FC Cincinnati is a great story. But so is Bradley Wright-Phillips.
The son of an English legend who had to set out for soccer’s new world to make his own name, Wright-Phillips added another chapter to his remarkable tale Tuesday night in the Queen City. Facing a two-goal deficit and the prospect of yet another infuriating setback in single-elimination play, the New York Red Bulls halved FCC’s lead in the 75th minute and then rode Wright-Phillips’ two goals to a stirring, 3-2 overtime win over the upstart USL club in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals.
As a result, New York will visit Sporting Kansas City in the 104th USOC final on September 20. Sporting outlasted the San Jose Earthquakes on penalty kicks last week. It will be the hard-luck Red Bulls’ second trip to the tournament title game and just their third major final in 22 years. They’ve never won one. No MLS club has had more misfortune in cup competition than New York, but Wright-Phillips gave his team the chance to ease some of that pain Tuesday.
Everything was set up for more Metro disappointment. But despite past hardship, New York was the antagonist in the story playing out at sold-out Nippert Stadium. They were the wealthy, big-city club facing off against the smaller, plucky second-year Cinderella yearning to make history of its own. Cincinnati coach Alan Koch called his team ‘FC Disneyland,’ and the moniker was appropriate for a team whose Open Cup run he accurately described as “truly magical.”
Since MLS kicked off in 1996, only two lower-league teams reached an Open Cup final. And FCC was only 15 minutes away from being the third. It had won five tournament games by shutout, beating Ohio rival Columbus Crew, rising Eastern power Chicago Fire and then NASL leader Miami FC in the quarterfinals. Home crowds were loud and massive—Tuesday night’s figure of 33,250 set a non-final Open Cup record—and as the run continued, FCC’s MLS expansion bid garnered additional momentum and attention. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati and MLS commissioner Don Garber were in attendance Tuesday.
Even the Red Bulls took notice.
“A second-division team in the semifinal of the Open Cup—that’s awesome,” New York captain Sacha Kljestan said. “This is so huge for soccer in our country, big for the club and big for the fans too. This is what the Open Cup is all about.”
Indeed, it’s about upsets and fairy tales. But when the underdog wins there’s a favorite that falls and for New York, the Open Cup and MLS playoffs have been about that side of the story far too many times. Only the LA Galaxy have qualified for the MLS postseason more frequently, but the Red Bulls have done nothing with their ample opportunities. There was the 2008 trip to the MLS Cup final, where they were defeated by a superior Columbus Crew squad, and then a whole lot of disappointment, early endings and losses to lower seeds. The only Open Cup final appearance came back in ’03.
“There’s going to be more energy [at Nippert] than maybe we felt all year, and a team that’s playing in the most important game in many of their lives,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch told the New York Post. “To be fair, it’s an important game in many of our guys’ lives, so it sets up to be a great match and a fun match and one that we’re going to take very seriously and we know is very important.”
The Red Bulls entered Tuesday’s semifinal knowing there was a raucous crowd and a team of destiny on the other side, not to mention their own miserable history behind them. And midway through the second half, it appeared New York would be buried by it. FCC was missing suspended striker Djiby Fall, who’d scored every one of the club’s USOC goals. But the hosts still took a 31st-minute lead through midfielder Corben Bone and then went ahead by two when hometown hero and club captain Austin Berry headed home a corner kick.
Marsch had weapons at his disposal, however, that FCC couldn’t match. As the hosts tired, New York brought Gonzalo Verón and Derrick Etienne off the bench. Verón scored from close range in the 75th and then Wright-Phillips went to work.
The forward's comments had caused a bit of a stir before the game, but they were spot on. Favorites are supposed to win. Sometimes they don’t, and that’s what makes cup play so exciting. But the Red Bulls felt they were due.
“It’s the furthest we’ve been [in the Open Cup] and no disrespect to Cincinnati—we have to turn up in that game and be ready for the atmosphere—but we should win that game,’’ Wright-Phillips told the Post. “Don’t mistake this for being cocky, but with the quality we’ve got, if we lose this it’ll be on us. We would be the only people to blame for that.”
Wright-Phillips put his forehead where his mouth was, tying the game on a 78th-minute header, hitting the crossbar in the 90th and then notching the game-winner in the 101st off a cross from Sal Zizzo (the other New York substitute).
On this night, destiny was no match for depth, and the Red Bulls finally avoided folding before a final.
They’ll meet a Sporting side that’s used to the big stage. Kansas City has won two MLS Cups and two Open Cups and will be playing in its fourth major final in the past six seasons. On the road, the Red Bulls will be slight underdogs. But Tuesday’s late comeback, not to mention Wright-Phillips’ clutch and confidence, may be a sign their knockout mojo is growing. It’ll be New York’s chance to make history next month.