The Philadelphia Union play at home on Tuesday night (7:30 p.m., no TV), but it’s not an MLS game, not one of those so-called “International Friendly” exhibitions, and the opponent is from Ocean City. So what gives?
I asked this same question when I first started following the Union and found-out that, in the middle of the season, the club plays in a national U.S. Open Cup tournament, sometimes involving teams most people have ever heard of. But this is just another way in which soccer differs from most other sports—and it has to do with the history of the game here in the United States.
The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup soccer tournament has been around, under one name or another, since the early 1900s. Before modern-era leagues like the MLS came along, the tourney was the premiere showcase for the sport nationwide. Nowadays, dozens of professional, second tier and even amatuer clubs from coast to coast participate. This season, the opening round of the series featured 18 matches with clubs from at least 16 states. Some additional sides were added in the second round and the professional clubs are now joining-in. The tournament is open to any adult mens team affilated with U.S. Soccer and it’s a knock-out format. You lose, you’re done.
Since the MLS was born in 1996, the professional league’s teams have dominated, winning all but a handful of the championships (and the tournament trophy, the Dewar Cup). But there have been some suprises. Just ask fans of the Rochester Rhinos, a second division squad that won it all in the late 90s.
There are some interesting aspects to the Union’s involvement this season. Last year, Philadelphia went 3-1 in the tournament and made it to the semi-finals before losing to the eventual champion, Sporting Kansas City. Also, the most cups ever won by a single franchise is 5 and one of the teams to do it was the old Bethlehem Steel squad back in the early 1900s. This season, the Union has a new third uniform that pays tribute to that franchise. I don’t know if the third “kit” will make it onto the field during this year’s tournament, but it seems fitting.
The Union, in only it’s fourth season, would love to bring home the Cup, as it would represent the first bauble in the club’s trophy case. Aside from that, there’s a kitty involved. The club that wins it all ends-up with about $250,000 in their pocket, which isn’t exactly chump change. In fact, even early round victories net teams at least some cash.
There’s a little controversy going into Tuesday night’s clash with the Ocean City Nor’easters. The Professional Development League club, who won an upset 1-0 victory in their first-round match against the Pittsburgh Rounders, lost an appeal to host the game with the Union down at the Shore. Tourney organizer U.S. Soccer assigned the game to PPL Park because its records showed that the Nor’easter’s home field at Carey Stadium at Fifth and Atlantic did not meet the minimum width requirements; they missed the fact that the pitch was recently expanded. The Union, nice people that they are, have agreed to share some of the gate with O.C..
WHO IS LAMAR HUNT? The tournament was renamed for the late Lamar Hunt in 2006. Most sports fans probably remember Hunt as the founder of the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, but Hunt was also heavily involved with promoting soccer and tennis in the U.S.. He was a principal founder of the MLS (and the old NASL prior to that). At one time, he owned both the Columbus Crew and FC Dallas. Upon his passing, U.S. Soccer acknowledged the key role Hunt played in the sport by annointing the premiere stateside tournament in his honor.
HOW SERIOUSLY DOES THE UNION TAKE THIS GAME? It will be interesting to see who Manager John Hackworth runs out against O.C. on Tuesday night. On the one hand, the match is not expected to be that difficult and Hackworth would hate to see one of his stars injured in a non-league contest. On the other hand, there’s a good deal of money to be won if the club does well and nobody in the MLS is interested in the negative publicity a loss to a second-division squad would incur. Even if it isn’t the regular starting 11, don’t be surprised to see plenty of stars on the bench ready to contribute if the match gets off to a competitive start.
THE MESS IN MONTREAL: Not only did Union fans endure 5 Montreal goals in Saturday’s 5-3 loss in Quebec, especially hurtful was that 3 of them came off the body of Impact striker Marco Di Vaio, who is now tied with home town favorite Jack McInerney for the MLS goal lead with 9. It could’ve been worse. At least Jack netted one of his own to keep the race knotted. The game was actually not as close as the final tally indicated. Montreal led play most of the night. And the Union’s second goal was a little lucky, coming-off a missed cross that knuckled on Antoinne Hoppenot but slipped into the mesh past startled netminder Troy Perkins. But it could’ve been different. Early on, after McInerney knotted the score at 1-1, the Union held strong ball control for a full ten minutes and had at least three solid chances. But they all went wide. Another goal in that stretch and the match takes on an entirely different complexion.
ONE GOOD SIGN: Sebastien Le Toux finally got back into the scoring groove on a beautiful shot through traffic in the latter minutes of the contest. It was no throw-away score, either. It brought Philadelphia back to within one and was a clutch shot. After being benched for a couple of games and demoted to late subsitution in a couple others, Le Toux has found his way back into the starting fold and is producing. He may only have two goals (the other on opening day against Sporting KC), but he’s among the league leaders in assists with four and has taken a shine to setting-up McInerney of late.
NEXT UP: Following the Tuesday Cup match, the Union are on the road on Saturday in Toronto. That’s right, 1-7-2 Toronto. It’s a great chance for Philadelphia (5-5-3) to get back over .500 before it has to begin tackling the Western Conference clubs. Meanwhile, the Union is still holding the fifth and final play-off position in the East, 2 points ahead of Columbus who managed a draw with front-running New York this past weekend.