Cal FC is a classic U.S. Open Cup success story, but not the only one
Cal FC, a member of fifth-tier USASA, is in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup
Half of remaining teams are from outside MLS, which had several members ousted
A change in match locations and the tendency to use reserves has hurt MLS teams
The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and knockout tournaments like it around the world are about bucking conventional wisdom, an opportunity for David to slay Goliath.
In England, fourth-tier side Crawley Town was on the cusp of the 2011 FA Cup quarterfinals before narrowly losing to mighty Manchester United. Third-tier French side Quevilly made the final of the 2012 Coupe de France before falling 1-0 to traditional power Lyon. A similar story is currently developing in America. In U.S. soccer circles, nobody bucks conventional wisdom more than outspoken former U.S. national team veteran and current Fox Soccer analyst Eric Wynalda, which makes him the perfect face for what has transpired in the 99th edition of the Open Cup tournament.
Of the 16 teams still alive entering Tuesday's fourth round, eight are from MLS, three are from second-tier NASL, three are from third-tier USL Pro, one is from fourth-tier Premier Development League and one is from fifth-tier United States Adult Soccer Association. The most remarkable story belongs to the latter, the Wynalda-coached Cal FC. A team of soccer rejects, castaways and guys who have yet to get their shot, they have morphed into the American soccer equivalent of George Mason, Butler or VCU, a true Cinderella story.
The tandem of Wynalda and Nick Webster, previously known for their work together on the old Fox Football Fone-In television show, have teamed to coach Cal FC from an unknown amateur team into an Open Cup darling. Wynalda said the club has played eight organized games, all of which have been played since May 5, and three of which have come in the Open Cup. Cal FC players trained together just five times before leading up to a fourth-round clash with the three-time defending tournament champion Seattle Sounders.
Wynalda has become notorious for his diatribes on the state of soccer in this country and for his contrarian crusade to offer the solutions. But what he's accomplished in guiding Cal FC into an Open Cup force -- and a worldwide trending topic on Twitter -- has been nothing short of remarkable. Cal FC, which sits ninth in the table of the 12-team amateur La Gran Liga de Oxnard, is a byproduct of Wynalda's work with Murcielagos FC, a second-tier organization in Mexico for which he has been charged with finding Mexican-Americans in Southern California to play for the club.
"I just kept finding players," Wynalda said. "And when I found some of them, most of them didn't fit the [Murcielagos] criteria, but they were great soccer players, and I wanted to find a way to put them together."
La Gran Liga de Oxnard gave Cal FC the forum to, at the very least, get out on the field and play competitively. As it turns out, it was a stepping stone to something much greater.
"Sometimes the level [in the league] is really high; sometimes it's beer bellies and ponytails," Wynalda said. "I used it as a platform to get these guys together, to evaluate them. That's just how it happened."
What followed was Open Cup qualification through the USASA Region IV tournament and wins over Kitsap Pumas, Wilmington Hammerheads and the Portland Timbers. Thought the degree of difficulty keeps rising with each match, Cal FC's players are one shock win away from being the first team in more than three years to eliminate the Sounders from the Open Cup and further etch their name in American soccer lore in a match that will be televised live on Fox Soccer Channel.
"There's nothing typical about this whole scenario," Wynalda said. "There's nothing typical about these guys."
Cal FC's story is the most sensational of the U.S. Open Cup, but by no means is it the only one. This year's tournament is littered with upsets and Cinderella stories, and two non-MLS teams are already guaranteed places in the quarterfinals based on fourth-round matchups. Aside from the tale of Cal FC, there's the PDL club Michigan Bucks, a Columbus Crew affiliate which has had past Open Cup success. They knocked off four-time champion and MLS side Chicago Fire to advance to Tuesday's fourth round. Then there's the story of the Carolina RailHawks, previously winless in NASL play, but victorious over the MLS Cup champion Los Angeles Galaxy in front of a raucous crowd in Cary, N.C. There's the NASL champion Minnesota Stars, which sold off hosting rights to Real Salt Lake, then ventured into Rio Tinto Stadium and overwhelmed the current leaders in the race for the MLS Supporters' Shield. Finally, there's the USL Pro side Harrisburg City Islanders, which played the New England Revolution to a scoreless regulation, fell behind 3-0 in extra time, then managed to score three of their own and win in penalty kicks.
"I don't know that anybody's been part of a game that wild," Harrisburg City coach Bill Becher said. "We were involved in some pretty crazy games down the stretch last year. I don't think any of those games can compare to anything that happened here."
Becher referred to last year's USL Pro semifinal match in which four red cards were doled out and the final in which his club tied the match in stoppage time, surrendered a lead in extra time and succumbed on penalties to Orlando City SC. That paled in comparison to his team's comeback on the Revs.
"There was a little hope left I guess at 2-0," Becher said. "You never stop believing, I guess you never give up, but we were pretty distraught on the bench. We thought we played pretty well and were on the wrong end of a 3-0 scoreline and not looked like we just lost the game but got whooped on."
The Cup's magic knows no bounds.
There are reasonable explanations for the Open Cup phenomenon. MLS teams don't always put out their strongest lineups for the mid-week cup matches, although with this year's first round for MLS sides falling during an international break, most took the opportunity to field starter-heavy teams.
"They've got games on weekends, and they want to see some of their reserve players play, so they gamble a little bit and once in a while they get bit," Michigan Bucks coach Gary Parsons said. "We've got the kind of players that a few of them can be on MLS clubs. Some of them have been professional. The caliber of player that we have vs. a reserve player on an MLS team, there's a difference, but there's not a huge difference."
This year's shift to a random determination for host sites as opposed to a bidding process that favored more wealthy MLS teams has also accounted for a shift in power. Giving the lower-tier sides any advantage or incentive to play in front of a larger home crowds is sometimes all that is necessary to tilt the scales.
"That makes a difference, too," Becher said. "This year compared to last year there's a lot more MLS teams on the road. We're 4-3 in seven games [against MLS teams]. 3-0 at home, 1-3 on the road, so there is a big difference."