A Bracketology for the 2012 Lamar Hunt US Open CupExamining the match-ups, storylines and predicting scenarios for the 2012 USOC 2nd Round
by Daniel Casey | Monday, May 21, 2012
You have to love the fact that here in the United States, where we are told repeatedly that soccer has never been and will never be American, we have a nearly hundred-year-old championship tradition. This, after all, is the 99th year of the US Open Cup. The Cup is pure American sports pageantry. The idea that a lowly, unknown team has the potential to take down the monolithic powers that be has all the makings of a Disney movie. Plus much like rotisserie baseball and fantasy football, ‘bracketology’ is infectious, and I love that my favorite sport has been doing brackets for nearly a century.
The Cup opens its first round with amateur teams and teams from the fourth tier of the US Soccer Pyramid (NPSL, PDL) playing. This year, keeping with our theme of the little guy, four amateur teams upset their opponents, three NPSL teams and nine PDL teams advanced. From here, these teams will face the fully professional teams in NASL and USL PRO (the second and third tier of the US Soccer Pyramid). The winners of the second round will then be able to compete in this single-game knockout tournament against teams from MLS, the top tier of the American pyramid, in the third round.
May 22nd begins the second round, so like so-many an NCAA Basketball tournament, it is time to start breaking down our brackets. Who could get to face MLS teams on May 29th, and who could potentially move beyond there.
The Rochester Rhinos are the only non-MLS team to win the US Open Cup since MLS first started participating. Currently, in USL PRO, Rochester is undefeated and has yet to be scored upon. In itself, this gives them an almost titanesque feel to them early on, but Brooklyn Italians head coach Lucio Russo mentions, “the magnitude of this tournament is huge and the Brooklyn Italians are going to give the Rhino's a game.”
This upstate NY versus downstate NY battle epitomizes the spirit of the cup as Russo puts it, “It’s quite simple really, they are professionals that play for a living and we are amateurs that play for fun.” This is – to steal a phrase from the FA Cup – the magic of the Cup. The little guys unfazed by the behemoths. The winner of the Rochester-Brooklyn match will travel to Philadelphia to face the Union.
While Rochester was the last non-MLS team to win the Cup in 1999, the Charleston Battery made it to the final in 2008. Charleston is consistently a solid organization. If they get past Reading United, they will actually host the New York Red Bulls – a team that during the Hans Backe-era has perennially been anti-US Open Cup and rarely field a respectful side. Still, while it’s never a good idea to look too far past your next game, Charleston already may have one eye on the 4th Round. In my bracket, Rochester beats Brooklyn and Charleston beats Reading, which sets up Philadelphia versus Rochester and New York versus Charleston. In that paring, it is the lower tiered teams – Rochester and Charleston – that advance to the fourth round on June 5th.
Breaking down the bracketology even further, there is yet another New York state team looking to make a good run in the PDL’s Long Island Rough Riders. They’ll face the USL PRO’s Harrisburg City Islanders and have a real possibility of beating them. Harrisburg has been unimpressive in league play, and Long Island will be disciplined and determined looking to come out the victor.
According to head coach Paul Roderick, “We go into every game believing we can win and if our players perform as well as they have at times over the past two seasons, then we will definitely make it very difficult for Harrisburg.” The winner will take on New England Revolution.
On the other side of Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds host the Michigan Bucks. The Bucks looked like potential juggernauts trouncing Jersey Shore Boca in the first round, 6-0, but they will find Pittsburgh to be a much tougher opponent. For a lot of first round teams like Michigan, the Cup is coming almost too early this year. The Bucks have 40 men in camp, have been training for 10 days, and played 1 game; they’re still in the process of finding out who their team is despite their strong start. Meanwhile, the squad may be looking only to next week’s match, while the front office is peering a bit further into the future.
