The story and romance of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup is not simply a story of upsets, of the little guy getting a shot at Goliath. That’s too reductive, especially because by the end of the competition, a giant’s name usually finds itself engraved on the trophy.
The US Open Cup is, above all, months of knockout soccer that represents opportunity. In some instances, the Cup represents a redemptive opportunity, a chance to set aside past failures. In others, it’s an opportunity to show scouts they missed you. Sometimes it’s as simple as an opportunity to show yourself you’re more than what you were before.
For Diego Restrepo, the goalkeeper who was voted TheCup.us Lower Division Player of the Tournament for 2016, this year’s Open Cup was all those things. Restrepo, then playing for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the North American Soccer League, seized his opportunity. The end result of his performances was a comeback and redemption story that resulted in the longest run by a lower division side in 2016, one that didn’t end until the Chicago Fire felled the Strikers in the Quarterfinals.
Restrepo narrowly edged Edwin Borboa of amateur side La Maquina for the award. Borboa finished tied for the tournament lead with five goals while leading his team to the Fourth Round where they narrowly lost to the Los Angeles Galaxy. The award is voted on by TheCup.us staff and a select panel from the North American Soccer Reporters.
Restrepo, who was named TheCup.us Player of the Round once and missed winning the award by a mere votes on two other occasions, almost never got the chance to play the hero
Two years ago, Restrepo thought he was finished in North American soccer.
The U.S. youth international who was born in Venezuela, suffered a devastating Achilles injury and was out of a job with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, left to wonder whether any North American clubs would give him another look.
“When I got injured, there were almost no clubs in the United States willing to give me a look,” Restrepo said. “It’s understandable. The injury I suffered is about the worst thing that can happen to a goalkeeper.”
After a brief stint with the Charlotte Independence of the USL, Restrepo, with no other suitors, departed for Metropolitanos in Venezuela.
“I needed games, so I went to South America, which was great because it got my confidence back,” Restrepo said. “When you play games, you feel safer (with the injury) and calmer. Playing Division One football in South America showed me I could still do it.”
Restrepo parlayed the successful stint at Metropolitanos into a move back to the North American Soccer League and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Restrepo wasn’t able to win the starting job out of the gate, however, as manager Caio Zanardi and the Strikers staff opted to go with veteran Brazilian keeper Bruno.
When Bruno struggled early, ultimately costing the team a result with a dreadful error against rival Tampa Bay, Restrepo earned his chance. He credits the healthy goalkeeper competition with improving his Open Cup performances.
“The Open Cup this year in Fort Lauderdale was against all odds because I was just worried about playing,” Restrepo said. “There was no margin for error with the coaches. I knew if I made a mistake or didn’t play well, I was going to lose my spot.”
Restrepo took that motivation and dominated the competition from the outset.
Fort Lauderdale opened the tournament against USL’s Richmond Kickers, in a game moved to a turf field and played in sweltering conditions at noon due to a scheduling conflict. Restrepo made several saves in the heat in front of very few fans to help send the game to penalties. In the penalty session, Restrepo shined, saving three of Richmond’s spot kicks to seal the Strikers’ first elimination of a pro team since 2010. It also was the first shootout in the Modern Era to finish 2-0 and just the second where a team was held without a goal.
“The Richmond game felt like a practice session,” Restrepo said, noting the light lunchtime midweek crowd and odd field of play. “Richmond was very good. They were extremely good that day. We were lucky to win.”
Yet Restrepo has made a professional and collegiate career of being a good spot shot stopper. He won a collegiate national championship as keeper at the University of Virginia and was named the defensive player of the NCAA tournament for a tremendous string of performances in delivering the Cavaliers a title. That included penalty kick work.
“I’ve been good at PKs most of my life,” Restrepo said with a gentle laugh. “You can study tendencies but that’s harder in an Open Cup format against a lower division team. So you go with intuition. You read and go. That day was just my day to shine.”
Restrepo became just the second player in club history to be named TheCup.us Player of the Round for his performance against Richmond.
The team followed up their PK win over Richmond with another historic result. The Strikers needed penalty kicks once again to do something they have never done before: eliminate a team from Major League Soccer. After 120 minutes of scoreless soccer at the Maryland Soccerplex in Boyds, Md., the Strikers ousted DC United 4-3 in a shootout. Restrepo made eight saves and made one stop in the shootout, but credited his defense and coaches with putting him in a position to again play the hero.
“We had a good performance against DC as a team,” Restrepo said. “We had a good plan and were very compact and tough to break down defensively. Gale Agbossoumonde and Julius (James) were terrific in front of me. And we felt like we could win.”
Restrepo nearly earned a rare back-to-back Player of the Round award, but he was edged by a single vote by the Philadelphia Union’s Roland Alberg.
