19 July 2002

2002: Open Cup road trip

I wrote this article as an intern in the MetroStars communications department in 2002.
The airport employee was confused: “Now wait, what’s the difference between the brown shirts and the red shirts? I couldn’t figure out who was who.”
Such is the fate of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup — colorful, but not well known.
The MetroStars flew to Norfolk Tuesday for that night’s Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Third Round game in Virginia Beach against the Hampton Roads Mariners of the A-League. Hampton Roads is in last place in the A-League’s Southeast Division and has won just four games all year. The team almost folded earlier in the season and was without a healthy goalkeeper due to injuries and eligibility issues. Yet it was Hampton Roads that had the better of play in the first half and only a somewhat lucky Rodrigo Faria goal with 14 minutes remaining allowed the MetroStars to escape with the win before an announced crowd of 828. That’s right, eight hundred people showed up to watch their team play its best soccer of the year.
Such is the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup—surprising and intriguing, but not well followed.
Single elimination open tournaments have a rich history in soccer throughout the world, highlighted by England’s F.A. Cup, the second most prestigious title in the land. All clubs, professional and amateur, can compete in the tournament, making for a few rare occasions where a small-time team can knock off a big gun. Something about a one-game, winner-take-all atmosphere lifts the minnows to new heights and many a first division side has fallen at the hands of lower division teams.
The U.S. Open Cup, however, has not caught on in the United States. While the rest of the crowds in this week’s first round were impressive for an Open Cup match, with a sellout in Seattle and upwards of 4,000 attending most of the games, they still pale in comparison even to a weekend MLS game.
For minor league teams, however, they are a chance at the big time, and MLS teams almost always find the going tougher than expected.
The MetroStars were a quiet bunch arriving at Kean University on Tuesday morning. A 7:00 A.M. departure time took care of that. After riding to the airport, the players ducked their way into a cramped airplane for the short flight to Norfolk.
To set the record straight for the airport employee, the team polo shirts did signify a person’s role in the team by color--players were in tan, coaches and staff in bright red, head coach Octavio Zambrano in white, and one rookie P.R. representative in gray.
The players loosened up a bit after waking up from the flight, and Tim Howard took over the comedy routine while strolling through the airport terminal, making fun of everything from Big Mama’s walk to Brad Davis’ youth.
A charter bus was waiting to take the team to the hotel, where the players dispersed for the afternoon to catch up on sleep and hang out in the hotel. Steve Jolley, however, had family matters to attend to as a Virginia Beach native. With family comes responsibility, and Steve did his best, asking team travel manager Orlando Conguta for as many tickets as possible.
The coaches did not spend the entire time resting, however; assistant coach Merlin Villagomez was finding assistance to track down any kind of a scouting report on Hampton Roads and also checking on the midweek plans of Saturday’s league opponent, the New England Revolution.
At 3:30, four hours before gametime, the team assembled in the hotel restaurant for the pregame meal; then picked up their equipment from the bus and returned to their rooms before returning at 5:45 for the trip to the stadium.
The Virginia Beach Sportsplex was built primarily for soccer, with two-tiered stands close to the field on one sideline and a small grass hill on the far sideline. While the personnel and staff were as welcoming as could be, the field was another matter. There were a ton of bare patches on the field, making for conditions that weren’t exactly ideal, but that’s what the homefield advantage is for.
The Mariners may not have had the crowd advantage at home, but they played like the home team in the first half, enjoying more possession and generating more chances than their more-heralded opponents.
“The game was hard to play,” Faria said. “They had a lot of motivation to play against us, for sure, and the field was terrible — we didn’t play well in the first half.”
Former Kansas City Wizards striker Gary Glasgow was one of many thorns in the MetroStars’ side, teaming well with South African midfielder Jerome McCarthy. The pair teamed up for the best offensive move of the game, but Tim Howard made the save to keep the match scoreless into halftime.
The biggest Mariners star of the day was keeper Joe Larson, who wasn’t even supposed to be playing. Hampton Roads had been using Wizards backup Taly Goode to replace Larson, sidelined with a quad strain. Goode’s status with the Wizards, however, precluded him from competing in the same tournament with a different team. So the Mariners worked out a loan agreement for D.C. backup Mike McGinty, since United failed to qualify for the Open Cup. But McGinty’s paperwork wasn’t filled out on time, leaving Larson to play through the pain. Did he ever!
Larson made high-caliber saves on a Faria header, a Mike Petke header, and a Ross Paule chance in the box to keep the match scoreless in the second half. It looked like Larson had done it again in the 76th minute, but Faria got to his own rebound for the game’s only goal.
The MetroStars held on through a physical and at times frantic finish for the win.
The few fans that were there were certainly devoted, crowding the field after the game for autographs and words with their heroes. Any little gesture was appreciated, such as Williams tossing his shinguards to a fan on the way to the locker room. The locker room facilities were once again pretty good for an A-League side, but it took some asking to get reasonable amounts of soap for postgame showers.
The players knew that they hadn’t played their best, but a win is a win is a win, so they enjoyed their postgame meal and got to bed early, because they were to meet the bus at 4:45 the next morning to fly back to Newark.
“They played well today, they for sure had a lot of motivation to play against us,” Faria said. “But we have to move forward and be focused for Saturday now.”
The measure of a team is without a doubt the marathon of the league season, but there’s something to prove in one-game showdowns as well and perhaps in the years ahead the Open Cup will become an integral part of the American soccer scene.
Or maybe 4,000 fans will continue to be considered an excellent crowd for an Open Cup mtach.
Either way, the tournament will remain true to its roots as a place of color, surprise, and the rare occasion for an unheralded side to shock a giant.
The shock may only last 76 minutes, like it did for the MetroStars, or 86 minutes for the Wizards, but it may last a year, the way it will for the Chicago Fire. The A-League’s Milwaukee Rampage beat two-time champion Chicago 1-0 Wednesday night on a goal set up by John Wolyniec, who dressed last Saturday against the MetroStars as a member of that same Chicago Fire.
Chicago probably should’ve taken a page from Kansas City and called Wolyniec in for their match. Then again, maybe Milwaukee would’ve pulled it off anyway.
Such is the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup—anything can happen, and it usually does.