In sport, we seek the comfort of consistency. Our days are full of disappointment and the often unintelligible, so we flock to stadia and arenas all over the world for the reliable, the dependable, the steady. Yes, yes, we love underdogs and upsets and the shock of the feat we never imagined possible.
But we hunger for the fact that the 30 baseball teams that played last season will be the same 30 that play this season – no matter how bad some of them were. That football field was 100 yards from endzone to the endzone for Red Grange and Jim Brown and Gale Sayers and Ezekial Elliott. And we burn up the phone lines on sports radio when hardwood coaches invoke the merits of “load management” during the NBA season. We are desperate for the solidity of sports because we find the rest of our lives anything but. And then there’s the US Open Cup.
A tournament that is so chock full of differences, so fairly brimming over with a kind of unreliable, undependable, “what the hell is THAT” ness that usually sends Americans running for the exits. Except, not so much in St. Louis on Tuesday night, where more than 22,000 fans packed CityPark (a record for a third-round Open Cup match, you should know, and tenth highest for any Open Cup match), to watch St. Louis City SC take on Union Omaha. And display what makes these differences so great. Like…
The US Open Cup Is The Competition Americans Need
The Teams Were Different
Explaining to your polite but generally disinterested neighbor that yes, Omaha has a team but no, it’s not in the same league as St. Louis – that it’s sort of as if the Yankees were playing the Toledo Mud Hens in the middle of the MLB season – is only half the battle. A year ago, St. Louis didn’t have an MLS team; they had an MLS 2 team (don’t even begin to try to explain that to your neighbor, just let him go back to watering his weeds), but not a top-tier team. (for those following along at home, SLC2 acquitted themselves admirably in 2022 – beating Indy 11 on the road in round 2 and then losing on PKs to Louisville City FC in the following round).
Meanwhile, Union Omaha – which has actually been around longer than St. Louis City SC, winning the USL 1 championship in 2021 – made a historic run to the Open Cup quarterfinals in 2022, chewing up and spitting out two MLS sides along the way.
But the point is, the teams were different because they’d never faced each other. They may never face each other again. Don’t inhabit the same universe, except, you know, for the US Open Cup. How great is that?
The Players Were Different
If you’re an MLS fan, you would be forgiven if you couldn’t identify the players on Union Omaha. Yes, some, like Luis Gil, were stalwarts on MLS sides. Others made a few appearances on top sides, but couldn’t get consistent minutes on the pitch. Still others played on MLS academy sides but couldn’t break through. And a significant number have fought the good fight in the lower leagues that make up the American soccer landscape.
And that’s understandable – the access the public has to USL1 games is limited. But the thing with the US Open Cup is, even if you’re a St Louis City fan, you might not recognize the players taking the pitch in red. Where was Burki? Or Giochinni? Or even Louwen? Well, they are on the bench, because Portland is coming to town on Saturday and coach Bradley Carnell wants to rest his top players. However, there is also an opportunity, as Carnell said after the match “We knew we’d have some hungry players” – that is, players anxious to take this opportunity to show they have what it takes to be on the first team. Players like Aziel Jackson who had two goals and almost a third, or Célio Pompeu who had three assists.
And while the opportunity to see new players shine is always gratifying, there was a different dynamic at play that was even more compelling.
Consider this: it is not unreasonable to say that the level of individual talent on the MLS side – even among players who were not regular season starters – was generally higher than for the USL1 side. But what the USL1 side had was teamwork. They may not have been as talented as the St. Louis squad, but they really knew how each other played. Could anticipate their moves, understood their preferences, and were dialed into their speed and pace.
— St Louis CITY SC (@stlCITYsc) April 26, 2023
And the St. Louis players – they didn’t have that level of familiarity, because they hadn’t played together as much. So the question during the game would be, the thing to watch as the minutes ticked away was, could the St. Louis City players learn that teamwork, in real-time, under real pressure?
A 5-1 final score line indicates that, um, yes, they could.
The Fans Were Different
You could make the case that St. Louis would be soccer-mad even if their team wasn’t top of the West. And having a shockingly good run of form. St. Louis is a – some here would say the – soccer city. Every weekend that the team is in town, the stadium is packed to the rafters. Tickets are selling at prices that would make the elites in more famous cities sit up and take notice (and for what it’s worth, every weekend the team is not in town, the bars are packed with fans as well). This means more casual fans, or fans who can’t afford to pay east coast ticket prices, can’t get into CityPark.
But for the US Open Cup, they could. Ticket prices were more reasonable and seats were more available.
So you had a lot of people for whom this was their first trip to CityPark. Families with young kids who play. Locals who support St. Louis and have been hearing the good news about the team. Friends and family members of die-hards who finally relented – okay okay, I’ll go. Or even people for whom the game was on their bucket list but a Tuesday night was easier to manage than a Saturday night.
So the excitement they brought to the pitch was real and authentic and actually a little different from the fans there on MLS game days. You had something of the feeling of the inaugural home game – in the bars and restaurants around the stadium, walking the concourse, and taking selfies with the players afterward. A different kind of anticipation, a different kind of wonder and awe. But, you know, just as loud.
The Weather Was….
No, actually, the weather was fine. Typical late spring in St. Louis. The upper sixties, quite lovely actually. Hey, you can’t have everything….
Round Four of the US Open Cup Is May 9th and 10th
— St Louis CITY SC (@stlCITYsc) April 28, 2023
By the time you’re reading this, the draw for the next round will have happened. There are still a lot of teams involved. 24 sides survived the third round plus eight more MLS entrants. This is one of the things that make soccer so interesting, so different from other sports, and so predictably unpredictable. You don’t want to miss it.
Photo Credit: Joe Puetz-USA Today Sports on April 25, 2023.