The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and knockout tournaments like it around the world are about bucking conventional wisdom, an opportunity for David to slay Goliath.
In England, fourth-tier side Crawley Town was on the cusp of the 2011 FA Cup quarterfinals before narrowly losing to mighty Manchester United. Third-tier French side Quevilly made the final of the 2012 Coupe de France before falling 1-0 to traditional power Lyon. A similar story is currently developing in America. In U.S. soccer circles, nobody bucks conventional wisdom more than outspoken former U.S. national team veteran and current Fox Soccer analyst Eric Wynalda, which makes him the perfect face for what has transpired in the 99th edition of the Open Cup tournament.
Of the 16 teams still alive entering Tuesday's fourth round, eight are from MLS, three are from second-tier NASL, three are from third-tier USL Pro, one is from fourth-tier Premier Development League and one is from fifth-tier United States Adult Soccer Association. The most remarkable story belongs to the latter, the Wynalda-coached Cal FC. A team of soccer rejects, castaways and guys who have yet to get their shot, they have morphed into the American soccer equivalent of George Mason, Butler or VCU, a true Cinderella story.
The tandem of Wynalda and Nick Webster, previously known for their work together on the old Fox Football Fone-In television show, have teamed to coach Cal FC from an unknown amateur team into an Open Cup darling. Wynalda said the club has played eight organized games, all of which have been played since May 5, and three of which have come in the Open Cup. Cal FC players trained together just five times before leading up to a fourth-round clash with the three-time defending tournament champion Seattle Sounders.
Wynalda has become notorious for his diatribes on the state of soccer in this country and for his contrarian crusade to offer the solutions. But what he's accomplished in guiding Cal FC into an Open Cup force -- and a worldwide trending topic on Twitter -- has been nothing short of remarkable. Cal FC, which sits ninth in the table of the 12-team amateur La Gran Liga de Oxnard, is a byproduct of Wynalda's work with Murcielagos FC, a second-tier organization in Mexico for which he has been charged with finding Mexican-Americans in Southern California to play for the club.
"I just kept finding players," Wynalda said. "And when I found some of them, most of them didn't fit the [Murcielagos] criteria, but they were great soccer players, and I wanted to find a way to put them together."
La Gran Liga de Oxnard gave Cal FC the forum to, at the very least, get out on the field and play competitively. As it turns out, it was a stepping stone to something much greater.
"Sometimes the level [in the league] is really high; sometimes it's beer bellies and ponytails," Wynalda said. "I used it as a platform to get these guys together, to evaluate them. That's just how it happened."
What followed was Open Cup qualification through the USASA Region IV tournament and wins over Kitsap Pumas, Wilmington Hammerheads and the Portland Timbers. Thought the degree of difficulty keeps rising with each match, Cal FC's players are one shock win away from being the first team in more than three years to eliminate the Sounders from the Open Cup and further etch their name in American soccer lore in a match that will be televised live on Fox Soccer Channel.
"There's nothing typical about this whole scenario," Wynalda said. "There's nothing typical about these guys."
Cal FC's story is the most sensational of the U.S. Open Cup, but by no means is it the only one. This year's tournament is littered with upsets and Cinderella stories, and two non-MLS teams are already guaranteed places in the quarterfinals based on fourth-round matchups. Aside from the tale of Cal FC, there's the PDL club Michigan Bucks, a Columbus Crew affiliate which has had past Open Cup success. They knocked off four-time champion and MLS side Chicago Fire to advance to Tuesday's fourth round. Then there's the story of the Carolina RailHawks, previously winless in NASL play, but victorious over the MLS Cup champion Los Angeles Galaxy in front of a raucous crowd in Cary, N.C. There's the NASL champion Minnesota Stars, which sold off hosting rights to Real Salt Lake, then ventured into Rio Tinto Stadium and overwhelmed the current leaders in the race for the MLS Supporters' Shield. Finally, there's the USL Pro side Harrisburg City Islanders, which played the New England Revolution to a scoreless regulation, fell behind 3-0 in extra time, then managed to score three of their own and win in penalty kicks.
"I don't know that anybody's been part of a game that wild," Harrisburg City coach Bill Becher said. "We were involved in some pretty crazy games down the stretch last year. I don't think any of those games can compare to anything that happened here."
Becher referred to last year's USL Pro semifinal match in which four red cards were doled out and the final in which his club tied the match in stoppage time, surrendered a lead in extra time and succumbed on penalties to Orlando City SC. That paled in comparison to his team's comeback on the Revs.
"There was a little hope left I guess at 2-0," Becher said. "You never stop believing, I guess you never give up, but we were pretty distraught on the bench. We thought we played pretty well and were on the wrong end of a 3-0 scoreline and not looked like we just lost the game but got whooped on."
The Cup's magic knows no bounds.
There are reasonable explanations for the Open Cup phenomenon. MLS teams don't always put out their strongest lineups for the mid-week cup matches, although with this year's first round for MLS sides falling during an international break, most took the opportunity to field starter-heavy teams.
"They've got games on weekends, and they want to see some of their reserve players play, so they gamble a little bit and once in a while they get bit," Michigan Bucks coach Gary Parsons said. "We've got the kind of players that a few of them can be on MLS clubs. Some of them have been professional. The caliber of player that we have vs. a reserve player on an MLS team, there's a difference, but there's not a huge difference."
This year's shift to a random determination for host sites as opposed to a bidding process that favored more wealthy MLS teams has also accounted for a shift in power. Giving the lower-tier sides any advantage or incentive to play in front of a larger home crowds is sometimes all that is necessary to tilt the scales.
