Players from FC Maritsa and Livonia City FC battle for the ball during their 2019 US Open Cup qualifier. Photo: Nyle Ellis @nyleellis_
FC Maritsa’s Rob Acosta converted the seventh, and final, kick from the spot at Schoolcraft College Saturday night, after 120 minutes of scoreless play in the regulation and overtime periods, to propel the St. Louis club past Livonia City FC in a Third Round Open Division Local Qualifying match for the 2019 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup.
With the 7-6 shootout decision, FC Maritsa advances to the next round of the US Open Cup, which brings them one step closer to qualifying for the tournament for the first time in club history. If they are able to accomplish that, they would become the first amateur team from Missouri to qualify since the KC Athletics in 2010.
The game started with both teams struggling to find their style. Then, in the 18th minute, City’s Pat Smith and Maritsa’s Josh Ward collided in a clean 50/50 tackle along the fans’ sideline. Ward immediately grabbed for his lower leg and was in distress. After a 28-minute delay for paramedics to arrive and care for Ward, play resumed and things started to open up. FC Maritsa later confirmed that Ward broke his tibia and after multiple surgeries, he is expected to be on the sidelines for a few months.
The two sides were a contrast in styles of play, Maritsa controlling most of the tempo with short passing and movement off the ball in small spaces. City played a bit more direct, often trying to beat the backline with one pass, or looking to build on counter attacks.
In the shootout, City got things started when Gavin Cameron calmly stroked the ball to the right of the keeper for the 1-0 lead. Maritsa answered when Lucas Almeida blistered one into the upper-90 to the right of the keeper. The teams went back-and-forth for another five penalty kicks each, just as they had for 120 minutes of the match, nothing separating them. In the seventh round, though, City’s Matt McCourt hit his penalty kick over the bar to give Maritsa hope. Center back Rob Acosta stepped up and drilled the ball into the corner to seal the deal and send Maritsa into celebration mode.
Maritsa coach Stefan St. Louis asserted, “I can’t say enough about the guys. It feels good to have put in so much, and then to get rewarded like this right at the end, with the last kick. It feels great. I have to give credit to Livonia [City FC]; they are a Michigan team and they came and played hard. But, we think this is the one that gets us into the open cup proper, though.”
Maritsa will have to wait until the New Year to find out if they have qualified for the 2019 US Open Cup. It is unclear, as of now, whether a Fourth Round, which is tentatively scheduled for March of 2019, will take place. Every professional team in the United States is automatically entered into the US Open Cup, and with the addition of an entirely new professional league with USL League One (Div. 3), and a number of expansion teams in the USL Championship (Div. 2), the format of next year’s tournament has yet to be finalized. Without a finalized format, it’s unclear how many Open Division teams (National Premier Soccer League, USL League Two — formerly Premier Development League — , and all of the Open Division Local teams) will be granted entry into the competition. It’s possible that Maritsa will have to play a Fourth Round qualifying match, but they won’t find out until January.
Essentially, there was no separation between the two sides. In the 120 minutes of action, there weren’t many clear chances. Each team had a shot glance off the crossbar, and Livonia City had a couple sitters early in the match that they hit wide of the target. But, it was a controlled and evenly matched affair all night long.
Martisa’s best chance came relatively early. After a 12th minute corner kick found Selmer Ademovic in the box, the attempt beat City keeper Alex Dubetz, but defender Billy Werthmann headed the effort away from the goal line.
In the 42nd minute, Dubetz received a yellow card after intentionally handling the ball outside the box in the one serious breach of the City backline in the first half. The ensuing free kick by Maritsa’s Almeida struck the crossbar, preserving the tie game.
City’s Kosay Zaya had a clear chance in second half stoppage time, but his strike was turned aside by the goalkeeper Blake Westerman, who got two strong hands to parry it away from harm. Westerman is an experienced netminder who spent time playing indoor soccer for the St. Louis Ambush.
For FC Maritsa, Vadim Cojocov, Luis Costa, and Timothy Menzel controlled the midfield, playing in and out of the target players and effectively switching the ball to the flanks to probe the attack.
For City, Vince Bruno and Matt Versteeg evened out the Martisa possession from their central defender spots. Maritsa was able to hold possession in and around the City penalty area; but they were not able to break the backline down, as Bruno and Versteeg stayed organized and defended confidently.
While it was cold for Livonia City’s first-ever US Open Cup home game, the wind and snow that had threatened earlier in the week held off, which helped bolster the crowd of more than 100 supporters.
City coach Gaven King said, “I am proud of the team. [Maritsa] are the best competition we’ve played yet, along with Quinto Elemento. We had plenty of chances of our own. I am not upset about the loss, though disappointed for the team and fans that we won’t advance.”
FC Martisa co-owner and general manager Alexander Todorov said his club has come a long way.
“This is a great night for us,” said Todorov. “We started out as a pick-up team, then, paying our dues in the Sunday leagues six or seven years ago, worked our way up and into the UPSL and now the Open Cup, I am sure similar to what [City] [has] done here. We’re a small club, so this is a great event for us.”
FC Maritsa now looks to the Spring when they will gear up for not only UPSL league play, but also another US Open Cup match. Whether that will be a Fourth Round qualifier or the US Open Cup proper, that remains to be seen. Regardless, the little club from St. Louis continues to make its way around the region in support of its dream of US Open Cup glory.