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Posted at 07:38 PM ET, 05/21/2012

From Bethlehem Steel to Aegean Hawks, U.S. Open Cup simmers with unique flavor

I have a confession. I like the U.S. Open Cup. There, I said it.

Yes, I know: The tournament is ridiculed by fans, dismissed by many MLS clubs and ignored by TV outlets. It’s not very well organized or executed. The financial responsibility can be burdensome. The matches are often wedged into tight windows between league matches. Heck, if some MLS teams could send an under-16 academy squad to represent them, they probably would.

Will it ever become the tournament after which it was modeled, the English FA Cup? Well, no.

But for all of the shortcomings, the U.S. Open Cup offers an innocent charm in these early stages. I am more interested in the early rounds through the quarterfinals than the final phases, when MLS teams too familiar with one another inevitably fill the slots.

The Open Cup, featuring clubs from all levels of the sport, was founded in 1914 and crowned champions with industrious monikers (Bethlehem Steel, New Bedford Whalers and Uhrik Truckers) and ethnic affiliations (New York Ukrainians, Maccabi Los Angeles and Brooklyn Hispano) before the professional teams got involved.

During the MLS era, the Open Cup has provided the stage for an improbable champion from the second division (the Rochester Raging Rhinos in 1999). And although an MLS team has never won three consecutive league titles, the Seattle Sounders have forged an Open Cup dynasty (2009 to present).

While the U.S. soccer pyramid is generations from implementing promotion and relegation, the Open Cup offers the small clubs a long-shot dream of bumping off high-caliber opponents and advancing to international competition (the CONCACAF Champions League).

Best of all, the Open Cup creates David vs. Goliath matchups unseen in American sports outside the NCAA basketball tournament. One particularly dreamy pairing is close to coming to fruition. On Tuesday night, the Aegean Hawks, an amateur outfit from the D.C. area, will play the third-division Richmond Kickers at Maryland SoccerPlex in Montgomery County.

The Hawks, one of the nation’s best adult amateur teams, have already defeated the fourth-tier Carolina Dynamo, and with a victory over the Kickers, would face D.C. United in the round of 32 next week at the SoccerPlex.

“This is our moment. We’re excited,” said Coach Jonathan Knight, a 39-year-old IT specialist at a private equity firm in Bethesda. “Let’s be honest: Richmond is a bunch of professionals, they’re fitter, they play at a higher level. But this is soccer. Things happen. We’ve got a chance.”

Knight, a Gonzaga High School and Colgate University graduate, is a player-coach, but “now it’s more coaching than playing. I don’t have the wheels anymore.”

The roster includes former college players with full-time non-soccer jobs in the Washington area. Scott Larrabee (Georgetown) is an associate at the Corporate Executive Board. Michael Goldman (George Washington) is in commercial real estate. Watson Prather, a Churchill High graduate who played at Wisconsin, works for an investment firm.

Guilherme Fonseca, a Brazilian who was enrolled in the famed Santos academy before playing at Howard University, is an assistant project manager for a construction company. Ricky Schramm (Georgetown) trialed with D.C. United and had a cup of coffee with the New York Red Bulls; he is now pursuing a master’s degree in business at Georgetown.

Other Hawks played at George Mason, Virginia, William & Mary, Maryland, Towson and Virginia Commonwealth.

The average age is 25 or 26, Knight said. The team practices once, sometimes twice, per week, carving out space without the use of goals on local college fields. The owners of the Dulles SportsPlex, an indoor facility in Sterling, Va., sponsor the team and help offset expenses.

The Hawks were founded in 1996 by students from Greece and Cyprus. They prospered in the Washington International Soccer League and later the Washington Premier League. In 2009, they won the amateur national championship.

In 2007 and ’09, the Hawks qualified for the Open Cup, only to lose to third-division squads in the first round. A tournament format change this year paired amateur teams with fourth-tier opponents (also amateur but more structured), improving the chances of an upset. Last week Larrabee scored twice and Matt Ney (Holy Cross) added a late goal against Carolina at the SoccerPlex.

Some of the Hawks have had a taste of pro soccer, toiling in the lower leagues (Schramm for the Kickers) before moving on in life. But life sometimes conflicts with soccer: Starting goalkeeper Chris Fenner is away on a long-planned vacation and will miss Tuesday’s match.

Said Knight: “We’re just a bunch of guys who still have a passion for the game. We don’t want to stop playing.”

*****

For more information about the U.S. Open Cup, its history, brackets and statistics, visit Josh Hakala’s Web site, thecup.us

By  |  07:38 PM ET, 05/21/2012

Tags:  U.S. Open Cup, MLS

 
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