The reigning national champions of the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) Miami FC began and ended their Lamar Hunt US Open Cup campaign Wednesday night with a 2-1 loss to the Miami-based Florida Soccer Soldiers.
The Soccer Soldiers were a tough opening draw for Miami FC, having themselves been a national finalist in the UPSL a year ago. The Soccer Soldiers steamrolled through the qualifying competition, earning their shot at Miami FC by outscoring four opponents 9-1 in the Cup’s Open Division Local qualifying tournament. The Soccer Soldiers also play a difficult brand of soccer to play against, comfortable sitting deep in a setup that allows them to play 5-3-2 when they aren’t in possession but quickly morph into a wingback-driven counterattacking 3-5-2 in possession.
Miami FC came out prepared and struck first. Dylan Mares made a swashbuckling run down the Soccer Soldiers left flank before peppering a ball across the face of goal for Ariel Martinez. The 31-year-old Cuban international is no stranger to the US Open Cup, having been a part of Miami FC’s magical run to the Open Cup quarterfinals as a member of the now-defunct North American Soccer League in 2017. Martinez added to his Open Cup tally with a clinical finish, giving the Orange and Blue a 1-0 lead just six minutes into the match.
Soccer Soldiers recovered well, absorbing pressure until making a vital tactical change in the 34th minute. Pushing their fullbacks higher up the pitch and removing left back Carlos Paredes for substitute Mario Ferro, the Soccer Soldiers managed to grab a bit more of the ball and with it, a pulse in the game. They created two golden chances to equalize in the final ten minutes of the first half, only to see forward Valentin Sabella denied by Mark Pais in the 36th minute and Sabella missing a sitter just before halftime.
Miami FC pressed for a second before halftime, but Soccer Soldiers keeper Bryant Martin was repeatedly up to the task, making big save after big save. Martin, who played in NPSL last year for Miami United, made a spectacular save on Tomas Granito in the 40th minute, stoned Dylan Mares two minutes later from only twelve yards, and closed the half with a lunging save on Ariel Martinez just prior to the halftime whistle.
Instead, it was Soccer Soldiers who would score next.
Just moments into the second half, Miami FC centerback Brenton Griffiths sent a pass lazily across the face of his own goal. None of his teammates showed for the ball, and before goalkeeper Mark Pais could react, Soccer Soldiers number nine William Stamatis had intercepted the pass and buried it in the Miami FC net. Suddenly, the game was 1-1, and the prospects of some early round Open Cup magic– in the Magic City no less- seemed high.
— U.S. Open Cup (@opencup) May 9, 2019
Soccer Soldiers nearly took the lead at the hour mark after Miami goalkeeper Mark Pais was caught hopelessly off his line after another Miami FC midfield giveaway. An initial attempt at a chip was deflected, leading to a Miami FC handball. The Soccer Soldiers were unable to capitalize on that Pais error, but minutes later they would get another opportunity.
A lovely ball from midfield sliced into the 18 towards Valentin Sabella, who had split the Miami defense. Reacting late, Pais took down the Soccer Soldiers forward and referee Jamie Willis pointed to the spot.
Goalkeeping can be brutal business, but it’s one of the few positions on the field where you can go from goat to hero in an instant, and Pais seized his moment. Carlos Meneses hammered a ball hard and low, but Pais was up to the challenge, parrying it away with his right leg. As the penalty rebound sailed harmlessly high, it appeared as if Miami FC may have dodged Soccer Soldiers’ best bullet.
Unfortunately for Miami FC, they hadn’t.
With both teams out of substitutions, a driving tropical rain falling and time-winding down, yet another poor Miami clearance resulted in Soccer Soldiers winning the ball in the always dangerous zone fourteen, where former NPSL Boca Raton midfielder Carlos Meneses took a touch and lifted a beautiful strike over a helpless Pais. The goal set-off a raucous sideline celebration from the Soccer Soldiers, and sent an immediate hush over the typically rowdy Miami FC supporters group.
Miami FC sent bodies hurling forward late, but couldn’t muster a shot on goal despite nearly ten minutes of stoppage time and plenty of the ball. When it ended, an overjoyed Soccer Soldiers team lingered on waterlogged field to celebrate.
“We knew we were capable, a strong team. We just had to show it tonight and we did. We gave up the early goal but felt we were the better team most of the night and the result showed. I’m proud of our effort,” a jubilant Martin said afterwards.
There was no joy on Miami FC’s side.
As the NPSL national champion, Miami FC were one of the few teams with the talent to make a deep Open Cup run. Instead, their Cup dreams were snuffed out after one evening, and their players, front office and fans were left to wonder what might have been. On the heels of another early Open Cup exit last year, the team rallied and won the NPSL championship. But the pressure is now firmly on manager Paul Dalglish, who was well aware of the emphasis Miami FC’s ownership placed on the Open Cup. Whether Dalglish will get a third chance at an Open Cup run next year is now a fair question. Such is life in the lower tiers of American soccer, where the only chance to prove oneself against the best is the Open Cup, and to have the chance snuffed out after one evening is an especially brutal blow.
A hushed Dalglish acknowledged as much post game, first praising the victorious Soccer Soldiers but adding, “I need to reassess what I’m doing as a coach as well.”
He will. He just won’t get to do it in a US Open Cup.