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The magic of the Open Cup: Rising back in historic competition

Owain Evans Avatar
April 6, 2022

In May 2013, then-FC Tucson coach Rick Schantz was racking up miles on the road.

“We had played in LA the Saturday before, and we drove from Tucson to San Antonio in vans,” Schantz said. “We drove back from San Antonio on Thursday, and then Friday we drove to LA for another PDL game. Saturday we played in the PDL. Sunday, we drove back to Tucson and then Monday, we were fortunate enough to be able to fly to Houston to play against Dominic Kinnear’s Houston team.

That whole run, I want to say I drove somewhere around 3,000 miles in around 10 days with those players, and we got to know each other very well in those vans.”

Schantz’s travel wasn’t down to any particular scheduling quirks of the league his mostly college-aged amateur players were competing in. Instead, it was a testament to their success in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup — a tournament that saw them claim victory over two professional sides before finally succumbing to Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo.

It’s a competition that Schantz is preparing to lead Rising into for the first time since 2019, when they crashed out at the first hurdle.

Since then, the Open Cup has been on hiatus, forced to shutter due to the pandemic for the first time since its founding in 1914.

The last match that Phoenix played in the competition ended a 2-2 draw, with New Mexico United advancing via kicks from the mark.

“I think you’ve got to go round by round, and try to make it to the next round,” now-Rising winger Santi Moar said. “That feeling of achievement feeds the locker room.”

Moar was a part of that upstart New Mexico team. In their first season as a professional squad, that match against Phoenix was only the beginning.

New Mexico would next knock off Colorado Springs, before ending the cup hopes of two sides from the league above: Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas.

That set up a quarterfinal clash away to Minnesota United. With just seven minutes played, Moar had given his side the lead.

“It was amazing,” Moar said. “It was probably one of the best moments in my career. Obviously, scoring in the quarterfinal of the Open Cup and putting the team ahead for a few minutes, that was great. In that stadium, Allianz Field, it was a really good feeling. I would rather win the match and not score, but it was a good feeling knowing that we could compete against an MLS team.”

Moar’s was the only goal of the match for the visitors. They bowed out of their debut cup run on the end of a 6-1 scoreline.

While Open Cup success might have brought the team into the hearts of fans across the country, it didn’t precipitate success in the league. Through the first two Open Cup games played by New Mexico, the club had lost only one game out of 13. By year’s end, United finished 10th in the Western Conference, falling out of contention in the play-in round.

“We struggled a lot after that in the league,” Moar said. “Obviously having games Wednesday, Sunday, Wednesday, Sunday — at the end of the day, if you don’t have a deep roster, you’re going to suffer a lot.

“I think that this year in Phoenix, we have a much deeper roster than what we did in New Mexico a few years ago. I think we are prepared to compete in both competitions and I think having a good run in Open Cup will also help us probably in the league.”

For Moar, there were still positives to take from the 2019 run. New Mexico had been chasing the prize money awarded to the USL team which made it furthest, though ultimately failed to do so as Saint Louis had claimed more victories in 90 minutes.

Beyond that, the Open Cup still retains its appeal, particularly to those like Moar who grew up in other countries. Overseas, such cup competitions hold a place in professional sporting culture that is missing in the United States.

“In these cup tournaments, you see all these underdog stories,” Moar said. “In the [Spanish] Copa del Rey, you see all the time a third division team knocking off Barcelona, Real Madrid. If we can do that with a higher division team, that’s going to feel really really good, and I think people will enjoy those underdog stories.”

Rising may feel like something of an underdog going into the Open Cup, but that doesn’t mean that they’re immune from upsets themselves.

That was a story the team learned in 2018 on the field of Chandler-Gilbert Community College.

“I was so young that I just wanted to perform,” now-Rising full-back Ryan Flood said. “I didn’t really understand the process of the Open Cup or Phoenix Rising being a USL team, I just understood I had to go out there and play and perform at the high level that everyone else was at.”

At the time, Flood was just a teenager playing for Sporting Arizona. Sporting was an amateur outfit competing locally in the United Premier Soccer League.

Sporting had entered the Open Cup through local qualifying, a path open to all grassroots members of the U.S. Soccer Federation that steadily maintain their place in a league from season to season. In their final match to reach the tournament proper, they knocked off Galati FC, a men’s league team competing in the self-styled “Arizona Champions League” in the West Valley.

After scraping through on a 1-0 victory over FC Arizona in the first round, Sporting Arizona was picked to host Phoenix Rising.

“Being able to play in front of a fan section like Phoenix Rising’s was, and being a hometown kid in front of a fan section that’s as big as Rising’s is, I think it was an amazing feeling,” Flood said. “My whole team in that period was all hands on deck to do well in that tournament. It was a great experience.”

Rising took a second-half lead thanks to Chris Cortez, but that was quickly snuffed out by Danny Arrubla. As with the following year, the match finished deadlocked. The outcome was to be decided from 12 yards out.

For Sporting Arizona, Flood stepped up.

“It’s always a long walk from the halfway line to the spot, but once you set the ball down, there has to be one thing going through your head,” Flood said. “In that moment and opportunity for me, I didn’t see anything else but scoring.”

Flood made his kick, and his side ultimately went on to win the tie.

Yet while one current member of the Rising camp was celebrating, another was far from content.

Patrice Carteron was Rising’s head coach at the time. Among his assistants was Rick Schantz.

