South Florida fans have been clamoring for a Major League Soccer team since the Miami Fusion folded in 2001.
On Wednesday night, at FIU’s Riccardo Silva Stadium, they got a chance to see an MLS team as Atlanta United was in town to play Miami FC in the U.S. Open Cup Round of 16.
But it was the hometown team from the second-tier North American Soccer League that stole the show, advancing to the July 12 quarterfinals with a thrilling 3-2 victory. Fans in the Beer Garden end zone chanted
“We beat the MLS!” as the clock expired.
Midfielder Kwadwo Poku, a member of Ghana’s national team, scored the game-clincher in extra time. He emerged from a scrum just outside the box, saw open field ahead, barreled his way toward the goal, and slipped the ball past Atlanta defender Carlos Carmona and goalkeeper Alec Kann. The crowd of 9,004 erupted and went berserk.
Miami FC, riding a 13-game unbeaten streak, had knocked off MLS team Orlando City in the previous round of the interleague tournament, and was determined to prove that it plays like a first-division team and that local fans don’t have to wait for David Beckham to see entertaining professional soccer.
“This was a turning point for our club,” said Miami FC captain Mike Lahoud. “I didn’t realize how many people were here until Poku scored that goal. One fan jumped the boards and nearly clotheslined me. That sums up what tonight meant to this city. I think we made a statement.
“There were lot of first time fans, people who were a little curious about this team, who wondered, ‘What does Miami FC mean?’ What you saw tonight is what it means to us, our staff and front office. I hope there’s a waking up in the city and I’m glad to be part of it. I look forward to writing history with this club.”
Miami will play FC Cincinnati of the USL, who defeated the Chicago Fire of the MLS in penalty kicks on Wednesday night.
You could almost sense the fans being won over as the night wore on. After defender Rhett Bernstein knocked in Hunter Freeman’s free kick to give Miami the lead in the 51st minute, some fans began chanting “MLS [stinks]! MLS [stinks!]”
Atlanta applied high pressure early and took the lead in the 35th minute on a goal by Brandon Vazquez off a cross from Kevin Kratz. Miami tied it up two minutes later when Brazilian forward Pinho knocked in a pass from Poku.
After Miami took a 2-1 lead in the 51st minute, Atlanta knotted it with a 75th-minute penalty kick by Gressel. Poku committed the foul, but redeemed himself with the game-winner.
“This is a true testament of the U.S. Open Cup — anything can happen,” said Lahoud, who plays for Sierra Leone’s national team. “We never stopped, even when things weren’t our usual flowing type of game. I’m just really, really proud of our guys.
“I think Atlanta was shellshocked. Usually, MLS teams come in, get the first goal and the other team from the lower division gives up. But Poku ... there’s a reason he’s getting called up for Ghana. He’s a beast, and I’m really happy he’s on my team. Big players step up in big games and Poku stepped up.”
Atlanta, a first-year MLS team that draws 40,000-plus fans to its home games, is in sixth place in the Eastern conference but had struggled on the road. They were 0-4-1 in their previous five road games. They dominated early, but seemed to run out of gas.
“They couldn’t sustain it,” Lahoud said. “We live here, we know what it’s like to play in this heat. If you try to apply pressure on us for 90 minutes, good luck.”
Miami FC CEO Sean Flynn called it “the most important match in our club’s short history.”
It sure felt that way.
There was a noticeable buzz even before the opening whistle. The club took out a full-page ad in the Miami Herald on Wednesday.
Flynn and team owner Silva were interviewed on sports talk radio in recent days. Local TV crews showed up for the first time this season. And the biggest buzz came from the fans, who surely will be back July 12.
“A special night,” Poku said. “Very special night.”