By Michael Preston
Cup competitions aren’t what they used to be. With the significant exception of the FIFA World Cup, most continental championships and the UEFA Champions League, knockout competitions play second fiddle to the bread and butter of the domestic league season.
Managers or coaches rest players to preserve their energy levels and as a result, the competition is perceived as being devalued. The hard fact is that coaches are judged on their team’s league performances and the onset of increased squad sizes means there is a wealth of players eager and available to step into the spotlight. So mixing up the lineups is understandable.
But a cup run – whether you choose to describe it as magical, romantic or glorious – has the ability to excite fans and motivate players in a special way.
This week the six NASL teams based in the United States enter the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup at the Second Round stage. There is something remarkable in a nation so relatively young, where most mainstream sports are entrenched in the history of the modern era, that this cup competition is celebrating its Centenary. Ice hockey’s Stanley Cup boasts a longer history, but the modern day sports behemoth the NFL, while proud of its illustrious past, really measures its club’s winning histories by the Super Bowl, which was first contested in 1967. Soccer is the old kid on the block.
So the cup named after a visionary of both soccer and the NFL is a competition we should embrace, be proud of and be excited to enter. That doesn’t mean some NASL team coaches won’t rest some players with important league games also around the corner, but recognizing and highlighting the magic of the U.S. Open Cup will be high on the agenda.
Some of the greatest moments I remember as a kid growing up in England were giant killing acts in the FA Cup of the 1970s, although the six NASL teams will be hoping to avoid such romantic cup tales when they all face lower league opposition on Tuesday night. They aim to save acts of David slaying Goliath for the following week when – or I should say if – paired with Major League Soccer teams.
For coaches and players of the higher-ranked club, the potential banana skin is a tie that can put them under pressure. For the underdog, there is nothing to lose and everything to gain. That is the definition of the magic we often hear referenced.
I was glued to the TV for the legendary Jim Montgomery save and Ian Porterfield goal as Sunderland shocked the then mighty Leeds United in the 1973 FA Cup Final, but remember even more clearly the Bobby Stokes winner as second division Southampton humbled Manchester United in 1976. Playing for the Saints in that game was Jim McCalliog, a veteran of the top flight and a Scottish international. Three years later, he was playing non-league semi professional football for Runcorn of the Alliance Premier League, the equivalent of today’s Conference in England.
In the fourth qualifying round of the 1979/80 FA Cup McCalliog and his Runcorn team came to face the team I followed, Moor Green, who played some four divisions below the Football League, the equivalent of Division 8 if there was such a thing. The Moors were massive underdogs, but striker Carlo Rossi scored twice and humbled the esteemed visitors in a 2-0 win to clam a famous scalp and advance to the First Round Proper of the FA Cup for the first time ever.
Such feats don’t happen in major American sports – with the exception of the U.S. Open Cup – denying most fans the unique elation of such moments. I fondly remember league games that season as Moors finished as runners up, but nothing compares with the rush of elation at winning four rounds of FA Cup qualifying and even a narrow 3-2 defeat in the first round is indelibly marked on my memory as a great day out. The magic of the cup truly took its grip.
So this Tuesday’s Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup games will create that same spark for me. I’ll be in Fort Lauderdale, naturally rooting for the NASL’s Strikers to win at Lockhart Stadim, but with a part of me unavoidably admiring the pursuit of a giant-killing act by the Laredo Heat of the PDL.
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