If the Riverhounds come through they’ll travel to face the Chicago Fire – a monster of a club in this competitions MLS-era, but if Michigan makes it through the Fire will come to them. Bucks CEO Dan Duggan has said that the desire to give regional college players a clear route to regular play is the top priority for the Bucks and the US Open Cup is perhaps one of the best ways to showcase that talent to MLS sides. The Cup has always been a priority for Michigan because it’s the opportunity to host a MLS side and to keep the ‘Bring MLS to Detroit’ alive. The Bucks have a good track record of hosting MLS clubs and with the growing, boisterous supporters forming around not just the Bucks but teams like Detroit City FC, it’s certainly possible that if Chicago’s Section 8 came to town they’d find a formidable opponent.
One of the 1st Round bracket-busters was amateur side Aegean Hawks out of the DC area. They’ll face a stiff challenge when they take on the Richmond Kickers, a side who made it to the semi-finals last year. This hardly makes the Aegean Hawks flinch, coach Jonathan Knight, “Richmond are the favorites next Tuesday, everyone knows that. What people don't know or at least can't appreciate is how little we are fazed by playing a pro team. Between exhibition matches and Open Cup games, we have a .500 record against pro teams, so playing one is nothing new for us. The talent level on this team stacks up with any USL-Pro squad. Nobody in our locker room would be surprised at all if we advance to the 3rd round. Fitness and the organization are aspects that a professional environment can bring that few amateur teams can replicate, so our chances against the Kickers will boil down to how well we can execute our game plan. This is our moment to seize the opportunity and we really have nothing to lose.”
When I contacted team captain Watson Prather he was in Georgetown jogging the stairs featured in the seminal horror flick The Exorcist, “we are aware of the implications when you play the game at a professional level. Their fitness will be better, their movement off the ball will be faster and we expect their entire game to be elevated compared to other teams we've played so far. That said, the Hawks will have to be intelligent in how we play next Tuesday night and I think in that regard we are on the same level as Richmond.” Smart and tenacious, the Aegean Hawks see themselves in the same mold as the Spartans from the movie 300, and they’ll go into Wednesday ready to make their stand. The winner will host DC United, another club with a strong history in the MLS-era of the Cup.
The same divisional distance separates the NPSL’s Jacksonville United from the NASL’s Tampa Bay Rowdies. Ideally, Jacksonville would make it through, but it’ll be tough even though Tampa is not playing well right now. Jacksonville Head Coach Pat Cannon knows it’ll be a challenge but “I'm confident going into any game with the team we have this season. We won't be changing our style of play just because we are playing a team two divisions higher.” If Tampa wins this one, they’ll host the Colorado Rapids, but if Jacksonville pulls out an upset they’ll travel to Colorado. According to Cannon, the “chance to play against the Rapids it would be a monumental point in our young history. We have some younger players on the team so if the opportunity presents itself it will be a great experience for them and a huge stage for our guys to show well for the big boys. We have done well in the league so far and would love to represent the NPSL at the highest stage.” My fantasy would be Aegean Hawks going up against DC United and Jacksonville facing Colorado.
The last NPSL team to make it out of the first round is the Georgia Revolution and there’s very little chance they’ll beat the NASL’s Atlanta Silverbacks. Atlanta, after opening the season with four straight draws, has since lost four straight and is itching for a win while sitting at the bottom of the NASL table. If Atlanta does win they’ll host Seattle – the winner of the last three US Open Cups – which is enough of a prize in itself. This match will probably be the dullest of the second round, which is the opposite of its partner pairing. Every year Chicago supporters dream of a Chicago Fire/Chicago Fire PDL final. It’s the improbable regional dream. This year the dream isn’t so improbable. Chicago Fire PDL, who made it to the 3rd round last year, will face the USL’s Dayton Dutch Lions, a team that is winless in Cup play and only has two points in league play. If the Fire PDL does make it through, they’ll play Chicago’s biggest MLS rival, the Columbus Crew in Columbus. A twinkle is in the eye of every Chicago supporter because in the back of their minds they are hoping the Fire PDL not only make it through to Columbus but knock them out of the tourney. Expect Atlanta to dispatch Georgia and then fall to Seattle. I believe in the Chicago Fire PDL, and I believe that they can upset an under-performing Crew to make it to face Seattle in the fourth round.
