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For the first time since the pandemic began, Phoenix Rising has a match on its schedule in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
That’s enough to provoke a trip down memory lane for some players.
“That was a great feeling,” Rising winger Santi Moar said, reminiscing about his opening goal near the end of a long run in the 2019 edition of the competition with New Mexico United. “It was 1-0 in the quarterfinals of the Open Cup. I mean, we got smacked after that, but it was a great feeling to be winning in a great stadium like Allianz Field, and hopefully we can repeat some good moments like that.”
The Open Cup started life as the National Challenge Cup in 1914, leading the U.S. Soccer Federation to dub it the “country’s oldest annual tournament for team sports.” Brooklyn Field Club lifted the trophy in the first edition, with a winner named every year since without interruption until the pandemic began in 2020.
Now, Phoenix will enter the 107th edition of the tournament, making its fourth appearance under its current name.
“I know that tournament means a lot to the fans, and it does to me as well,” coach Rick Schantz said.
Schantz previously led his then-amateur FC Tucson side on a Cinderella run in the Open Cup back in 2013. After defeating professional sides Phoenix FC and San Antonio Scorpions, Tucson eventually fell in the third round to Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo.
That lure of playing a higher-level team remains. Rising enters the Cup in its second round, with U.S.-based MLS clubs joining over the following two phases.
“One of the things I said to the guys before Kansas City is, ‘Let’s not let this be the last time we play an MLS team this season,'” Schantz said. “I’d like to play one of them with something on the line, that’s for sure.”
Rising’s past performance in the Open Cup hasn’t matched up to that of league play. Since rebranding to its current name, the team has won only one match — in 2017 against amateur side Fresno Fuego. In 2018, the team was knocked out at the hands of another amateur side, Sporting Arizona.
The only Phoenix side — or indeed, any Arizona-based side — that made it as far as the fourth round came in 2014, when Arizona United (Phoenix Rising’s name prior to 2017) fell 2-1 to L.A. Galaxy.
Still, with Rising yet to win its ultimate goal of a league title, could the Open Cup prove a distraction? Detractors of the competition point to the slump in league form suffered by New Mexico after the 2019 Cup run.
That sentiment, however, isn’t shared by those at the club.
“For us, obviously [the Open Cup is] very important,” Moar said. “I was talking to Bobby [Dulle], our GM, and he was like, ‘This is very important. What can we do to win, to have a successful run?’
“I think everybody wants to have a long run in the Open Cup, and it’s a very exciting competition. It’s good that they brought it back.”
Rising will start its Open Cup campaign in April against Valley United, a new third-tier team competing in the National Independent Soccer Association. That clash will be the first competitive match between two fully professional, Arizona-based sides.
“They’re a good team,” Schantz said. “We watched them play a little bit against Kansas City. They have a hard working group. [Ricardo] Velazco is playing for them, a guy that I know very well….We’re excited. It’s good that Phoenix has two teams in the Open Cup. I think it’d be great for fans to see two local teams competing in a meaningful game.”