Ah, the U.S. Open Cup.
As soccer in the United States gets more and more corporatized and teams are forced to grow up, conduct themselves like professional sports organizations, make their team name sound like a joyless English club that once was a fifth-division mainstay and has been left to rot in semi-professional ignominium, the Open Cup remains American Soccer. It’s weird. It’s funny. Often it’s at its best when it’s at its worst.
The Open Cup returns this week with the quarterfinals of the tournament, and has already returned in California, where Sacramento Republic weathered the LA Galaxy attack in the second half, hitting on the counter for a deserved 2-1 win. There’s more fun to be had in the other quarterfinals, too, as we get a Cup version of the Hudson River Derby, and Sporting KC will try to get past the bane of the Midwest, Union Omaha.
Yes, Union Omaha. The team with the owl, that’s correct.
The third-division club that’s only been playing for three years is this year’s designated Cinderella – and you’d be forgiven if all you know about them is their excellent crest. They are the defending champions of the USL League One, yes, but as recent history has made abundantly clear, that doesn’t count for much in this competition.
The last time a third-division team made it to the quarterfinals of the Open Cup was 2013, according to Sporting KC’s website which means I guess we’re counting the Carolina Railhawks as third division from NASL at that point? I thought that was the weird dual-second division time with the USL and the NASL, but whatever. Just know that the two MLS teams Carolina had to beat were a Bruce Arena-led LA Galaxy, who could not possibly care less about the Open Cup, and Chivas USA. There’s an argument to be made that they were never the underdogs until they got to the quarters.
The point is this: it’s difficult to be a third-division club in the United States and do this well in the U.S. Open Cup. But Union Omaha are doing well. And that makes me think about the Rochester Raging Rhinos. Let me explain.
The Rhinos weren’t a third-division team. In fact, they were in the second-division, and probably weren’t even as far removed from some of the best MLS teams as some USL Championship teams are today. But they are the last lower-division team to win a U.S. Open Cup, and the only lower-division team to win an Open Cup in the MLS era. That was back in 1999.
They did it with a formula that’s worked for others before them: stay compact. Do everything as a unit. Don’t be afraid to get “a little feisty,” as legendary Rhinos goalkeeper Pat Onstad once said.
So, how do Omaha find themselves in this spot? Well, it’s not quite a Rhinos story. But it’s not entirely dissimilar, either. They’re a strong lower-division side that, as my friend and The Athletic Soccer staff writer Jeff Rueter tells me, is well-organized and has players who buy into coach Jay Mims’ vision. It also helps to have a goalkeeper that knows what he’s doing, and by all accounts, Rashid Nuhu knows what he’s doing between the sticks.
It’s not that I think that Union Omaha, or even Sacramento Republic, is necessarily the next coming of my beloved Raging Rhinos. It’s that it feels like there’s a decent chance that this might be the year that a lower-division club wins the U.S. Open Cup again. With MLS continuing to inch forward in its spending power and increasing the talent gap between what they and the other American soccer divisions can possibly fund, it might be the last best chance for a lower-division team. And that’s important, I think, for soccer in this country.
I don’t mean to turn this into a tirade about promotion and relegation. But an undeniable truth of soccer elsewhere in the world is that there is ultimately hope for every single team, no matter how slim or misplaced that hope is. There is always an opportunity for teams to rise above the reputation and rank ascribed to them and redefine their club.
The closed system in the U.S., despite the legitimate benefits that I think it has offered teams in America and the status of American soccer on the international stage, severely limits those opportunities for teams that don’t just… buy their way into the system. No matter how much of a staunch MLS fan you are, you have to admit that the fact kind of sucks.
The Open Cup is the rare opportunity to seize that glimmer of hope, a far-off flame lit by an American soccer relic whose name doesn’t even really exist anymore, thanks to Jamie Vardy*, somehow. And right now, as I’m writing this, a USL League One team from Nebraska has come closer to reaching that light than so many others that have come before them. Forgive my seriousness, but I think that’s kind of beautiful.
So this one’s for Omaha. And Sacramento. And Rochester, and any other small city or club that continually has to prove their worth and justify their presence in so many spaces. Maybe a quarterfinal win in the Open Cup isn’t a massive deal in the grand scheme of soccer in this country.
But maybe, for a night, it should be.
*It probably wasn’t Jamie Vardy explicitly, but I’m blaming it on him.