After three amazing years of the Seattle Sounders as US Open Cup champions, there are new kings of the tournament. In that theme, TheCup.us embarks on a new era for the post-tournament awards, unveiling for the first time finalists for TheCup.us Player of the Tournament as well as the newly-created Lower Division Player of the Tournament honor.
“We began discussing the idea of adding a Lower Division honor a year ago because we felt there were a number of players from clubs below MLS that had quality tournament performances that were being overlooked because their team did not win the championship,” said TheCup.us senior editor Josh Hakala. “It is natural to look at the tournament finalists when it comes time to vote for the event’s best player, but with those being almost entirely MLS clubs, that leaves outstanding play in the first three or four rounds when teams are playing opposition from higher flights out of the equation.”
Since the second-division Rochester Rhinos won the tournament championship in 1999, only the 2008 Charleston Battery have reached the US Open Cup Final from the lower ranks.
The following players, in alphabetical order, are the top vote-getters for both honors among the ballots received from select members of North American Soccer Reporters as well as TheCup.us staff. Lower Division players are eligible to win both awards. The winners will be announced on Tuesday, Aug. 28.
Osvaldo Alonso (Seattle Sounders – MLS)
The main offensive reason that the Sounders returned to their fourth straight Open Cup Final, a Modern Professional Era record fifth straight dating back to being a member of the 2008 Charleston Battery. Alonso scored four goals (tied for 2nd in the 2012 tournament) and dished out two assists in four games before losing the Final in PKs. Alonso had a goal and an assist in their 5-1 Round 3 win over the Atlanta Silverbacks (NASL), and also had a pair of goals in their 5-0 rout of Cal FC in Round 4 (one from the penalty spot). He did not play in the team’s 1-0 Quarterfinal win at San Jose, but returned in the Semifinals to assist on Eddie Johnson’s opening goal and added another penalty kick to defeat Chivas USA, 4-1. In the Final, he played a solid game for 120 minutes, but launched his penalty kick attempt in the shootout high over the bar.
Danny Barrera (Cal FC – USASA)
Apologies to the Michigan Bucks who also upset an MLS team, but amateur side Cal FC became the story of the 2012 tournament thanks to the play of Danny Barrera. The Southern California club managed by Eric Wynalda played every one of their games on the road and made a run all the way to the Fourth Round (just the 6th amateur club and 2nd USASA club to reach Round 4 in the Modern Pro Era). The journey began when Barrera scored two goals in a 3-1 win against last year’s PDL champions the Kitsap Pumas. That performance earned Barrera TheCup.us Player of the Round award and he would earn the award again by traveling all the way to the East Coast to defeat the USL Pro’s Wilmington Hammerheads 4-0. Barrera scored two goals in that game as he was named the Player of the Round for the second round in a row, something no one else has done. In Round 3, Cal FC pulled off a shocking upset, knocking off Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers 1-0 and Barrera was involved once again. He delivered the game-winning assist to Artur Aghasyan in the 95th minute of extra time. The Cinderella run came to an end in Tukwila, WA as the Seattle Sounders dispatched Cal FC 5-0 in a game that Barrera played the full 90.
Clint Irwin (Charlotte Eagles – USL Pro)
The goalkeeper for USL Pro’s Charlotte Eagles carried his team to the Quarterfinals despite the Eagles’ offense struggling to score goals. The run began in Round 2 with a 1-0 shutout on the road against the El Paso Patriots in a game decided by an own goal in the 72nd minute. In the following game, Irwin made 10 saves and shutout FC Dallas of MLS 2-0 to help the Eagles advance beyond the Third Round for the first time in franchise history (Est. 1993). In Round 4, Irwin made eight saves in a 2-1 extra time win at San Antonio Scorpions of the NASL, but the Eagles’ first-ever run to the Quarterfinals would come to an end with a 2-1 loss at Chivas USA of MLS with Irwin making four saves.
Jimmy Nielsen (Sporting Kansas City – MLS) The captain of Sporting Kansas City led his team to the 2012 US Open Cup title while also posting a personal 356-minute shutout streak from the Fourth Round to the Final (4th best personal streak in the Modern Pro Era). As he will be the first to tell you, he didn’t achieve all of this on his own as he was only forced to make four saves in the four matches his played in. His three straight shutouts included a 2-0 home win over the Colorado Rapids (MLS) where he made two saves, followed by a 3-0 home win over USL Pro’s Dayton Dutch Lions where he didn’t have to make a single save and a 2-0 road win over the Philadelphia Union (MLS) in the Semifinals (1 save). In the championship game, he only faced two shots. One was a save on an Eddie Johnson header in the first half and the other was a goal off a header by Zach Scott off a free kick in the 86th minute to level the match at 1-1. In the penalty kick shootout for the Final, he made one save (two attempts missed high) as Kansas City won 3-2.
Brian Ombiji (Harrisburg City Islanders – USL Pro)
Ombiji is the main reason why the City Islanders made yet another run in the US Open Cup. The USL Pro side (Div. 3) advanced to the Quarterfinals for the fourth time in the last six years and it started in Round 2 with a 2-0 home win over the Long Island Rough Riders of the PDL. Ombiji scored the goal that put the game away in the 77th minute. In Round 3, the City Islanders eliminated another MLS club with an overtime comeback for the ages. After going into extra time scoreless, the New England Revolution scored three goals in the opening 15 minutes to start sending fans to their cars, but those that stuck around saw Harrisburg score three goals in the final nine minutes (Ombiji scored the second in the 117th minute) and advanced to the Fourth Round on penalty kicks. The City Islanders eliminated their second straight MLS opponent, defeating the New York Red Bulls 3-1 in extra time with Ombiji assisting on Harrisburg’s opening goal. Ombiji’s goal at Philadelphia in the Quarterfinal started a rally that saw Harrisburg cut the Union lead to 3-2, but a pair of late goals by the home team put their Open Cup run to rest.
Who do YOU think deserves to be the Player of the Tournament? Which non-MLS player should win the lower division honor?