The 99th United States Open Cup witnessed perhaps its greatest upset story on Wednesday night when Cal FC defeated Portland Timbers 1-0 after extra time. Never heard of Cal FC? That’s because they were created this spring by former US international Eric Wynalda. They play in the fifth tier – yes, there are five tiers in US soccer – as part of the United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA).
To be fair, Cal are comprised of former collegians and players on the fringes of the professional system in North America. Yet they train just once each week and currently sit ninth out of twelve in La Gran Liga de Oxnard, a league featuring high schoolers and other amateur players.
Cal FC reached the Open Cup after a qualification process among California-based amateur teams. Wynalda’s plan, aided by assistant coach and long-time Fox Soccer Channel host Nick Webster, is to give local players whom he deems more than worthy of MLS consideration, a chance to play on a bigger stage. Using his considerable celebrity (or infamy, depending on who you ask), Wynalda brought the team to light in the national media. But with the duties in covering the Champions League final in Munich, Wynalda left the country and the team under Webster’s control for the first two rounds of the Cup.
Several USASA clubs reach the Open Cup each year and are usually dispatched of by semi-pro clubs or lower tiered professional outfits. But not this year. The First Round saw Cal travel to Bremerton, Washington to play defending Premier Development League national champion Kitsap Pumas. The amateurs sprung the upset, 3-1, advancing to the Second Round. USASA clubs have certainly won Open Cup matches before, so while the victory was a surprise and a nice story, it was not all together shocking. Last week, the team traveled to Wilmington, North Carolina to face Wilmington Hammerheads, the second place finisher in the 2011 USL Pro league, also known as the third division. In their biggest game to that point, Cal routed Wilmington 4-0 behind the stellar play of Danny Barrera. The 22-year old Colombian-born midfielder scored twice in each of the first two games, earning Open Cup Player of the Week in both of the opening two rounds.
Enter Portland Timbers, a Major League Soccer side with a long professional history, at least by North American standards. The Timbers have had their share of Open Cup embarrassments in the past, though none worse than a 2008 loss to amateur side Hollywood United, who were led by actor Anthony LaPaglia. With that result in mind, and amid a long break between league games, Portland trotted out its best possible XI, given several injuries and absences due to international duty. Having repeated public pronouncements of how seriously the club was taking the Open Cup, Portland looked poised to knock off the feel-good story and advance to the Fourth Round, where hated rivals Seattle Sounders awaited. Instead, a nightmare ensued.
Portland simply could not score. From the game’s earliest moments until the final whistle 120 minutes later, the Timbers sent cross after cross into the box with no return. Shots were missed narrowly wide, just over the crossbar, directly to Cal’s goalkeeper Derby Carrillo or just utterly mishit. Words can hardly describe the ease with which the Timbers found chances but completely failed to trouble Carrillo. All the while, Cal FC tried to play its possession-oriented style whenever feasible. Though they spent much of the game in their own half, when Cal did get a chance to keep the ball, they did so in an aesthetically pleasing style. Nimble movements, deft touches and triangle passing kept Portland chasing the ball and the amateurs from California always just a break through away from punishing the hosts.
It took a Kris Boyd – yes, that Kris Boyd – penalty howler in the 80th minute to get Cal FC through the 90 minutes at 0-0. A handball in the box gave Boyd a spot kick to finally put to the game to rest but the SPL’s all-time leading scorer seemed to think shooting as hard as possible, regardless of aim, would count for more than one goal. His shot skied over the crossbar and sent a cascade of boos raining down from the supporters section in front of him.
Oddly enough, the break through for Cal FC finally came in the first half of extra time from a long through ball. Having tried tiki-taka throughout, Barrera somehow slid a ball out into the open behind a poorly worked offside trap. Former Armenian youth international (and FC Pyunik forward) Artur Aghasyan ran onto the perfectly weighted ball, sprinted into the clear and calmly chipped goalkeeper Troy Perkins. Jeld-Wen Field, a ground renowned for passionate supporters and a boisterous atmosphere, went silent as shock rippled through the patchy crowd of just over five thousand. Though the noise returned, in the form of anger toward the Timbers’ players, coaches and front office, that brief moment of quiet said more than enough.
Portland poured even more shots on frame into the second overtime period, with Jorge Perlaza forcing Carrillo’s best save of the night (apart from his stonewalling of Boyd, which was for naught given the striker being offside) on a powerful header late on. But destiny was with Cal FC as Portland shots hit the side netting and seemed magnetically repelled by the frame of the goal. When the final whistle finally blew, Timbers players fell to their knees while their opponents found renewed energy to run around the field, celebrating the most famous upset in Open Cup history. The Timbers Army, furious at their own side, gave a classy sending off for Cal FC, encouraging them to beat Seattle in the next round and applauding their efforts. Moments later, ugly scenes at the mouth of the locker room saw Timbers captain Jack Jewsbury restrained from going after particularly irate supporters.
Having promised to take the Cup seriously, the ignominy of losing at home to an amateur side will haunt this Timbers organization for as far as one can look forward. In a week where eight of sixteen MLS clubs lost to lower tiered competition in the Cup, this result stands out. While Portland supporters mourn, the rest of the ever-expanding base of soccer disciples across America extoll the virtues of the Open Cup competition. Untelevised outside of local markets and unfancied by MLS itself, the Cup may have finally found its springboard into a wider public consciousness. While the US Soccer website does not even mention the stunning result, French newspaper L’Équipe has a small story on the match. That incongruity still infuriates soccer supporters but it is clear that this result has brought real attention to the frequently predictable tournament.