It’s that time of the year again. In just under a month, the 2018 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup will kick off. The 104 year-old tournament allows every club, from amatuer to MLS, to contend for a national championship. While it is not as old as the English FA Cup (147 years old), the USOC is the oldest national soccer competition in the United States. Regardless of its long history, the USOC is often sneered at by fans of professional soccer in this country. Two years ago, when FC Dallas pursued and eventually won the Cup, many mocked the club for focusing on the wrong silverware. As FCD flamed out of the MLS Cup playoffs in the semifinals, players were said to be exhausted and spent from the extra USOC matches.
For amatuer clubs, however, the Open Cup is their chance to shine. Amatuer leagues, semi-pro league and the United Soccer League (USL) struggle for press, but few outlets can resist an underdog story. Last year, when USL side FC Cincinnati knocked out two MLS clubs (Columbus Crew, Chicago Fire) on its way to the semifinals, they were the darlings of national press, even making SportsCenter (a rarity for a USL club). Their keeper, Mitch Hildebrandt, parlayed his dazzling performances against MLS sides into a contract with Atlanta United. Success in the Cup can pay off for the lower league clubs.
With this year’s competition set to kick off, here’s 5 clubs you should be watching in the early rounds of the U.S. Open Cup.
Jacksonville Armada FC
For the uninformed, there once was a league that sought to challenge the structure of the American soccer pyramid. That league was the NASL and it’s currently on life support after a series of crippling court losses. Several clubs from the NASL continue to to exist and joined other leagues. The Jacksonville Armada were a middle of the table club in the NASL, never finishing higher than 4th in any season. Last year they were purchased by an outspoken owner, Robert Palmer. Rather than shrink from the challenge, Palmer has plans to sink massive amounts of money into his club, including a new stadium he claims he will build with his own money. He’s not shy about tossing money around with other clubs either. When it appeared Armada FC wouldn’t be allowed to participate in this year’s tournament, he offered an amateur club $10,000 to cover their travel costs. Cheering for Jacksonville Armada FC isn’t necessarily about the talent on the pitch, it’s about the hope that investing in soccer can pay off in this country, even when the odds are against it.
First Match (play-in round): Jacksonville Armada FC (NPSL) v. The Villages SC (PDL)
Date/Time: Sunday, May 6, 7PM ET
Venue: Southern Oak Stadium, Jacksonville, FL
Kingston Stockade FC
The rise of lower league clubs as pet projects for big-money investors is the story of many UPSL and NPSL sides. Kingston Stockade FC is one such team. Founded by Dennis Crowley, an internet entrepreneur who co-founded the social networking sites Dodgeball and Foursquare, the club played its first match in 2016. Named after an old neighborhood in Kingston, New York, Stockade FC has focused on developing a relationship with its local community, while standing out on social media and merchandise design. Their shirts and kits are some of the sharpest in the UPSL and they've attracted part-time fans from all over the country. This is the first time Stockade has qualified for the USOC, finishing second in their division of the NPSL. Cheering for Kingston Stockade FC is cheering for fan connection and neighborhood ties. It’s about rooting for a club doing things smartly and organically.
First Match (Round 1): Long Island Rough Riders (PDL) v. Kingston Stockade FC (NPSL)
Date/Time: Sunday, May 9, 7PM ET
Venue: John Burns Park, Massapequa, NY
Last year, Christos FC shocked DC United in the fourth round of the USOC with an opening goal that was celebrated universally by lower league fans. DCU eventually won the match, as was expected, but that gut punch by a “beer league” team sent a shock through the American soccer world. Christos FC is named after its chief financial backer, Christos Discount Liquor. Founded in Baltimore in 1997, the club claims to never hold formal practices due to their players’ schedules. Coached by Larry Sancomb, this club has to be considered the best chance for a truly amatuer side to advance far into the tournament. Pulling for Christos FC is pulling for the weekend warriors, the guys who don’t want to hang their cleats up just yet.
First Match (Round 1): Reading United AC (PDL) v. Christos FC (USASA)
Date/Time: Sunday, May 9, 7PM ET
Venue: Don Thomas Stadium, Reading, PA
When Pulitzer Prize winner Buzz Bissinger went to west Texas to write about Odessa, he focused on the Permian High School football team. 2 million copies of the book, a movie, and a TV show later high school football continues to dominate the state of Texas. From this football dominated section of the country, filled with dust and oil pumps, Midland-Odessa FC recently joined the NPSL after 9 years without much success in the PDL. Last year, the club finally broke through and finished runner-up in the NPSL national playoffs. In comparison to other tech savvy clubs, MOFC’s online presence lacks depth and leaves users wondering what might be going on in west Texas. Picking Midland-Odessa FC is picking the unlikely, the unpredictable, the upset. Against all odds, soccer is finding its footing in a football region.
First Match (Round 1): Midland-Odessa FC (NPSL) v. Lakeland Tropics (PDL)
Date/Time: Sunday, May 9, 8:30PM ET
Venue: Grande Communications Stadium, Midland, TX
La Máquina FC
Out of Santa Ana, CA, La Máquina is the epitome of Southern California’s blending of American and Mexican influences. The name and crest is inspired by Liga MX club Cruz Azul. Like much of the population in their region, the nationalities of the players is an almost even mix of American and Mexican. That mix has generated great success for the club. They’ve qualified three consecutive years for the USOC, though their deepest run came in the 2016 US Open Cup. After advancing to the 4th round, La Máquina held LA Galaxy 1-1 through 90 minutes, before finally conceding in extra time. This year’s team seems ready to match that success, currently undefeated in league play without giving up a goal. Cheering for La Máquina FC is cheering for the melting pot that makes this country great. It’s cheering for what makes the beautiful game so beautiful, the blending of talent, from all over the world, into a brotherhood.
First Match (Round 1): FC Tucson (PDL) v. La Maquina FC (USASA)
Date/Time: Sunday, May 9, 10:30PM ET
Venue: Kino North Stadium, Tucson, AZ
During the recent campaign for the USSF Presidency, several candidates highlighted the potential of the Open Cup. Hopefully, the call for more focus on this competition will pay off in marketing, broadcasting, and media coverage of this year’s Cup. What makes American soccer great is the story of the little guys battling the big boys. The 2018 U.S. Open Cup lineup has those matchups up and down the bracket. Pick a club, root for a team, celebrate lower league soccer!
Author: Dan Vaughn