By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jun 16, 2017) US Soccer Players - The last time a team that wasn’t in Major League Soccer won the US Open Cup, MLS was only in its fourth season. Landon Donovan had yet to debut for the USMNT. Superstar-in-the-making Christian Pulisic was less than one year old. It was so long ago that in the whole of the country there were only two soccer-specific stadiums in existence. No one yet knew what MLS was going to be, or if it would even survive. The team that sprung the massive upset and won the trophy was playing in a league that no longer exists, and were themselves just a few years old.
The year was 1999, and the team was the Rochester Rhinos. Rather, the Rochester “Raging” Rhinos, because that was the full name of the club until 2007. The minor league moniker shouldn’t take away from the major league achievement of that team.
It’s almost unnecessary to point out that with MLS growth, a lower division team winning the Open Cup has become even more difficult. If Rochester winning the Open Cup was a longshot in 1999, a second division team achieving the same feat in 2017 seems impossible.
Not that the three second division teams left in this year’s competition will give up to the inevitable. They're playing to join the Rhinos among the ranks of American soccer’s greatest underdog stories. After the conclusion of the fourth round on Wednesday night, only FC Cincinnati, Miami FC, and the Sacramento Republic can dream of lifting the trophy.
Handicapping their chances individually is difficult. The modern expression of the Open Cup is rife with variables that throw a host of uncertainties into the mix. First and foremost is just how seriously the next opponent for each second division club takes the fifth round matchup. From there, it's easier to pin down things like travel, injuries, and schedule congestion.
Two of the second division sides left standing have the luxury of playing at home in the next round. That big for the usual reason. Playing at home is always an advantage. For FC Cincinnati and Miami FC, it brings an extra bit of help toward a victory.
FC Cincinnati stunned Columbus Crew SC 1-0 at Nippert Field in Cincinnati on Wednesday night, in front of a Fourth Round record crowd of 30,160. With so many partisans on hand, the home side was able to claw their way to a victory and a clean sheet. Columbus played something very close to a full strength lineup. That means FC Cincinnati not only sprung an upset, they did so without the usual help from an MLS head coach playing his reserves.
The USL side will get the Chicago Fire in the next round, at home, with another chance at a big crowd. The match will come midweek, between a home game against St. Louis FC and a road trip to Orlando to face Orlando City B. FC Cincinnati could be relatively rested and ready when they welcome the Fire to town. Who the Fire bring may determine the way the odds should go. The club traditionally takes the Open Cup seriously. Chicago played a strong lineup against St Louis FC away in the Fourth Round.
Should FC Cincinnati advance past the Fire, they’ll have to go on the road for the quarterfinals. If they make it that far, there's the potential for avoiding another MLS team.
NASL leaders Miami FC shocked Orlando City in Orlando on Wednesday. Miami advances to the round of 16 with a date set against Atlanta United June 27 or 28. They too get the benefit of hosting. While Miami FC won’t draw a crowd as big as FC Cincinnati, South Florida fans should turn out to see the clash with the swashbuckling side led by Tata Martino.
Miami FC is clear atop the Spring season standings in the NASL, five points ahead of Jacksonville. The Alessandro Nesta-led club has both scored the most goals and conceded the fewest in the league so far this season. They only have a single loss in league play, a 3-0 defeat to the Cosmos in the second week of April. A small chink in the armor of the NASL’s best team is their home record. Five wins on the road, just 2-2-2 at Florida International University.
Can they beat Atlanta? Certainly, though they’ll need their fair share of luck. Atlanta won their first-ever Open Cup match on Wednesday at Kennesaw State University using a mixed lineup that features a few first-choice players alongside clear reserves. Who Martino chooses to use in Miami may come down to form and fatigue in a few weeks time.
That leaves just the Sacramento Republic to consider. Unlike FC Cincinnati and Miami FC, the Republic will be on the road in the fifth round when they face the Galaxy. That doesn’t mean the task is impossible, and they’ll have some confidence coming off the Open Cup romp over RSL. At league level, the Republic are currently out of the playoff spots in the Western Conference of the USL. That means balancing the Open Cup match in Carson against the need for points in the league.
Winning an Open Cup has proven impossible for everyone but MLS teams since 1999, but maybe this is the year. Maybe Sacramento, or Miami, or Cincinnati will have a story to tell like the one that still gets shared in Rochester. Once upon a time, an underdog from the A-League shocked four straight top division teams to become national champions.
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