With the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) Open Cup qualifying tournament in Overland Park, Kan. this past weekend, Mark Saxby wasn’t thinking about his homecoming.
“I came here not looking to spend time with my family and my friends,” the Colorado Rovers goalkeeper said. “I wanted to win this with my team.”
That intensity and focus paid off as Saxby helped the Rovers win the USSSA title for the second year in a row by not allowing a single goal in five tournament games over three days. In fact, all 15 games of the tournament finished with at least one goalkeeper earning a shutout.
The Olathe, Kansas native saved his best performance for last. Saxby made a string of incredible saves to help the Rovers clinch a 1-0, extra-time victory over the Kansas City Athletics in the final to send Colorado to the US Open Cup. Saxby was named MVP of the championship game for his efforts.
“Mark Saxby was unbelievable,” said Rovers head coach Erick French. “Some of the best goalkeeping we’ve had in years.”
The 2014 US Open Cup marks just the second year the USSSA will be taking part in the 101-year-old competition. Last year, the Rovers represented the organization but lost in a penalty kick shootout to the NPSL’s Georgia Revolution in the tournament Preliminary Round after finishing extra time tied 1-1.
The format for this year’s Open Cup has yet to be announced by the US Soccer Federation, so it is unclear where or when the Rovers will begin their journey. The tournament is expected to begin in May.
There was no question the final matched the two best teams of the tournament. Both sides cruised through the group stage and their respective semifinal games, not only without losing, but neither team gave up a goal. The Rovers defeated local rival FC Denver 1-0 on a 39th minute penalty kick by Scott Crawford to punch their ticket to the final. The Athletics had an easier time, defeating Colorado Sporting Premier 6-0. Player/coach Kyle Perkins scored a pair of goals, while John Markey, Matt Kuhn, Evan Sizemore and Martin Johnston added one each in the route.
After Friday and Saturday produced weather in the mid-70s with a light breeze, the conditions for Sunday’s championship game were brutal. Ice chips covered the field and winds close to 20 mph made the temperature feel much colder than the reported 30 degrees at kickoff.
Kansas City controlled the game out of the gate and almost took the lead in the third minute when a free kick rattled around the Rovers penalty box before Saxby was able to smoother the loose ball.
In the 13th minute, John Markey got all the way to the end line, but his cross to the near post was cleared just before Brian Williams could reach it.
Colorado seemed to settle in after the first 15 minutes and the game opened up with opportunities for both sides.
The Rovers’ first big chance came in the 20th minute. Scott Crawford played Craig Thompson in alone on goal, but KC ‘keeper Steve Patterson narrowed the angle and Thompson hit his shot inches wide of the near post.
Kansas City nearly made Colorado pay for the missed opportunity on the stroke of halftime. Martin Johnston got free down the right flank with some nifty footwork and his cross found Kyle Perkins, but the player/coach couldn’t direct his diving header on target.
The Athletics were again inches away from taking the lead four minutes into the second half. Saxby managed to get a hand on Chris Markey’s free kick from 25 yards leading to a scramble in the box. The ball found its way to the feet of Williams who tapped into the open net, only to see the assistant’s flag raised for offside.
Both teams struggled to generate chances after that until Josh Westburg’s volley in stoppage time forced an impressive diving save from Saxby.
With nothing separating the two teams after regulation, the game headed to extra time and it didn’t take long for the breakthrough to come in the first extra period.
Rovers went forward on the counter, Evan Siezendev’s clearance was blocked, Bulwich couldn’t reach the deflection and the ball bounced to Marc Herschberger who found himself one-on-one with Patterson. The Athletics’ goalkeeper rushed out to cut down the angle, but Herschberger keep his composure and slotted the ball into the bottom corner to give Colorado the lead.
“We knew was going to put a lot of pressure out as fast they could,” said French. “But they were starting to get tired and they were starting to sub a little more quickly. We were starting to get a little more possession near the end of the game and starting to become a little more dangerous.”
Kansas City pressed for an equalizer and nearly found it two minutes into the second period of extra time when Williams hit the bar from 30 yards out.
Saxby’s MVP resume was solidified in the game’s final minutes. First, he dove to his left to palm away a rocket from Patterson, after the KC keeper had come forward for a corner. A minute later, he made a tremendous reflex save, palming Garrett Webb’s point-blank header over the bar. On the ensuing corner it was Saxby coming off his line to claim as the referee blew his whistle for full time.
“Growing up here, it’s nice to have support and come back and I think that made me a little more calm in those frantic situations,” said Saxby of his family members who braved the harsh conditions to watch both the semifinal and final.
The significance of qualifying for the Open Cup two years in a row wasn’t lost on French.
“It’s huge, you can’t underestimate that,” he said. “There’s sponsorships, there’s long-term ramifications, there’s different players that are going to approach us to say ‘hey, look I want to play for the best team in Colorado’.”
Even though he was happy to celebrate with his team, French made it clear it won’t be easy going forward in the tournament.
“We’ve got work to do,” he said.
2014 USSSA Open Cup qualifying tournament
Overland Park Soccer Complex – Overland Park, Kan.
Note: Group stage, Semifinals are 50-minute games
Note: We apologize for the formatting problems
Tournament Preview [+]
|CO Sporting Premier||6||2||1||0||+8|
Friday, March 14 – (Day 1 recap)
Colorado Rovers 2:0 Comets Express
CO Sporting Premier 5:0 Boulevard
Saturday, March 15 – (Day 2 recap)
Boulevard 0:0 Colorado Rovers
CO Sporting Premier 4:0 Comets Express
Colorado Rovers 1:0 CO Sporting Premier
Comets Express 0:5 Boulevard
Friday, March 14 – (Day 1 recap)
FC Denver 3:0 Performance Soccer
KC Athletics 4:0 Azteca Mojos
Saturday, March 15 – (Day 2 recap)
Performance Soccer 0:9 KC Athletics
Aztexa Mojos 0:0 FC Denver
FC Denver 0:0 KC Athletics
Performance Soccer 0:7 Azteca Mojos
Tiebreakers: (1) Head to head (2) Fewest goals allowed (3) Goal difference (Max +/- 4) (4) Most shutouts (5) Most goals scored (no maximum) (6) Fewest red cards (7) PKs or coin flip
Sunday, March 16
Semifinals (9:30 a.m.)
Colorado Rovers 1:0 FC Denver
KC Athletics 6:0 CO Sporting Premier
Final (12 p.m.)
Colorado Rovers 1:0 (AET) KC Athletics