The US Open - soccer's "May Mayhem"
If all had gone as it should have, the Columbus Crew would currently be in Chicago, preparing to battle the rival Fire tonight at Toyota Park for a quarterfinal berth in the 2012 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Instead, the Crew and Fire were among eight MLS teams stunned by lower-division clubs in one of the most chaotic rounds in U.S. Open Cup history. Two months after March Madness, American soccer fans witnessed May Mayhem. It was an MLS massacre.
Founded in 1914, the U.S. Open Cup is a single-elimination tournament that is open to teams from all levels of U.S. Soccer, ranging from Major League Soccer to the amateur U.S. Adult Soccer Association, with three different levels of minor leagues in between. There is no comparable professional tournament in the other four major American sports, but in soccer, there can be the equivalent of a meaningful match-up between the Akron Aeros and the Cincinnati Reds. Such was the case on May 29 when the Dayton Dutch Lions visited Columbus Crew Stadium.
"The Open Cup is a cool thing for lower-division clubs because you get to see a more professional environment," said Dayton's Gibson Bardsley. "You get to see better-class players, better-class fields and facilities, and all of that. It's a highlight to come to one of these stadiums. It's definitely an inspiration thing, to see where you're at. You're comparing yourself to America's top teams, which is very exciting and motivating. You learn a lot from the differences in style and skill level."
The Dutch Lions entered the match at 0-4-4 in USL Pro, which is the third tier of American professional soccer, so imagine a struggling AA ballclub. The Crew, meanwhile, were riding high on a 5-game unbeaten streak in MLS play. Despite being outshot 18-3 and being dominated in terms of possession and territory, Dayton poached two late goals by Gerrit Jan Bartels and Bardsley to steal an improbable 2-1 victory.
"Let's be honest, Columbus is a better team than the Dayton Dutch Lions," said Dayton's coach, Ivar van Dinteren. "They are better, but that doesn't mean anything. It's the cup. Anything can happen. I watch a lot of English soccer and you will see 3rd and 4th division clubs beat Premier League teams. That's the cup."
Premier League teams are indeed upset every year in England's FA Cup. Even Manchester United, one of the richest and most powerful clubs on the planet, lost to a third-tier team in their home stadium a few years ago. Columbus-Dayton was nowhere near that magnitude, but it was a stunner nonetheless.
After such an upset, the common refrain is that the favorite didn't take the match seriously, either in terms of player performance or coaching preparation. This is often viewed as the only conceivable answer, but to make this claim is to shortchange both the Dutch Lions and the Crew. To win this type of game, Dayton had to spend most of the entire match defending deep in their own end. To survive such an onslaught takes determination, sacrifice, resiliency, solid goalkeeping and good fortune. The Dutch Lions did their part on all counts, and the Crew's lack of sharpness in the box and penchant for narrow misses further aided Dayton's cause. And then on offense, a team like Dayton knows that they are only going to get one or two chances to score, so they need to make them count. The Dutch Lions took advantage of two Columbus turnovers and efficiently converted them into well-taken counterattack goals. Dayton had virtually no margin for error in the game, and their performance met that stringent standard.
"Nobody expected them to beat us tonight," said Crew midfielder Chris Birchall, "and if you look at the highlights, you'll see us missing chances and missing chances and them scoring on their two chances. It's a great moment for them and disappointing for us."
"Any game, anybody can win," said Bardsley, who netted the game-winning goal. "It's just who can capitalize. That's the cool thing about soccer. "
For the Crew, it was a crushing loss. Playing their fourth game in 12 days, Columbus fielded a younger lineup, but a lineup containing players who had contributed to the team's unbeaten run and were hungry to build upon their recent MLS success. Players and coaches did not take the Dutch Lions lightly.
"You never want to lose these types of games early in this competition," said the Crew's 2012 first-round draft pick, Ethan Finlay. "You know it's going to get harder as the competition moves along, but you reinforce it about these early games. Coach made a habit of telling us all week that we need to complete this four-game stretch and that this Open Cup game was going to be difficult. He said he was putting a team on the field that could win it. We could have won that game easily. It just came down to execution. We didn't get it done today. That's the disappointing part."