"That makes a difference, too," Becher said. "This year compared to last year there's a lot more MLS teams on the road. We're 4-3 in seven games [against MLS teams]. 3-0 at home, 1-3 on the road, so there is a big difference."
If the Open Cup has taught any lessons over the years, it's that there is a vast amount of talented and capable players in the lower levels of the sport. Scouting is an inexact science -- playing outside of the MLS does not mean a player is not of top-tier caliber.
"The biggest problems that we have in this country is the size of the country, so your players are all over the place and it's difficult for them to be watched on a regular basis," Parsons said. "I have two guys not attached to anybody and there's nobody watching them on a daily basis to tell an MLS club, 'Hey, you've got to have this guy.' MLS is not that far along, the scouting network it hasn't developed that much, these guys are going to fall through the cracks."
Across a national soccer landscape in which millions play at the youth level, there's no definitive way to filter all of the talent to MLS teams and academies. Even in this Internet age where everyone is seemingly connected or a known commodity, there remain players, teams and coaches that go unnoticed. For many players in MLS or on teams at a higher level, success was a result of supreme skill and exposure, determination and circumstance. Ability and opportunity crossed paths. For less fortunate teams like Cal FC and players across the lower tiers of the U.S. Soccer pyramid, that opportunity for recognition is now.
"It's got to be so discouraging for some of them, because they want it so bad," Wynalda said. "They just want a chance, and they're getting doors slammed in their face. I think this team gave them a perfect opportunity. I'm not the kind of manager that's going to criticize a lot. I'm not going to beat them up for their mistakes. I just let them play the game the way they love to play it."
For Wynalda, identifying and cultivating talent is about accentuating player strengths as opposed to trying to refine and alter their respective games to fit a system. That's something he sees as the chief crime committed by the majority of coaches in this country.
"I think there's a lot of players that have probably been integrated into the system and been identified as talented, but in my experience I feel like when we find a good player who has obviously got talent, the coaching in America tries to change that player into something that he's not, and that's when things start going in the wrong direction," Wynalda said. "I believe that the talents and the abilities of these players or the players in America now exceed the knowledge of the coaching, and when that happens that's the definition of stagnation. That's what's wrong. We actually do have great players, but our coaches don't know what to do with them, they do too much. They beat them up, all the things that they're bad at and it's just waiting for them to make mistakes so they can have their inclusion.
"Soccer is a turnover sport. They're going to lose the ball every once in a while. If you beat them up for it, with a guy like [Cal FC star] Danny Barrera, for example, if I was beating him up for every time he lost the ball, I'd cheat him of the game-winning pass that won us the [Timbers] game.
"David Beckham has a pretty damn good right foot. He can hit a stop sign from 40 yards away. Not many players can do that. It's why he's rich. We [American coaches] probably would've grabbed David Beckham, put him on the left wing and said, 'You need to work on your left foot, kid.'"
The added intrigue in this year's tournament has led to larger demand for viewing capabilities. Live web streams have been available for some games but not all, and more will be available going forward. Fox Soccer picking up the Sounders-Cal FC match is an anomaly, and one made possible by Wynalda's connection to both the game and network.
"We'll continue to upgrade [viewing capabilities]," U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said. "In some cases there's a cost associated with it. As the tournament continues to grow, we'll certainly look at those options."
Another aspect under scrutiny is the venue selection process. Even with the random determination going through the quarterfinal round, selection has not been as simple as coin-flip winners hosting games. Three MLS teams purchased hosting rights off lower-tier foes in the previous round. One of those teams, Seattle, even had its coach Sigi Schmid insinuate to The Seattle Times that a U.S. Soccer conspiracy existed to keep his team away after the club lost three consecutive coin flips. Becher said the New York Red Bulls approached Harrisburg City about potentially swapping venues for their fourth-round match, but even if they had agreed to terms, it would have come too late in the process.
"[Selling hosting rights] are decisions made by ownership groups," Gulati said. "In the past, when it was a competitive bidding, the bigger market teams more often than not had the home games. We've had a couple agreed to change venues. Whether that's in their interest, those are decisions made at the ownership level. For the team, it allows them to play in a potentially bigger market and a bigger crowd, but sure, the thought of, as Carolina did, having 6,000, 7,000 people, that's obviously very exciting for supporters of that team.
"We will look at it after this year -- the format, venue selection, increased marketing, how we make [viewing the tournament] more accessible."
Another byproduct of the Open Cup is the potential for players to earn their way up the ladder. Someone that an MLS front office personnel has glossed over in the past may turn into a late-season roster addition down the line.
"For our players, they're on a bit of a stage and trial in some sorts," Becher said. "Somebody does really well, catches somebody's eye, maybe they get an invite when the season's over. It's happened in the past. There's no doubt an opportunity."
Wynalda said that six or seven of his players have attracted genuine interest from professional teams as a result of Cal FC's Open Cup run, with Barrera, a former University of California Santa Barbara standout, getting offers from unidentified European clubs. This came after MLS teams like the Chicago Fire and Chivas USA passed on his services earlier in the year despite his insistence and sales pitch, according to Wynalda.
"The other part of [entering Cal FC into the Open Cup] was to get these guys exposure and an opportunity to be seen," Wynalda said. "I can't imagine a better way than playing against the [three-time defending] champion Seattle Sounders in this cup. We're going to go to Seattle on live television. I guess we got what we wished for."