Restrepo acknowledged the emotion and fire that can be born from the opportunity to play MLS sides in the Open Cup. But he said it isn’t always just that the lower division sides see it as their biggest match of the season. Sometimes they are underestimated by the MLS behemoths.
“Every time a lower division side plays a MLS side, of course you want to do well,” Restrepo said. “But there are players in the NASL who could be very good in MLS. I think MLS sides sometimes — players and coaches — underestimate the players in NASL. And in Fort Lauderdale we had some of those players.”
Restrepo said he felt the lack of respect most viscerally in the round of sixteen, when the Strikers headed up the Florida Turnpike to face Orlando City.
Jose Angulo of the Strikers scored an early goal, only to see Orlando equalize through Trinidad and Tobago international Kevin Molino.
Following the Molino goal, Fort Lauderdale spent most of the evening simply trying to weather Orlando’s pressure. Restrepo was integral to that effort. In stoppage time, he made one of the saves of the tournament, stopping a swerving and pacy Harrison Heath effort at the post.
“I was fortunate,” Restrepo said about the save on Heath. “I was screened and I took a step before he shot the ball. Fortunately, I got a glimpse of how he opened his hips at the last instant and when you see that, you’ve been playing so long you just react. I was able to get a strong hand on it at the post.”
The stop was strong enough to earn applause from the partisan Orlando City crowd. More important, it set the stage for PC’s run and winning goal at the end of the second extra time session to give Fort Lauderdale a 2-1 win.
“It was one of the most memorable wins of my career,” Restrepo said. “It was a great atmosphere, even with a smaller crowd for the midweek game, they are so loud and aren’t very friendly.”
Neither was the Orlando coaching staff after the Strikers victory. Asked following the match what Fort Lauderdale did that caused his team trouble, Heath told reporters, “nothing.”
He also had sharp personal criticisms for the Strikers, which he shared with Restrepo.
“The coaching staff with Orlando wasn’t pleased with what was going on — they felt we were playing like a South American team, trying to stall and kill off the game for penalties,” Restrepo said. “It got so bad that Heath told me after the game that I was a disgrace to soccer. But we won and (the loss) cost him his job, so I felt fine about that.”
It was yet another history-making result for the Strikers. Since penalty kick shootout wins are officially listed as a draw, this marked the first time in franchise history that the Strikers defeated a MLS team. Despite advancing to the Round of 16, since the first two games of this year’s tournaments saw them advance by penalty kicks, since they were considered draws, Fort Lauderdale had set a Modern Era record with a seven-game winless streak. The win over Orlando City snapped that streak.
Fort Lauderdale’s victory over an in-state MLS side assured the Strikers that they would be the final lower division side playing in the competition and earned them the $15,000 prize money for being the last second division club standings. The stage was set for what seemed a winnable quarterfinal as well, against a Chicago Fire side that at the time were last in the MLS standings.
Unfortunately, internal issues at the club, namely financial issues with the Brazilian ownership group that included Brazilian legend Ronaldo, took its toll. Players were getting paid late and the team was cutting costs on travel. Restrepo said the off-field stuff was a big reason the Strikers were routed by the Fire 3-0.
“Fortunately, but also unfortunately, the off-field stuff wasn’t a distraction until the week of the Chicago Fire match in the quarterfinals,” Restrepo said. “That’s when the issues with money started. It was a big distraction. You couple the money issues with the fact that we played at Edmonton Sunday, and we had concerns about money, short rest and had to take three flights and a four-hour bus ride to play in Chicago two days after travel. That was very difficult.”
Restrepo was traded to the Tampa Bay Rowdies a little over a month after the Strikers’ historic Open Cup run ended. His performance in the Open Cup is appreciated and sure to be remembered by Strikers and NASL fans alike.
Fort Lauderdale coach and general manager Caio Zanardi agreed with that assessment.
“Restrepo made penalty saves against Richmond and DC United before an outstanding performance in Orlando against Orlando City,” Zanardi said. “He was one of the standout performers from our historic US Open Cup run.”
For Restrepo, the goal now is to chase more glory with the Rowdies, a team he was quick to praise as the best collection of talent he’s ever played with in the NASL.
“It’s the best NASL team I’ve been on,” Restrepo said. “Every player here could start somewhere in the NASL. The level at practices is day and night. The intensity at training so high. Honestly the team has been unlucky with results, but we are starting to turn around at the right moment. If we get into the playoffs, look out.”
Restrepo likely wouldn’t be in Tampa without his tremendous Open Cup performances increasing his transfer value. But in the end, isn’t that what the Open Cup is about?
A career left for dead due to an injury, suddenly redeemed. A team struggling to get by making the most unlikely of runs. A player carving out a legendary set of performances to deliver a series of Cup sets.
That’s the story of Diego Restrepo in this year’s competition. And it’s what makes the Open Cup so endearing.
Check out all of the 2016 TheCup.us Player of the Round winners HERE.