Upsets are what make knock-out tournaments magical, but they cast an entirely different spell when your team is on the wrong end of the result. As Finlay spoke, midfielder Cole Grossman could be found slumped deep into his locker, lost in a catatonic, disbelieving gaze that would not leave his face for the next thirty minutes.
Lions coach van Dinteren scoffed at the notion that the Crew took the game lightly. "For the fanbase, maybe they thought it was a friendly, but for the Crew, I did not see that. They gave everything they had. They pressed us and they scored, and they had another chance or two but they didn't put us away. In soccer, we say that if you don't score yourself, your opponent will score. That's what we did, and we did it very well, by the way."
Another quirk of the tournament is that home-field advantage is determined by a coin flip. This can put MLS teams in some awkward situations. The New England Revolution found themselves playing in a small stadium located on an island in the middle of the Susquehanna River, where they inconceivably blew a three-goal lead in overtime before succumbing on penalties to third-division Harrisburg.
On Saturday, the Chicago Fire played in front of 16,000 fans on a beautiful grass field at Crew Stadium. On Tuesday night, they played before an overflow crowd of 2,006 fans on a turf field at an indoor facility in Pontiac, Mich., where they lost in overtime to the Michigan Bucks of the Premier Development League, which is the fourth tier of American Soccer. PDL clubs field teams of top college players, who get to play in a professional environment while keeping their NCAA eligibility. For example, Crew Academy and Akron Zips standout Chard Barson started for Michigan. The Bucks have had a long history of pulling upsets in the U.S. Open Cup, as they are 9-7-1 all-time against professional teams in Cup play. Their comeback win against the Fire was their second all-time win against an MLS club.
"The mindset is no different when we play the Fire MLS or the Fire PDL," Bucks CEO Dan Duggan wrote in an email, referencing the fact that Chicago also fields a PDL team. "We need to come out the aggressor and take the action to our opponent. The only thing that changes is the personnel of the team we are playing and the speed of play."
According to Dayton's van Dinteren, underdogs from the lower divisions also benefit from the fact that a heavy burden is borne by the favorites, while the underdogs are playing with house money.
"We had nothing to lose," he said. "Columbus had everything to lose. Columbus is the MLS club. They have to win. We don't have to win."
In fact, when Dayton tied the match, van Dinteren urged his players to press for an immediate winner instead of bunkering in and playing for penalties. "I said, ‘What do we have to lose? Try to make another one! If Columbus makes it, that's fine with me.'"
The Dutch Lions got that winner, and the Crew looked flustered and flummoxed while trying to stage a desperate comeback. The team that had to win didn't win.
No team could have possibly needed to win more, or have been more flustered and flummoxed than the Portland Timbers, who unleashed 43 shots but dropped a 1-0 overtime decision at home to an amateur USASA team called Cal FC. It was the first time a USASA club had ever so much as scored against an MLS squad. As a team that practices only once or twice a week once everybody gets off work, Cal FC was no match for the Timbers' fitness over 120 minutes. They took to rotating players to different positions to give players a break, yet they still executed an overtime counterattack to win the game. As a result of their heroic performance, Cal FC head coach Eric Wynalda has tweeted that professional offers have already come in for several of Cal FC's players.
Cal FC's reward for stunning the Timbers is a trek up to Washington to play the three-time defending U.S. Open Cup champion Seattle Sounders. The intriguing and improbable matchup has garnered so much interest that Fox Soccer will nationally televise the David vs. Goliath affair at 10:30 p.m. tonight.
The Dutch Lions and Bucks will be focused on their own matchup. Dayton is the professional side, but Michigan has home-field advantage and plenty of talent. There is a lot at stake for the players on both clubs, as the winner will travel to face an MLS team in the quarterfinals.
"They understand the importance of winning the game and a next round match against Colorado or Sporting KC," Michigan's Duggan wrote of the Dutch Lions in an email. "Every player in that locker room wants another MLS audition on June 26, as do our guys. When the whistle blows, there will be 22 players who are trying to earn a job at the next level, not just a PDL team against a USL Pro team."
Meanwhile, the lights at Toyota Park will remain dark. Instead of renewing their rivalry, the Crew and Fire will have plenty of compelling action to follow tonight, both online and on Fox Soccer. It wasn't supposed to be that way, but that's what makes the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup so special.