Pittsburgh Riverhounds defender Willie Hunt (in gold) slides to tackle the ball away from a Richmond player at Highmark Stadium. (Photo: Terry O’Neill/Riverhounds.com)
The sport of soccer has a rich tradition of large-scale tournaments that mean just as much – if not more in some cases – than league competition.
These days, with soccer media coverage at an all-time high in the United States, even the most casual of fans have probably heard of the UEFA Champions League, and perhaps the FA Cup in English football.
What most Americans might not be aware of, however, is a tradition-laden tourney on home soil, one that unites all levels of pro soccer in this country: the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
Founded in 1914, the U.S. Open Cup is the longest-running ongoing soccer competition in America and the third-oldest such tournament in the world. 91 teams are involved in this year’s 102nd edition, and the Pittsburgh Riverhounds are again playing a part.
“I love it,” said first-year Hounds head coach Mark Steffens, who has vast experience in the U.S. Open Cup from his two decades in the USL. “I think it’s a lot of fun. Outside of the World Cup and some of the other big ones, I think it’s the coolest tournament there is.”
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After being exempted from last week’s opening round – which featured teams from the Premier Development League (PDL), the U.S. Adult Soccer Association and the National Premier Soccer League – the Hounds will take a break from their USL regular-season schedule when they host the West Virginia Chaos at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Last spring, the Riverhounds defeated the New York Red Bulls U23s (NPSL) and RWB Atria (USASA) at Highmark Stadium to advance to the fourth round, where they faced the Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer. On a rain-soaked evening in mid-June, Pittsburgh dropped a 2-1 decision in Chicago.
Facing the Fire conjured good memories of the Hounds’ best performance ever in the U.S. Open Cup. In 2001, as a member of the now-defunct A-League, Pittsburgh topped MLS club Colorado Rapids to advance to the quarterfinal round, where they fell 3-2 to Chicago in extra time.
The promise of challenging a member of America’s top league is a nice carrot for the Hounds to pursue; last week’s U.S. Open Cup draw revealed that Pittsburgh must win twice before taking on an MLS side, as the North American Soccer League’s Tampa Bay Rowdies are up next should the Hounds down West Virginia.
“The further we can go in (the Cup), I think it brings prestige and credibility to the organization,” Steffens said. “It’s important.”
Steffens is clearly a fan of the competition, even though it adds to the Hounds’ workload as they try to climb the USL’s Eastern Conference standings. Pittsburgh is 2-3-3 after a 1-1 home draw with perennial contender Richmond on Saturday night.
Perhaps some of Steffens’ zeal stems from the trouble his former club, the Charlotte Eagles, had in advancing in the U.S. Open Cup. The Eagles made the quarterfinals in 2012, but didn’t get past the third round in 11 other attempts.
“We weren’t a really deep team in Charlotte,” Steffens said. “In order to win on the weekends and in the middle of the week, you have to be able to throw some players out there.”
The Hounds are hoping they can lean on their depth a bit Wednesday, with a six-hour trip to Richmond, Va., looming afterward and possibly another Cup match next week on the South Side.
Rubbing the Rock
The game against West Virginia, which topped inaugural Hounds coach John Kowalski’s fledgling Fort Pitt Regiment last week, will signify a little extra to two veteran Pittsburgh players in particular.
Midfielder Rob Vincent and defender Sterling Flunder are alumni of the Chaos program, which traditionally draws collegiate players seeking to improve in the NCAA offseason. Vincent (University of Charleston) and Flunder (Marshall) both attended school within an hour of the Chaos’ quaint Schoenbaum Stadium, so it was a natural fit.
“I’m really happy for the (Chaos) franchise to get in the U.S. Open Cup, and obviously to win their first game is huge,” said Vincent, the USL’s points-per-game leader with six goals and four assists. “It’s a really good experience (in the PDL). You get to know a lot of guys from different schools and some guys are there for a ‘last hurrah’ after college.
“I enjoyed playing for the Chaos and had some really good times.”
It was good times for the Chaos last Wednesday, when Englishman Daniel Smee’s fifth-minute goal held up for a 1-0 decision in West Virginia’s capital city. The Chaos gained entry into the Cup for the first time by winning the PDL’s South Atlantic division last summer.
But don’t expect Vincent to fall victim to sentimentality when his old club comes calling.
“I know a lot of the guys there, so it’ll be fun to see them, but we want to put a good run together this year in the Cup, so the important thing for us is to get a result and move on to the next round.”