Unbeknownst to most casual fans, one of America’s most historic and compelling soccer tournaments kicked off last week and two local teams are involved.
The U.S. Open Cup, an all-comers, single-elimination tournament in its 102nd year, had its first-round matches last Wednesday. Miami United, a local semipro National Premier Soccer League team, advanced to the second round with a 2-1 win over the Southwest Florida Adrenaline.
Miami United now travels to Charleston, South Carolina, on Wednesday to play a second-round match against the Battery, a United Soccer League team one tier up from the Miami team. The winner of that game faces the NASL’s Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the third round on May 27.
The U.S. Open Cup is America’s version of the FA Cup and features 80 teams from all levels of U.S. soccer — Major League Soccer, the NASL and USL, as well as 42 semipro and amateur teams from the USL Premier Development League, National Premier Soccer League, the United States Adult Soccer Association and US Club Soccer.
Early rounds are for teams from the lower-tier leagues. NASL teams play their opening matches in the third round and the 17 U.S.-based MLS teams enter in the fourth round. The Seattle Sounders have won four of the past six titles and MLS teams have won every trophy since 2000.
Just like the FA Cup, and the NCAA basketball tournaments, the appeal of the U.S. Open Cup is that the sport’s minnows get a chance to go head to head with the biggest fish. And every once in a while, the minnows win.
That was the case in 2012, when a ragtag amateur team called Cal FC reached the fourth round, upsetting the USL’s Wilmington Hammerheads and (even more shocking) the Portland Timbers of MLS before losing to Seattle. That team was thrown together by former U.S. national team star Eric Wynalda, and it gave hope to all the little teams out there.
“The great thing about the U.S. Open Cup is that those lower-level teams are playing for pride, and it gives a chance for those teams to show that they have good players too,” Strikers coach Marcelo Neveleff said. “They are playing for their shirt, whatever that shirt may be, and those teams can be dangerous if you’re not careful.”
Neveleff is rooting for Miami United to beat Charleston for two reasons: “They’re from Miami, so I have to root for the hometown team. Also, if we play them, we get to host, but if we play Charleston we have to travel and they’ll have home-field advantage.”
The Strikers are under new ownership this season, and Neveleff is in his debut season, so the first six games of the season were an adjustment period. Only six players returned from the team that reached the NASL final last season. Heading into Saturday’s game at Tampa Bay, the Strikers were 2-2-1.
Neveleff was best known in local soccer circles as the director of Weston FC, one of the area’s biggest and most successful youth clubs. He still does that job while coaching the Strikers.
“Our playing style is a little different than last year, and we have so many new players, but the team is where I want it to be at this point,” he said.
Among the players who have stood out are midfielder Manny Gonzalez, 24, a graduate of Northeast High in Oakland Park who played at Florida Gulf Coast University. He is no stranger to Neveleff, who was Gonzalez’s youth coach at Weston FC.
“Manny is a kid I have known a long time, and he has a good understanding of what I am looking for,” the coach said. “He has earned his way on to the starting lineup with his hard work and leadership.”
Neveleff also singled out Ivan Guerrero. “He is first to arrive to the locker room and the last to leave, a true professional.”
The biggest surprise, he said, is the humility of Leo Moura, the former captain of Brazilian club Flamengo. Moura, 36, “is just one of the guys, no ego whatsoever, a great example for our young guys.”
The Strikers are back home Saturday against the Carolina RailHawks.
▪ Last word: Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard, on playing his last home game Saturday after 17 years: “I don’t think there’s anything to be ashamed of if you shed a tear, especially if you have a love and affection for the supporters. … I remember getting on the bus with my dad to the Centre of Excellence at the Vernon Sangster [a now-demolished sports complex], getting two buses in the rain and the cold and the ice and snow, and I’ll go back to that moment when it all began.”
MLS: East — DC (21), New England (18), New York (16). West — Dallas and Vancouver (20), Seattle (16).
NASL: New York (14), Tampa Bay and Jacksonville (9), Ft. Lauderdale and Atlanta (7).
English Premier League: Chelsea (84), Manchester City (73), Arsenal (70), Man U (68), Liverpool (62).
La Liga: Barcelona (90), Real Madrid (86), Atletico Madrid (77), Valencia (73) and Sevilla (70).
Serie A: Juventus (80), Roma (64), Lazio (63), Napoli (60), Fiorentina (55).
Ligue 1: PSG (77), Lyon (71), Monaco (65), ASSE and Marseille (63).
Bundesliga: Bayern Munich (76), Wolfsburg (65), Monchengladbach (63), Bayer (58), Augsburg (46).
On the tube
Sunday: Swansea City vs. Manchester City (8:30 a.m., NBCSN), Manchester United vs. Arsenal (11 a.m., NBCSN), Espanyol vs. Real Madrid (1 p.m., BeINSport USA), Orlando City vs. LA Galaxy (5 p.m., ESPN2), Philadelphia vs. DC (7 p.m., Fox Sports 1).