Next in the bracket is Minnesota Stars FC, the defending champions of the NASL. They’ll travel to Des Moines for the second round. People outside of the upper Midwest may not be aware of it but Minnesotans and Iowans don’t get along. So this pairing has a regional rivalry flavor. Minnesota hasn’t lost a game this season and Des Moines is coming off a marathon match against Milwaukee. A Minnesota win means they’ll host Real Salt Lake – an MLS club that believes US Open Cup is the easiest path into CONCACAF Champions League. Potentially this pairing could be brilliant to watch. Last year Jonny Steele (who has been turning a few heads in MLS this year with Real Salt Lake) was playing for the Carolina Railhawks and was a favorite target of the Minnesota supporter’s group, the Dark Clouds. The jeering got to Steele and lead to some fun confrontations in the playoffs.
Few sides in the tournament embody the spirit of the little guy like the KC Athletics. The amateur side is high on passion but low on funds, according to player/manager Kyle Perkins, “Even with the help of US Soccer it’s difficult for us to scrape together the money. As for qualifying we had a budget for 11 and had 11 going. Last minute a player was called up to train with Sporting KC. Our team understood the opportunity and were more than happy to let him go as we were confident enough that we could compete and win with 10.” And compete they did making it through the first round. KCA will have a supremely difficult time beating Orlando City, the USL PRO Champion and potential MLS team 20 candidate, but Perkins and his squad have the perfect attitude, “you take each game as it comes and if we didn't think we could compete with and possible beat some of the bigger clubs we wouldn't have entered.” The winner will face Sporting Kansas City. In this set, Minnesota will emerge to face RSL, and although a match between Orlando and SKC could be very entertaining, I have given into the urge to root for Kansas City Athletics. I have to believe that Minnesota has the character to beat RSL and that SKC will right the ship making it into the fourth round.
Down in Texas, NASL expansion side San Antonio is drawing large crowds with a boisterous supporters section, the Crocketteers. They’ll face the Laredo Heat, what makes the match worthwhile for San Antonio will be the prize of hosting the Houston Dynamo. This match-up will be a great moment for the growth of the game in Texas. It could possibly only be matched by the El Paso Patriots upsetting Charlotte Eagles to travel to face FC Dallas. El Paso has a history in the US Open Cup, they were runners-up in 1995. Texas could have itself two great pairings for the third round, San Antonio versus Houston and El Paso versus Dallas.
Southern California has the potential for drama as well. Ventura County Fusion has consistently produced players that have gone on to contribute in MLS, so it’ll be exciting to watch them against the Los Angeles Blues. This will be a rematch of last year when the Blues won 1-0. The winner will host Chivas USA. Last year the Blues made it passed Ventura County only to lose to the LA Galaxy, but if they again make it past Ventura County they stand a much better chance of beating a sorely underwhelming Chivas – even with new acquisitions Juan Agudelo and Danny Califf. Fresno Fuego will travel to take on the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers for the right to play the San Jose Earthquakes.
Finally, we have the bracket with two major upsets from the first round. PSA Elite made short work of the Portland Timbers U23, and the Eric Wynalda managed Cal FC easily handled Kitsap Pumas to advance out of the first round. These amateur sides will now face the Carolina Railhawks and Wilmington Hammerheads. If Wilmington put down Cal FC they’ll host the Portland Timbers. Carolina has been awful this year (winless and having given up the most goals in their league), and I would imagine that new head coach Colin Clarke will be expecting his team to right the ship against PSA Elite. A cup win can turn around a poor run of play (look at how Toronto is just barely staying relevant thanks to their Amway Canadian Championship play). And, once again, the draw of hosting a big name MLS club will spur Carolina, a Railhawks win means they’ll host the Los Angeles Galaxy. Should Carolina and Wilmington make it through they will stand a very real chance of progressing to Round 4. Portland is playing terribly and although the Galaxy has had glimpses of form they are still sitting near the bottom of the league.
The magic of the US Open Cup is just getting started. For all teams, it’s going to be a great experience. And for supporters it’s a chance not just to grow the game but to revel in it, for a couple of weeks to just relish the fact that our national competition is writing some pretty dramatic storylines.