro affair for a time. Why didn’t those NASL teams participate in the Open Cup, you ask? Well, Dr Joe Machnik, National Soccer Hall of Famer and 1965 Open Cup winner with the NY Ukrainians, has a theory: “They were afraid they would lose!”

It’s as good an explanation as we’ve heard.

Members of the Maccabi LA were honored during the 2022 Open Cup

Two years after the Maccabees won their last title in 1981, the NASL collapsed under its own bloat and many of its players found themselves back in the Open Cup once again. There they helped keep the game alive during U.S. soccer’s so-called Dark Days.

And that leads us up to 1996 and the founding of MLS.

Sounders or SKC? We’ll See

The Sounders, who were founded in the old NASL, made their modern debut in MLS in 2009. They used the Open Cup as a springboard to get their name back out on the streets. After winning the Open Cup in their inaugural MLS year, they repeated the act in 2010, 2011 and 2014 – with Ozzie Alonso captaining and bossing the midfield in his own inimitable way. Kasey Keller, hometown hero from Washington State, also lifted the Open Cup (the last trophy he won in his career) as a Sounder in 2011.

Kansas City fell in love with the Open Cup in 2004, when old hero Tony Meola and then young-gun Josh Wolff and Jimmy Conrad led The Wiz (as they were known in their early days in MLS) to a first Cup crown. The only goal of that year’s Final came from Igor Simutenkov.

Then it was former USMNT hero Peter Vermes’ turn to guide the Kansas-based side to Cup glory. Manager from 2009 to this very day, he led the club to titles in 2012, 2015 and 2017. The four (so far) Open Cup wins stand beside the club’s two MLS Cups (2000 and 2013) in the trophy room at Children’s Mercy Park.

It should be mentioned that Chicago Fire (who SKC beat in their inaugural Open Cup Final in 2004) are also an MLS side who’ve won four Open Cups – and they too sit on the verge of an historic fifth. But, with only Seattle and SKC challenging for the country’s oldest and proudest title this year, they’ll have first bite at the apple.

Sporting Kansas City won their fourth Open Cup title in 2017

Both SKC and Seattle opened their 2024 Open Cup accounts with wins in the Round of 32. Peter Vermes’ men now move on to a test against USL Championship (Div. II) side FC Tulsa at home at Children’s Mercy Park while the Sounders stick with their home-away-from-home of Starfire Sports Complex in Tukwila – and a tricky date with last year’s USL Championship toppers Phoenix Rising.

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