“If you’ve come here to sit on your hands, you are in the wrong section,” said the man in orange from the bottom row. A pair of kids to either side of him pounded their drums to emphasize the point. “If you’ve come to be quiet, you are in the wrong section. And if you’re wearing a Chivas USA jersey, you are most definitely in the wrong section.”
The drummers went wild, and so, to some extent, did the rest of the 309 Depot. We were the official fan section of the Carolina RailHawks, even though some of us were not even unofficial fans. This was my first visit, and I had to ransack my dressers for anything orange. I settled on an old high school basketball warm-up jersey and an orange casquette I bought on a whim last year because I thought it would be funny and that I might start biking regularly. (Note: It wasn’t, and I haven’t.)
The ‘Hawks currently stand at second-to-last in the North American Soccer League, with a record of one win, five draws and four losses. They’ve conceded 20 goals to 13 scored, and have won just a single league match at home. You’d have to love soccer quite deeply to attend their home matches at WakeMed Park in Cary, N.C., with any regularity, but those who do watched them win the inaugural NASL regular-season title last year. Still, it’s essentially a splinter league, and the Carolina franchise doesn’t have much in the way of history or hardware.
But this wasn’t a league match. This was the 99th Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, round of 16, and the ‘Hawks were taking on California-based Chivas from the mighty MLS. This was the real deal, a chance to take down the bigwigs, and the buzzing atmosphere around the park spoke to the significance. Most of the 7,000 seats were full by game time, wondering if the ‘Hawks could repeat last week’s upset, when they beat the defending MLS champion L.A. Galaxy 2-1. And all this, the fanfare and the passion, could only really happen in the populist format of a Cup competition.
For the first time in my life, I found myself singing at a sporting event. (We love them, we love them, we love them, and where they go we’ll follow, we’ll follow, we’ll follow, we support the RailHawks, the RailHawks, the RailHawks, and that’s the way we like it, we like it, we like it.) I’ve always wanted to do that, and even though this wasn’t exactly a Premier League derby — hell, it wasn’t even an MLS derby — the vibe in the 309 Depot, 100 fans deep, was pretty fine. My three friends and I drank the semi-cold High Life we’d smuggled in, and the match kicked off.
The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup has been around in some incarnation since 1914, when it was called the National Challenge Cup. From the beginning, it was open to any team affiliated with the U.S. Football Association (now the U.S. Soccer Federation). That year, the Brooklyn Field Club beat Brooklyn Celtic 2-1 before a crowd of 10,000 in Rhode Island, starting a long tradition of New York dominance.
The Cup was organized partly so the newly-formed USFA could plant a flag as the pre-eminent soccer organization in America. For its first ten years, the Challenge Cup competed with the American Cup, run by the American Football Association. The USFA won, and despite some internecine conflicts over the next 80+ years, the Cup has remained the major open competition in America. They even managed to hold the tournament during the World War II years, a rare feat in U.S. sports.
As professional soccer in America failed in the postwar era, the Cup came to be dominated by amateur teams. The list of champions from that time includes Maccabi Los Angeles, who won five championships in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and Greek American Atlas Astoria, an amateur side that won three in a row from ’67 to ’69. Go back in time, and you find prominent professional squads like Bethlehem Steel and Fall River Marskmen, pre-war sides from the old American Soccer League.
In 1995, the format of the Cup changed drastically with the addition of professional teams. The USSF laid down an ultimatum- participate in the Cup, or lose sanctioning. MLS teams participated for the first time in 1996, and have won all but one championship since. The era of the amateur winner is, for the moment, over.
Chivas controlled the run of play, as you’d expect, and capitalized with a Juan Agudelo goal in the 32nd minute. Agudelo, born in Colombia, is now a U.S. citizen and a member of the national team since 2010. His header silenced the ‘Hawks crowd, but only momentarily. When you know you’ll need a miracle to win, a 1-0 deficit doesn’t provoke anxiety; it’s still a long way from miracle-proof.
As halftime approached, it grew dark and cooled down. It was a beautiful Carolina night, still a few weeks from the merciless summer. How beautiful? Of my three friends, two were from the south, and they started complaining about the cold. For me, that’s an indication that it’s just starting to become tolerable, perhaps even balmy. My other pal is from Colorado, and I’m from the mountains of upstate New York, so we made fun of them as much as possible.
There was a lot of negativity about the RailHawks’ scoring chances, so I tried to buoy everyone’s spirits by guaranteeing a goal. It felt right.
The game was held in Cary because of a gutsy rule change enacted by the USSF this year. Previously, teams would submit a sealed bid to host the matches, and the team with more money (inevitably the MLS club) would win the rights. Unlike some European cup competitions, the U.S. Open is single elimination, one-and-done. The bidding system was a good way to fund the Cup and keep the tradition alive, but it also made it very difficult for smaller teams to advance. Bids are still in place for the semifinals and finals, but all previous rounds are random draws.
