U.S. Open Cup is made of more than just magic moments like Christos'
Never mind what happened after the 80th minute -- when D.C. United's professionals were able to draw on their superior conditioning to pull away to a 4-1 win -- the only moment anyone will remember from the day D.C. hosted amateurs Christos FC in the U.S. Open Cup, will be Mamadou Kansaye's free kick in the 23rd minute.
As Kansaye's free kick swept up and over the D.C. wall to open the scoring, a chaotic scramble ensued on the sidelines and on the grass berm behind the D.C. goal, where a neon green-clad mini-army of Christos supporters swept down to the field to celebrate with their players.
Christos has enjoyed its moment in the sun these past few days, as the story of an amateur Baltimore team -- sponsored by a family-owned discount liquor store, taking on the professionals of D.C. United in the U.S. Open Cup -- has captured the imagination of soccer romantics in the U.S. Perhaps even more than Cal FC, the team of aspiring professionals coached past the likes of Portland Timbers by Eric Wynalda in 2012, Christos has evoked the spirit of giant-killing that's unique to this competition.
To face D.C. in the first place, Christos had already beaten teams higher up than itself in the U.S. Soccer pyramid, though without promotion and relegation it's not a "pyramid" in any sense the term is usually used in world soccer circles. A win over the NPSL's Fredericksburg FC had set up a 1-0 victory at solid USL side, and D.C. United affiliate, Richmond Kickers, in the second round of the competition. And finally, PDL team Chicago FC United was dispatched in the third round to set up Tuesday's game against D.C.
If none of those acronyms mean anything to you, it's no surprise. The various tiers of U.S. club soccer can appear forbiddingly complex at first and even second glance, and the terrain consistently fluctuates, as teams search for the right blend of autonomy and viability to survive, let alone thrive, in the levels below MLS.
What is meaningful and at the heart of what makes the U.S. Open Cup a vital, if underappreciated competition, is that these teams should meet in competitive action in the first place,. The absence of a promotion/relegation mechanism for teams to move between leagues at a national level means that the one-off games that occur within the Open Cup's knockout format represent the only moments of porousness between the different levels of U.S. club soccer.
For lower-league teams it has meant everything from fairytale runs like that enjoyed by Christos, to shaky competitive development strategies such as the one employed by the New York Cosmos. The Cosmos' second incarnation have pinned an unsustainable significance on wins over MLS teams in the Cup as a means of supporting their business and sporting decision to compete in NASL.
The Cosmos have had their notable successes in the U.S. Open Cup -- having beaten both the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC in recent editions of the competition -- but they have never gone deep enough in the competition to claim any sort of mandate for themselves as the true standard-bearers of professionalism in the city, let alone the country.
This year, with new owners propping up a shaky organization in a shaky league, and with the club prioritizing a promotional trip to Saudi Arabia over the Cup, the Cosmos paid the price with a second-round loss to PDL team Reading United. Their ambitions of a CONCACAF Champions League spot by 2020 look a long way off right now.
Yet there is a Champions League spot on offer for the ultimate winners of the Open Cup, and once the competition thins out by the quarterfinals, MLS coaches begin to take the competition more seriously as an addendum to the MLS season. But at the stage of the competition when lower-league teams and amateurs like Christos are still hovering around the bracket, the calculus tends to be around how many first-team players can be rested for these games while still avoiding embarrassment.
And that final factor is important. The forced parity of MLS is celebrated within league administrative circles as a model for both stability and competitive excitement, but without the kind of interrogation offered by Mexican sides in the Champions League at one extreme, and lower-division teams in the U.S. Open Cup at the other, a hermetically sealed league gets little honest gauging of its relative standard of play.
Not that Christos fans and players had any interest in offering any sort of service to the professionals as they played in front of a crowd of 5,286 on Tuesday night. As far as they were concerned, this was their Cup final, and it was D.C. making up the numbers, not them.
And while the result went against them, they'll always have the 23rd minute. As one player, Eric Breach, told the Washington Post of the aftermath of the goal, "Thrown beer, thrown hats, broken glasses ... It was a pile of chaos, a good pile of chaos. It was absolutely nuts. It was awesome."
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @KidWeil.