If you’re a soccer fan and love cup competitions, then you were likely enthralled with one of the great underdog stories in England’s FA Cup history: Lincoln City FC.
Apologies to Chelsea FC and Arsenal, this year’s FA Cup finalists, but Lincoln City was the story of this year’s tournament.
The semi-pro team that competes in England’s fifth tier, stunned the Premier League’s Burnley FC, 1-0 to become the first non-league team to reach the Quarterfinals since 1914. That year, World War I was under way, baseball icon Joe DiMaggio was born, and the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup (then known as the National Challenge Cup) had just crowned its first champion.
Following Lincoln City’s upset, American soccer fans on social media asked what is the US Open Cup equivalent to English minnow’s magical run?
For starters, there’s a lot of difficulty with properly comparing the two tournaments. First of all, American soccer has never had five tiers of professional soccer. Since Major League Soccer (MLS) joined the Open Cup in 1996, American soccer has had three tiers of professional soccer, followed by a fourth tier which includes all amateur clubs.
However, there have been plenty of incredible runs by underdog teams in the Modern Era of the US Open Cup (1995-present).
The 1999 Rochester Raging Rhinos (A-League, second tier) are the premier example as they are the only lower division team to win the tournament since 1996. The Rhinos upset four MLS teams, including the Colorado Rapids in the Final to lift the trophy at Columbus Crew Stadium. The Rhinos also reached the Final and lost in 1996, and the Charleston Battery (USL First Division, second tier) also fell short in the championship game in 2008. The Carolina RailHawks (now North Carolina FC), nearly added their name to that list of great lower division cup runs in 2007 when they advanced to the Semifinals as an expansion team, falling in extra time to the New England Revolution (MLS).
But let’s take a look at third tier professional teams (a level that does not exist this year since the United Soccer Leagues was awarded provisional Division 2 status). In the Modern Era there have been three teams from Division 3 or below who have made it to the Semifinals or beyond.
1995 Richmond Kickers
USISL Premier League, 4th tier amateur
After playing the El Paso Patriots to a 1-1 draw, the Richmond Kickers captured the 1995 US Open Cup title by defeating the Patriots on penalty kicks 4-2. Photo: Richmond Kickers
Just because this cup run took place the year before Major League Soccer launched doesn’t make the Richmond Kickers’ 1995 US Open Cup championship any less impressive. Professional soccer had started to take shape in the form that we know it today (thus, the reason we include it in the “Modern Era”). There was not a league that qualified for Division 1 status, but there was the A-League in Division 2 and the United Systems of Independent Soccer Leagues Professional League (USISL) which was Division 3.
The Kickers were a part of the USISL Premier League, an amateur league which later evolved into the Premier Development League (PDL). As an amateur team, they were loaded with future professionals including U.S. international Richie Williams, and future MLS players Rob Ukrop, Brian Kamler, Jeff Causey, Todd Yeagley and Mike Clark. The team also featured the University of Richmond’s all-time leading scorer Leigh Cowlishaw who would play nearly 150 matches for the club before becoming the head coach, a position he still holds today.
They began their cup run with a 6-1 win over a shorthanded D.C.-area amateur side Spartans SC. Six different players scored for Richmond that day at Striker Park in Glen Allen, Va. (Rob Ukrop, Richie Williams, Leigh Cowlishaw, Brian Kamler, Jon Hall, Corey Turnage)
(Editor’s note: TheCup.us is trying to confirm who scored that goal for Spartans SC, contact us if you know someone associated with that team)
In the Quarterfinals, the Kickers hosted the Atlanta Ruckus of the A-League and came away with a 2-1 win at the University of Richmond Stadium. Ben Crawley assisted on both goals for the Kickers, a 13th minute tally by Ukrop and the game-winner in the 62nd minute by Scott Snyder. (U.S. international and the A-League’s Defender of the Year John Doyle scored for Atlanta). The Ruckus would lose in the A-League championship game that year to the Seattle Sounders, so this was no weak professional team.
The game of the tournament, and quite possibly of the Modern Era, was the Kickers’ dramatic Semifinal win over the USISL Pro’s (Div. 3) Chicago Stingers. Playing their second straight game at the University of Richmond, Kamler opened up the scoring for the Kickers 34 seconds into the match (one of the fastest goals of the Modern Era). Chicago answered with an equalizer 10 minutes later, but the game changed when future MLS player Matt Knowles threw a punch at Crawley and was ejected. Despite being a man down, the Stingers managed to take the lead on a 34th minute penalty kick by Steve Morris. Midway through the second half, Crawley and Snyder gave Richmond the lead back only to see Chicago tie it up with Don D’Ambra scoring his second goal of the game in the 88th minute. The late equalizer didn’t phase the home team as Crawley scored the game-winner from the penalty spot less than a minute later.