That doesn’t mean the wheeling and dealing is over. Teams can still buy the home match back form the club that wins the drawing, and we’ve seen a bit of that this year. The Seattle Sounders, three-time defending Cup champions, bought home rights back to their third-round match from the Atlanta Silverbacks of the NASL, and proceeded to beat them 5-1. To Carolina’s credit, both the Galaxy and Chivas USA attempted to buy a home match, but RailHawks management declined.
The format of the Cup changed this year, too. For the first time, it became a 64-team field. In the first round, 32 teams from the amateur divisions play off for the right to face 16 teams from Division II (NASL) and III (USL Pro). (This original 32 included Stanislaus United Turlock Express, a club champion from California who earned their way into the tournament before losing to the Fresno Fuego 2-0.)
The 16 MLS teams enter in the third round, each playing the amateur or lower professional team that advanced in their part of the bracket. Last Tuesday and Wednesday, eight of those 16 teams lost in upsets. The most dramatic came when the Harrisburg City Islanders from Pennsylvania erased a 3-0 deficit after on OT period against the New England Revolution, and went on to win in penalties. Last night, the Islanders continued their run when they beat MLS’ New York Red Bulls 3-1 in overtime, advancing to face the Philadelphia Union in an all-Pennsylvania quarterfinal.
The MLS losses are embarrassing for the league, but they also indicate the relative importance of the Cup. Some teams, like the Sounders and the Chicago Fire, take it very seriously, offering huge sums to host games and trotting out their best squad at every opportunity. Others, like the Galaxy, withhold some of their best players when forced to travel and don’t see a loss as a huge tragedy.
The RailHawks began threatening in the second half when Chivas made the questionable decision to hang back and defend the one-goal lead. It was apparent almost from the beginning that this was the wrong call, but they stuck to their guns. While I kept telling my friends that there was some magic in the air, the ‘Hawks drew woodwork on a header. They attacked and attacked, and finally, in the 79th minute, a reserve forward named Mike Palacio slotted a loose ball in with his left foot. The park erupted, because despite our good faith, none of us really expected a goal. But it was tied 1-1, and as the 90th minute came around, goalkeeper Ray Burse made two spectacular saves as Chivas turned up the heat.
Even with the advent of the professional era, there are always fantastic stories to be found in the Cup. This is soccer, it’s a sport prone to surprising and fluky outcomes, and amateur or lower level professional teams have a better chance to advance. The case studies here are the 1999 Rochester Rhinos, who beat four MLS teams to become the only minor league champion since the MLS era began in ’96. It’s true in European soccer as well; it’s easy to predict which teams will win the league over the course of a long season, but Cup competitions produce surprising results, as when third-division Quevilly made the finals of the French Cup for the first time 105 years before losing 1-0 to Lyon.
This year, three USL Pro teams, considered Division III in Cup terminology, made the quarterfinals last night. But the wildest story of all, and a perfect example of what makes Cup competition so exciting, is Cal FC. Former national team star Eric Wynalda formed an amateur team four months ago for the purpose of competing in the Cup, composed of MLS cast-offs and players who were considered ill-suited for MLS play due to attitude problems.
Wynalda has been a vocal critic of the American soccer establishment, and as Jason Davis put it in a great article last week, Cal FC was his “carefully crafted eff you” to powers-that-be. Cal FC practiced once a week, qualified regionally through the Adult Soccer Association, beat the Kitsap Pumas in the first round, and blew out the USL’s Wilmington Hammerheads in round two. That set up a match with the Portland Timbers, noteworthy for the fact that Wynalda had publicly questioned the tactics of owner Merritt Paulson, who fired back by calling him a “trainwreck” on twitter. Somehow, hilariously, despite great fatigue and a dearth of scoring chances (they were outshot 37-8), Wynalda’s club upset the Timbers 1-0 in a result that couldn’t have been more embarrassing for one of the MLS’ most passionate fan bases.
The Cinderella story finally came to an end last night against the Sounders, in an emphatic 5-0 loss, but the brash Wynalda had made his point. And it was a point that could only be made in the loose chaos of a Cup competition.
In the 92nd minute, RailHawk defender Gale Agbossoumonde tried to slide tackle Chivas’ star forward Juan Pablo Angel. As he slid by, the ball went off his arm, and the referee pointed to the spot.
Of course he did. That’s pure soccer, a sport that tends toward soap operatic theatricality and, sometimes, absurdity. It seems designed to build tension, and delivers injustice and frustration 10 times for every Donovan-against-Algeria moment of pure euphoria. That’s the addiction.
Burse could only watch as the penalty kick went in, and though the High Life had emboldened me enough to insist that this was part of the narrative- that the ‘Hawks were going to equalize in dramatic fashion- this particular fairy tale was over.
Someday, Carolina’s soccer-mad Triangle region might have an MLS franchise. Until then, it only has the RailHawks, a team with middling support in an afterthought league. The passionate few in the 309 Depot will continue to operate on a level approaching fanaticism, but for the rest of us, things only get interesting when the Cup rolls around. The idea of a second-tier club having a chance to face the big guys is pure democracy, and that’s rare enough amid the rampant classism of professional sports.