It couldn’t have happened any other way. NTX Rayados second half substitute Christian Okeke scored in the 86th minute and the Dallas-based amateur side advanced past FC Wichita 3-2 to earn their first-ever Fourth Round appearance in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup.
For the third time in as many rounds, Okeke came off the bench and made the difference. He scored the extra-time game winner in Round 1 against Fort Worth Vaqueros and then scored the (eventual) winner (in extra time) in Round 2 against United Soccer League (USL) side OKC Energy.
“It’s great,” a breathless Okeke said of his “super sub” role after the game “(As long as) we keep winning, I’m always happy.”
Asked if the team has ever considered starting Okeke, captain and club co-founder Tito Salas was pretty direct.
“No. Christian is Christian. He knows the plan. It’s been working – why change it?”
The goal was Okeke’s fourth of the 2018 tournament, which puts him in second place behind Miami United’s David Ochoa.
Rayados are joined in Round 3 by two other open division teams, Miami United, a pro team from the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) and FC Golden State Force an amateur team from the Premier Development League. In the Modern Era (1995-present) of the tournament, only seven open division teams from outside of the PDL and the NPSL have reached the Fourth Round. The draw for the Fourth Round will take place on Thursday, May 24 at 11 a.m. EST when the Rayados will find out which MLS team they will play in Round 4.
The first half unfolded slowly as both teams traded brief spells of possession, searching each other for weaknesses on the back line. NTX controlled the ball more, but failed to create anything dangerous. Then in the sixth minute, a square pass from the right side found no one – from either team – in the center of the field right outside the box. Ramos swooped in from his holding midfield position and fired off a shot that took a deflection off a Wichita defender. The ball went just beyond the fingertips of Wichita goalkeeper Mark Weir. NTX slowly took more control of the game, holding possession and probing Wichita for weaknesses.
Then in the 24th minute, Sergio Lara chased down a long ball over the top that found its way into the box. He clashed with a Wichita defender in what appeared to be a fair challenge, but a penalty was awarded. Lucio Martinez, who scored a perfect free kick in NTX’s Round 1 win over Fort Worth Vaqueros, hit his penalty poorly and Weir was able to get down in time to parry it aside. It would’ve been a wasted opportunity for Rayados, but four minutes later it was Escalera’s turn to get on the end of a long ball over the top. Escalera and Weir came out to meet the ball at the same time on the edge of the box and Escalera needed only one touch to win the duel and poke the ball into the back of the net.
Wichita coach Blake Shumaker felt a change was needed and in the 37th minute, he swapped out left back Luis Vidal Pla in favor of Matthew Clare. The momentum slowly swung back towards Wichita, who created several chances toward the end of the first half, mostly through target forward Franck Tayou, but nothing got past Rayados goalkeeper Eduardo Cortes Sanchez. NTX carried the 2-0 lead into the break.
In contrast with what was a relatively clean first half, the second half got off to a rough start. Rayados forward Sergio Lara went down under a hard challenge and had to be helped up, but would eventually carry on. Then in the 57th minute, Salas picked up a yellow card for a rash challenge in the middle of the field. Three minutes later, Wichita winger Thomas Wells played Jose Landaverde, who scored the stoppage time winner for Wichita in Round 2, through in on goal. Sanchez came out to meet him, but Landaverde held on long enough to get the touch he needed to get the goal. NTX immediately brought on Okeke and Antonio Hernandez, but in the 65th minute Wichita earned a corner kick and midfielder Andres Ochoa rose high enough to get his head on it and push it past Sanchez. Suddenly the game was tied and momentum seemed to shift back to Wichita.
Wichita began to possess the ball more and Rayados looked visibly frustrated; as did their several hundred supporters. Lara and Jose Goncalves Toledo were both booked and it looked like the dream run might end for NTX. Then Okeke dribbled through multiple defenders, into the six-yard box, only to have his effort snuffed out for a corner. Momentum swung back to the home side and in the 86th minute, Victor Pinal picked up a poor clearance from the Wichita defense, carried it to the edge of the penalty area, and found Okeke inside the box, who clinically placed his shot into the upper 90 on the far post.
Tensions boiled over in the aftermath of the goal and a member of the Wichita technical staff was ejected from the bench, as was reserve Kieran Laking. NTX’s Sergio Lara was also sent off, setting up a tense final few minutes of the game. Wichita got one last chance in stoppage time, but Tayou couldn’t convert the chance and Rayados became the 15th open division side ever to reach the fourth round of the tournament.
“It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a beautiful feeling. It’s time to enjoy it now.”, Salas said after the game, surrounded by his family and close friends. Like several members of the team, Salas is married with kids and had to rearrange several family events and school events (he works as an assistant principal in the Dallas Independent School District) to get ready for the game, but for him it was worth the extra effort.
“That’s fine. They’re out here with us. It’s a family environment.”
Rayados will have to wait until Thursday’s draw to learn their fate for Round 4, but Okeke is already ready to go.
“I’m excited. With this group of guys, anything can happen. I think we’re all going into it thinking we can win.”