One of my favorite weekends of the year typically happens during the first week of the New Year. Once the hangover from New Year's Eve has finally begun to subside, there's usually another excellent opportunity to head over to the pub and start an all-day drinking session.
Such is the magic of the English Football Association (FA) Cup Third Round, when English Premier League sides finally enter the tournament. What follows is one of the craziest weekends of football in which top giants such as Manchester United fall to once-proud clubs such as Leeds United and a number of the "big boys" lose to semi-pro sides that no one had heard of before the week began. And if the game doesn't have a winner after 90 minutes, they'll "replay" the match at the other club's home.
It's an amazing competition that holds relevance because of the potential for upsets and calamity. There really is nothing quite like it stateside. The NCAA College Basketball Tournament, affectionately referred to March Madness, is really the only thing that comes close.
After Tuesday night, does the U.S. Open Cup have the potential to bring that kind of excitement across the pond?
How the Night Transpired
The night started with a bang with the Carolina Railhawks of the NASL coming from behind to come off the defending MLS Cup Champions LA Galaxy 2-1. The Galaxy lineup did not include the likes of Landon Donovan, David Beckham or Robbie Keane, but based on pure talent alone, the fact the match was taking place at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina shouldn't have singlehandedly been enough to see them dumped out in the tournament.
That upset alone would have been enough to get American soccer fans talking. But the fun was only beginning.
Meanwhile, over in Columbus, the Crew looked like they would be able to hang on to a one-goal lead over the Dayton Dutch Lions of USL PRO. But the yellow team was unable to put the game away, and gave away two goals in the 79th and 81th minute to produce what would be the second MLS upset on the night.
(Note: The third upset of the night happened in Pontiac, Mich. as the Michigan Bucks became the only Premier Development League (PDL) side to advance to the fourth round by knocking off the Chicago Fire 3-2 in extra time. Gregg Mixdorf was at the match, and has some colorful thoughts about how things transpired in a suburb of Detroit. That article should be published later today.)
The night descended into pure delirium with upset #4. Take a second to read this scoring summary:
(MLS) at Harrisburg City Islanders (USL PRO)
May 29, 2012 - Skyline Sports Complex (Harrisburg, Pa.)
New England Revolution 3, Harrisburg City Islanders 3 (Harrisburg wins on PKs, 4-3)
NE - ( ) 95
NE - Lee Nguyen (penalty kick) 100
NE - ( ) 103
HAR - Brian Ombiji (Tom Mellor) 111
HAR - Sainey Touray (unassisted) 117
HAR - Joseph Noone (unassisted) 120
Now please excuse me while I go on a quick all-CAPS rant that's probably going through the minds of all Revs fans right now:
I MEAN, ARE YOU FREAKING SERIOUS??? SIX GOALS IN THIRTY MINUTES OF EXTRA TIME AFTER ZERO GOALS IN REGULATION??? GIVING UP A THREE-GOAL LEAD WITH TEN MINUTES TO GO TO A THIRD-DIVISION CLUB??? IS THAT EVEN PHYSICALLY POSSIBLE???
You sure hope that kind of breakdown leaves a scar that lasts until, oh I don't know... after this Saturday night when they take on the Fire.
The fifth upset of the night was a feel-good story from my perspective. The San Antonio Scorpions have perhaps been burdened with people downplaying their chances at one day receiving an MLS franchise before the club had even played its first-ever NASL match. They responded to the initial criticism by packing 13,151 supporters into Heroes Stadium, a temporary 11,000-seat, open-style football (American) venue for their home opener. And fresh off of shutting up the initial critics (including myself), the Scorpions were able to ride a second-half penalty kick to a 1-0 home win over the Houston Dynamo in their first matchup against an MLS side.
The fun continued as the now Brimstone Cup-less Dallas Burn were the next MLS club to head for the exits. The Charlotte Eagles of USL Pro did not feel the pressure of playing at FC Dallas Stadium as they scored a goal in each half to knock off the home side 2-0.
The first six MLS upsets were great, but number seven may have to be my favorite because of the karma aspects.
While the Seattle Sounders were roundly criticized for buying the rights to their Third Round match with the Atlanta Silverbacks, Real Salt Lake must have felt like they had caught a bit of a break, as they had made a similar arrangement with Minnesota Stars FC of the NASL. The Stars however, were not content with simply taking their money and going home. They scored an early goal and then proceeded to give up a potentially devastating equalizer.
The Stars were not going to go home without an MLS scalp though. They converted a penalty before halftime before picking up an insurance goal early in the second half as they win on to win 3-1. The loss, according to the RSL website, took place in front of a record crowd of 17,212 - the biggest non-Final, non-doubleheader in Open Cup history.
For the Stars though, it looks like they were able to have their cake (the payoff) and eat it as well. (See ya later, RSL!)
The MLSassacre (stolen from Twitter) ended with seven top-flight clubs being knocked out of the tournament. And it could have been worse.
The San Jose Earthquakes had to come from behind to knock off the visiting Ft. Lauderdale Strikers 2-1. DC United needed extra time to see off the Richmond Kickers by another 2-1 score line. Sporting Kansas City were thoroughly outplayed in the first half against Orlando City SC, but were able to walk away with a 3-2 home victory. Chivas USA scored the only goal early in a hard-fought match at PDL side Ventura County Fusion.
A few MLS sides were able to take care of business in less dramatic fashion. Colorado Rapids traveled to Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg, Florida and were able to take care of the NASL's Tampa Bay Rowdies 3-1. The Philadelphia Union may be one of the weaker sides in MLS, but they were able to see off the Rochester Rhinos 3-0 behind two Freddy Adu goals.
And finally, the New York Red Bulls seem to have finally learned about the dangers of taking the U.S. Open Cup lightly. After their reserve team got thrashed by the Fire last June by a 4-0 score line, the Red Bulls started a near full-strength squad on Tuesday. The move paid off, with the former Metrostars knocking off the Charleston Battery 3-0 at Blackbaud Stadium in South Carolina.
At the end of the night, MLS club won seven matches and lost seven. Heading into the night, this would have been seen as nearly impossible. You would have thought that perhaps two or three of the top clubs could have been knocked out. But this was a stunner.
It really is a testament to how much the quality of the game has grown in the past decade. It also shows how much talent there is throughout the country and not just in areas that could be considered soccer hotbeds.
It's safe to say that some of these lower-division players will soon see opportunities to play in Major League Soccer. That's one of the great things about this tournament. On one hand, it's a chance to see clubs and players you'll never see again. On the other hand, there's the chance that the next big star simply hasn't been discovered yet and will see the Open Cup as their moment to shine.
So even though the Fire, our Kings of the Cup, are among the seven MLS clubs out of the tournament this year, it was hard for me to upset about how the night transpired. It was a great night for the game, and more importantly, it was a great night for the game in this country.
Now if only Atlanta could knock off the Sounders tonight and make it eight...