Five Memorable Moments From the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup

Editorial (September 21,2017) – The 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup began in early May with a modern era record 99 clubs entertaining dreams of hoisting the trophy. After seven action-packed rounds, only Sporting Kansas City and the New York Red Bulls remained alive. Those two dueled it out at a sweltering Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, KS on Wednesday night, with the home side coming out on top by a 2-1 scoreline.

It’s the club’s third Open Cup triumph since 2012 and fourth overall. That makes SKC the third MLS team to win the trophy on four different occasions, joining the Chicago Fire and Seattle Sounders. All three are one short of the all-time record of five, set by Bethlehem Steel (1915, 1916, 1918, 1919, 1926) and Maccabi Los Angeles (1973, 1975, 1977, 1978, 1981).

With SKC’s triumph comes the conclusion of another chapter in this magnificent competition that dates back over a century. It also heralds the end of another summer of soccer that contained many special moments, some of which the Open Cup produced. With just a few days left until autumn arrives, it’s a fitting time to look back on the moments we won’t soon forget from this year’s Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

Five Memorable Moments From the 2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup

An Omen That Nearly Spelled Upset in Rochester

The first round proper of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup always contains a handful of amateur clubs whose journey began in local qualifiers held the previous fall. This year, 17 teams entered the tournament via this route. It included GPS Omens, a Massachusetts based side part of the Global Premier Soccer umbrella that counts Bayern Munich as a partner in young player development.

The Omens defeated fellow GPS club Portland Phoenix 2-0 in the first round on May 10th. They followed that up with a 2-1 upset of NPSL side Boston City FC a week later. That set up a matchup in the third round with the Rochester Rhinos, a team just two seasons removed from finishing as USL champions. The looming clash between amateur qualifier and one of the top professional teams at their level had all the makings of a David vs Goliath affair.

And what a battle Rochester received at their home ground, Capelli Sports Park. After going up 1-0 in the 52nd minute, the Rhinos conceded just three minutes later to bring the scores level. It stayed that way through regulation and most of extra time. With the Omens on the brink of a penalty shootout, Rhinos forward Samuel Edoung-Biyo scored in the 121st minute and averted the possibility of Rochester going down to an amateur team for the first time.

Christos FC Captivates the American Sports Landscape

Luck was certainly on Rochester’s side in escaping a potential upset bid from a non-professional team. But in the case of the Richmond Kickers who also play in USL, that wasn’t the case. In the second round of the tournament, they faced Christos FC, a Baltimore based club who take the term beer league team to a whole new level. The club’s name comes from team owner Nick Christopoulos’ discount liquor store in nearby Glen Burnie, MD.

Against Richmond, this side comprised of players who, as the well-known NCAA ad says, went pro in something other than sports, looked completely overmatched on paper. Add in the 90 degree heat at kickoff combined with the fact that they don’t conduct practices or scout opponents and it appeared Christos had no chance. But after a lone 77th minute strike by Geaton Caltibiano, who came on a minute earlier, they left Richmond City Stadium with a shock 1-0 victory.

Christos received the luck of the draw in the following round, facing Chicago FC United who pulled off a similar upset of a USL side in beating the Pittsburgh Riverhounds 3-1. Levi Houapeu’s first minute goal was all Christos needed in dispatching the PDL club, setting up a fourth round tie with four-time MLS Cup champion D.C. United. For nearly the entire game, Christos either led or were tied with DC before a late three-goal flurry sent the MLSers to the next round via a 4-1 win.

But Christos’ run captured the imagination of not just American soccer fans. It transcended the sport itself and made national headlines. The fact this segment appeared on SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt is testament to that notion. You’ll be hard-pressed to find another moment which evokes “the romance of the Cup” better than this.

Miami FC Elevates the NASL

To say that the NASL is having a rough go of it recently is a rather sizable understatement. In addition to Minnesota United joining MLS, the league saw two teams jump ship to USL and two others fold altogether late last year. Though it received provisional Division II sanctioning by the USSF ahead of the 2017 season, the governing body recently rejected their request for that to become a permanent designation. It’s led the beleaguered league to file an antitrust lawsuit against the federation.

On the field, Miami FC has been the toast of the league in 2017. Coached by Italian legend Alessandro Nesta, the South Florida side romped to the spring season title, winning by ten points and sporting a goal differential of +22. They currently lead the fall season standings and sport three of the NASL’s top five goal-scorers. And in Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup play, they made two MLS clubs pay for fielding less than full-strength sides.