“Sometimes, it’s a no-win, right?” Schantz said. “You’re playing a team that’s quote-unquote lower division. You’re supposed to win, and when you win, everyone says, ‘Whoop-de-do, you were supposed to win.’ But if you lose, it’s a big deal. It’s very difficult.”

For Flood, though, it was one the highlights of his career to date.

“It felt like we had won the Cup already when we played and won that game,” Flood said. “We came back from 1-0 down as well. It was just an amazing experience and I will cherish those moments.”

Sporting went on to play USL side Fresno in the next round. It was Flood who opened the scoring, but his team came up in short in extra time, falling 2-1.

In the following round, Fresno travelled to Los Angeles to face MLS’ LAFC.

“We were definitely heartbroken after that game,” Flood said. “It would have put us into a really good spot. I think every guy on my team was ready for that next opportunity, so it was just unfortunate that we came up short.

“It would have been an amazing experience to actually go 11 v. 11 against an MLS team when we were the UPSL team that we were. It was just unfortunate. I think there were a couple of chances last minute that we couldn’t get in the goal, and it was just a heartbreaker.”

Now, with a chance to go at it again, Flood is prepared to handle some unfinished business.

“With the team that we have and the quality we have in our locker room, we should be going a lot further in the tournament than I did [with Sporting],” he said. “I really do hope that we can take steps further and maybe even play an MLS team and beat an MLS team. I do believe we have the quality in the locker room to do that.”

The allure of facing a team from the league above — something no Arizona team has done since Arizona United were defeated by LA Galaxy in the 2014 edition of the Open Cup — is apparent to his coach, too.

“From my perspective as a coach, a player who grew up here in Arizona, the opportunity to possibly host an MLS team here in an Open Cup game in a big stadium like we have here at Rising, that’s kind of always been a dream of mine,” Schantz said. “I know it would be huge for our ownership. I like it. There’s a little bit of pressure, and we’re going to go after it.”

Seventeen of MLS’ clubs will join in the third round of the competition, with each guaranteed a tie with one of the 31 teams advancing from the prior stage.

“We play against them in preseason every year and we know we are not much different than them,” Moar said. “There’s obviously a big difference in budgets and roster-wise, but sometimes these kind of games are won by heart, not just by talent. I think when it matters, we could bring that passion and get good results in these games if we get to play them.”

However, Rising isn’t guaranteed a clash with a top-flight team if they advance. Schantz’s former side FC Tucson remains in the competition, and should they defeat Las Vegas Lights in their home match, both teams stand a chance of meeting thanks to the Open Cup’s regionalized setup.

“Look, I love FC Tucson,” Schantz said. “I remember sitting in the room, designing [the logo] and learning about why we were doing it and being a part of that. But that’s a no-win situation for me. We’re the big boys and this is Phoenix and we’re supposed to win. They would have nothing to lose. I don’t envy that position and I don’t look forward to it.

“I wish Jon [Pearlman] well, I wish their club well. Hopefully they can beat Las Vegas. That would be awesome. If we end up drawing them in the [third round], all that history will only mean something to me. I won’t let it mean anything to the players and they’ll look at it as just another game that we have to win. It’s extremely important to stay focused and motivated, but for me personally, that would be gut-wrenching.”

Before then, though, Rising has to beat Valley United. The squad, which competes in the National Independent Soccer Association, is one of three professional sides from the Grand Canyon state to enter this year’s Open Cup.

“It’s funny because when I was in Tucson, we used to get really frustrated that Arizona United and these teams would say they’re the only pro team in the state,” Schantz said. “Technically, it was true. But listen, I’m the biggest fan of Arizona soccer and I love everything Arizona. One day, I have dreamed of maybe an MLS team in Phoenix, a USL team in Tucson, a League One team in Yuma and Flagstaff, and every town has a team at that level.

“You go over to England and every small town has a pro club, and I think that this state is capable of that kind of soccer participation. I think people are really starting to buy into the sport. It’s really taking over and it’s growing so fast. Look at what the national team is producing right now and how much soccer is on TV. I don’t see why not.”

Phoenix will enter the match as the favorite thanks to their second division status. NISA is sanctioned as a third-tier league.

“We need to match their intensity and be prepared for a fight,” Moar said. “That’s going to be a really, really intense game. Their desire to beat somebody in the higher division is going to be high. We’ve got to match the intensity and treat it as if it was a final.”

His teammate echoed Moar’s caution.

“We need to take care of business early and I think we have to take it seriously,” Flood said. “It’s a good opponent and it’s a bunch of players that are going to want to prove their point as well. We have to come out there and show them who we are and why we’re at the top of a very good league.”

That doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for dreaming, though.

“I think it’s one of the most storied competitions in U.S. soccer,” Schantz said.

Schantz is right to believe as such. In a sport pining for legitimacy and tradition in the United States, it’s the U.S. Open Cup that provides that.

While teams count their age in the low decades, the Open Cup spans over a century. The competition is now in its 107th edition. Written into its history as winners are company teams and immigrant community clubs, each of whom can boast of bringing a national title to their backyard. That direct link to the community, rather than just a money-spinner for billionaires, invokes the same folklore as seen across the Atlantic in the FA Cup.

Now, in the professional era, the Open Cup is a competition that’s re-evaluating its role. Despite that, it still holds a special place in a lot of hearts.

“It was one of my first big platforms as a young player trying to make my name, and I think it did do that for me,” Flood said. “I hope the same thing for other players, but at the same time I do want to win it, so being on the bigger team now, I hope we can go further in the tournament.”

Follow Owain Evans on Twitter

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