01 May 2012

Open Cup nostalgia: My first road trip

I love the U.S. Open Cup. Something about seeing teams from different leagues and different levels squaring off appeals to my brain. It’s one of the reasons I got into soccer in the first place: I thought club teams representing different countries in the UEFA Champions League was the coolest concept.

So I always look forward to U.S. Soccer's preliminary draw for the Open Cup, pitting teams I’ve never heard of against places I’ve never been, all vying to make it onto the main stage against professional and (eventually) MLS opposition. The tournament’s biggest lure is the chance for a rec team – such as ASC New Stars, who play in the same league I did, the Houston Football Association (albeit in a much higher division) – to face and, once in a blue moon, beat a professional team. Most amateur teams are from the more organized PDL and NPSL, in which many of the players are college players (and there are some future stars out there if you look back at old Open Cup scoring records), but the USASA qualifiers are the true Cinderellas.

I’m especially excited for this year’s tournament, because all 16 American-based MLS teams and all of the other professional teams are in the tournament. Qualifying games among MLS teams were usually an after-thought, while last year’s tournament seemed light on aspiring giant-killers without the NASL.
I’ll write about plenty of the matchups and whatever games I can attend in later posts, and those interested will of course want to check TheCup.US), but I want to provide a brief look at my most memorable Open Cup experience:

My first Open Cup game was in 2002, when I was a communications intern for the MetroStars. No New York /  New Jersey crap, just ‘MetroStars.’ As an intern with occasionally too much time on my hands, I had spent plenty of it researching the history of MLS teams playing against minor-league teams in the Open Cup. Most of my duties, however, involved press clippings, game notes, and game days in the press box. For away games, I was just another fan watching on TV. But when the MetroStars drew an away game against the A-League’s Hampton Roads Mariners in mid-July, my bosses sent me on the trip as the team’s sole communications representative. I was excited about the honor of flying solo and glad for a free trip, but looking back on it, the assignment kind of shows you what they thought of the tournament, doesn’t it?

We flew down to Virginia Beach on the day of the game, but I was later instructed to leave that out of an online report so that fans did not know just how casually we took the tournament. After arriving at the hotel, while the players napped, Octavio Zambrano’s technical staff asked me – somehow they knew I was adept at using the internet – for some help researching our opponent. Suffice it to say, professional scouting has rarely been part of my job description.

The game itself was hardly a classic, in retrospect. I wrote live text updates on good ‘ol MetroStars.com, less than 1,000 people showed up (most of them there to watch native son Steve Jolley), and Rodrigo Faria scored the only goal of the game in the 76th minute to give the MetroStars the win. I remember being impressed by the Mariners and thinking they deserved better than a shutout loss, but I sure was happy to leave with a win. It actually wasn’t a bad MetroStars lineup: Tim Howard, Mike Petke, Steve Jolley, Craig Ziadie, Andy Williams, Ross Paule, Brad Davis, and Mamadou Diallo all started. (Pretty sure I wrote this recap, which lives on at the great MetroFanatic.com.) For my take on the trip at the time - including Hampton Roads' bizarre goalkeeper situation - see the original version of this piece I wrote for the MetroStars website. It was certainly an interesting road debut for a freshman in college.

As a post-script, the MetroStars drew the next round of the Open Cup at home against Columbus and elected to play it as part of a doubleheader with the New York Power of the WUSA out on Long Island. Again, it shows you how seriously the Open Cup was taken back then. On the other hand, announced attendance was more than 8,000, so maybe they had the right idea. I can’t remember which game most fans came to see.

I later was part of several unforgettable Open Cup games while working for the Houston Dynamo – a penalty shootout loss and a revenge win at Charleston, the epic 2009 semifinal at Seattle – and I hope to see plenty more over the years. But the Open Cup will always take me back to my first professional road trip, Tim Howard giving me a nickname in the first 10 minutes of the bus ride to the hotel, and my attempts to get a coherent quote from Rodrigo Faria after the game. Good times.

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