It began in the fourth round against Orlando City SC. Lions head coach Jason Kreis elected to leave Cyle Larin out of the squad altogether. In the end, it was Miami FC’s goal-scoring sensation, Stefano Pinho, who stole the show with a hat trick in the club’s 3-1 win. Two weeks later, him and Miami feasted on a similarly depleted Atlanta United lineup. With the teams tied 2-2 and extra time looming, former NYCFC midfielder Kwadwo Poku obliterated Atlanta on the counterattack at the death to give Miami its second straight upset.

But one round later, their quest for Open Cup glory came to an end at the expense of another Cinderella story.

FC Cincinnati’s Magical Run to the Semifinals

Cincinnati, OH’s sudden emergence as a viable soccer market is one of the sport’s biggest stories of the past two years. After continuing to set attendance records during its first season in USL last year, they did more of the same in 2017. Even Tuesday’s USWNT friendly against New Zealand drew the largest crowd for the U.S. women since December 16, 2015.

Succeeding at the gate is one thing. But putting a competitive product on the field is another. Though it’s true that those two factors tend not to be mutually exclusive, FC Cincinnati has done both. They made the USL playoffs last season and are in position to do the same once again. But what truly sets this season apart is the club’s exploits in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

It began in less than impressive fashion in the second round against 2016 NPSL champions AFC Cleveland. The Orange and Blue managed a 1-0 win but needed a Djiby Fall goal in the 120th minute after outshooting Cleveland 44-6. The following round, Cincy prevailed by a similar scoreline against Louisville City FC after Fall punched in a 49th minute tally. But after that, the magic truly began to start taking shape.

First came a 1-0 upset of Columbus Crew SC in the first ever meeting between the two Ohio clubs. Over 30,000 fans attended, making it the largest crowd to ever see a fourth round Open Cup match. Two weeks later, the second largest crowd in the history of the tournament witnessed 120 minutes of enthralling scoreless soccer followed by an epic penalty shootout between Cincy and the Chicago Fire. It was then that we all became acquainted with Mitch Hildebrandt.

After dispatching Miami FC in the quarterfinals, FC Cincy stood within a game of becoming the first non-MLS club since the Charleston Battery in 2008 to make the final. And midway through the second half of the semi-finals, they owned a 2-0 lead over the Red Bulls. But two late goals in regulation followed by an extra time strike from Bradley Wright-Phillips broke the hearts of the over 33,000 in attendance at Nippert Stadium.

Through it all, one thing is certain. Cincinnati has caught soccer fever. The passion for the sport in the city is tactile and palpable. With a decision on two cities looming in December, you have to think that this year’s unforgettable scenes have made Cincy a favorite for MLS expansion.

Sporting KC Adds Another Trophy to Its Collection

What started with the GPS Omens and Christos FCs of the world hoping to slay dragons ended with Sporting KC capturing another trophy. The MLS charter member now has seven to its name, including four U.S. Open Cups, two MLS Cups and a Supporters’ Shield. In a testament to how consistent the club has been under current manager Peter Vermes, four of those (U.S. Open Cup: 2012, 2015, 2017; MLS Cup: 2013) have come during his tenure.

It’s uncertain as to whether this latest triumph will pave the way for a run at even more hardware this season. They’re certainly in the mix to finish top of the West in 2017, but questions remain surrounding their ability to outscore teams. Though they boast the league’s most stout defense by far, only D.C. United, Orlando City, San Jose and Colorado have fewer goals scored.

Such concerns became magnified during the final with Latif Blessing, Gerso Fernandes and Diego Rubio all forced to come out due to injury. Those three account for 15 of SKC’s 35 goals scored in MLS play up to this point. Blessing’s 25th minute header initiated the scoring on Wednesday. And his well-placed pass in the 41st minute sprung Fernandes on the counter and nearly doubled the team’s lead. If any are forced to miss significant time, it will certainly feel like a blow.

But for now, Sporting KC are kings of American soccer’s oldest cup competition once more. This year’s iteration generated a record field, plenty of compelling storylines and unprecedented national TV exposure. It’s a promising development moving forward for a tournament that remains under-appreciated in the grand scheme of American soccer’s continuing emergence.

Embed from Getty Images