In the championship game, the Kickers hit the road for the first time, heading to El Paso, Texas to take on the Patriots of the USISL Pro League (Division 3). Ukrop scored for Richmond just after halftime only to have El Paso equalize in the final 10 minutes. After extra time, the match went to penalty kicks, marking just the second time in tournament history that the title would be decided from the spot. Causey made a pair of saves and the Kickers converted four of their five attempts to become the first Virginia club to win the US Open Cup title.
1997 San Francisco Bay Seals
D-3 Pro League, 3rd tier professional
Shane Watkins of the San Francisco Bay Seals eludes San Jose Clash defender John Doyle during the Seals’ 2-1 Quarterfinal upset at Spartan Stadium on August 20, 1997. Photo: San Francisco Bay Seals
The San Francisco Bay Seals only qualified for the US Open Cup one time, but they made the most of it. The D-3 Pro League (3rd tier) team barely qualified, needing a tiebreaker just to get in. Once they got in, they cruised to a 4-0 win over the San Jose-based amateur club Inter SC. Marquis White and Mike Black had two goals each to lead the way.
(Editor’s note: TheCup.us is trying to confirm the scoring summary for that Inter SC game on June 20, 1997, contact us if you can help)
In Round 2, the Seals hosted the defending A-League champion Seattle Sounders at the University of San Francisco. The Seals defense, led by future MLS star CJ Brown, held the Sounders to just seven shots and White scored the lone goal to lead the home team to the upset.
White continued to shine when the Seals returned to the same stadium, but this time they had tougher opposition. The Kansas City Wizards of MLS came to town and took an early punch with White scoring in the first minute of the match. Frank Klopas tied it up before halftime, but White’s fifth goal in three matches would prove to be the game-winner in the 59th minute.
The Seals would claim a second straight MLS upset with another 2-1 win, this time on the road against the San Jose Clash (now the Earthquakes). Ronald Cerritos gave the home team an early lead, but San Francisco wouldn’t level the match until the 77th minute when Shani Simpson scored. Nearly 10 minutes later, they had their winner, courtesy of Shane Watkins.
San Francisco’s biggest challenge came in the Semifinals when defending MLS and Open Cup champion D.C. United came calling to the Stagg Memorial Stadium at the University of the Pacific. United fielded a mostly first-choice team and it paid off as Jaime Moreno scored an early PK and Raul Diaz Arce scored in the second half to give the champions a 2-0 lead. White cut the lead in half in the 84th minute but the Seals couldn’t find the equalizer and their one and, to date, only cup run would end.
2011 Richmond Kickers
USL Pro, 3rd tier professional
The Richmond Kickers and Columbus Crew met in the 2011 US Open Cup with the Kickers upsetting the Crew 2-1 at Crew Stadium. Photo: Columbus Crew
The Kickers had an easier path to start out their 2011 US Open Cup run. Thanks to a friendly draw, the Kickers ended up with fellow USL Pro side Dayton Dutch Lions in Round 1. Dayton would end up finishing the season with the worst record in the league at 2-16-6 and the difference in quality was clear in Richmond’s 4-1 home win. David Bulow scored a hat trick to help him climb up the Modern Era’s goalscoring chart. But he wasn’t done.
In Round 2, the Kickers drew another USL Pro team, the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. While the Hounds would end up making the playoffs, they finished with a losing record (7-11-6). Richmond handled them easily in front of their home fans, winning 4-1. Matthew Delicate and Bulow each scored a pair of goals in the victory.
After cruising through the first two rounds, the tournament got much more difficult after that starting with a Round 3 date on the road against the Columbus Crew (MLS). After trading first half goals, it was an 85th minute goal by Delicate that proved to be the game-winner, handing the Crew their first-ever loss to a third-tier team. The win also clinched the $10,000 prize for the Kickers as the third division club to advance the farthest in the tournament.
While the Crew would end up being a MLS playoff team, the Kickers’ next opponent would be a step up. The newly renamed Sporting Kansas City would eventually finish with the best record in the Eastern Conference, but it wasn’t too much for the Kickers who overcame a lightning delay to win 2-0. After the lightning delay ended, Shaka Bangura scored 30 seconds later and David Bulow scored the game-clinched penalty kick in the 83rd minute. Ronnie Pascale earned the clean sheet for the Kickers, along with TheCup.us Player of the Round as Richmond became the first lower division club to eliminate back-to-back MLS teams on the road. Bulow made history with his 13th career US Open Cup goal, which tied him for the Modern Era lead.
The Kickers would have to play a third consecutive MLS team on the road, as they traveled to Bridgeview to face the Chicago Fire. The run would come to an end by the score of 2-1. A first half PK by Sebastian Grazzini and a 61st minute goal by former Richmond Kickers Future (PDL) player Dominic Oduro gave the Fire a 2-0 lead. The Kickers would pull one back but the Fire were the better team and they held on for the win.