Moments after falling 3-1 in extra time of the 2014 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final, the Philadelphia Union painfully stood and watched as Seattle Sounders FC lifted another trophy, on the Union’s home field at PPL Park.
The exercise was as much about sportsmanship as it was about character building according to Union head coach Jim Curtin.
“I wanted them to know that feeling,” Curtin told ussoccer.com. “Everyone on the team – I made sure they stayed out there. That should be what motivates you to go out and get a result. Every good team that I played on that eventually won a trophy went through the tough moments of losing a final.”
As a defender with the Chicago Fire, Curtin won two U.S. Open Cup titles in 2003 and 2006. He also had to look on in disappointment as the Fire fell to the San Jose Earthquakes in the 2003 MLS Cup and Kansas City Wizards in the 2004 U.S. Open Cup final.
“It’s a difficult thing to go through,” Curtin continued, “but as we approach the competition this year, we talk about unfinished business. That moment last year, it should motivate our guys.”
The Union will need that motivation as they welcome USL league leaders Rochester Rhinos to PPL Park on Tuesday. The club was the last non-MLS side to lift the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in 1999 and comes into the match sitting atop the 24-team USL with an 8-0-4 record (28 points).
They’ve carried their dominant league form into Open Cup play, defeating Greater Binghamton FC Thunder 1-0 in the Second Round, before an impressive display in Third Round play against fellow USL foe Harrisburg City Islanders. In that match, the Rhinos lost forward Steevan Dos Santos in the 38th minute and surrendered a 106th minute goal, before Tony Walls equalized two minutes later, and Asani Samuels bagged a brace to defeat the City Islanders 3-1 after extra time.
Rhino's goalkeeper Brandon Miller pulls down a cross in Third Round play of the 2015 U.S. Open Cup. (Photo credit: Harrisburg City Islanders)
“We have a competitive group,” said Rhinos head coach Bob Lilley. “Down a man at half time, I told the guys ‘We’re going to win this game. As the clock runs, they’re going to push guys forward. If we stay solid, we’re going to get our chances.’
“You get into overtime and anything can happen. I didn’t expect to score three goals in the second overtime, but when they scored we responded immediately. Guys had the mentality that they weren’t going to lose the game. Their resiliency showed and I think that’s what they’ve shown all year.”
That resiliency will be put to the test again on Tuesday. Unlike the Union, who sat idle in MLS play this weekend, Rochester hosted Louisville City FC Saturday night, about 72 hours before kickoff on Tuesday. In the short span, Lilley’s side will hope to build more upon the Rhinos’ rich history in the competition, while continuing their impressive form in league play.
“Before the Louisville game, we hadn’t spoken to our team about Philadelphia,” Lilley said. “There’s so much that has importance to our league. I do think that similar to a playoff setup, you’ve got to be able to maximize each outing and get the best on the day out of your team. You’re not always going to have every player healthy or every player available but when you get to that game, it’s important that every player maximizes his performance.”
While he didn’t put the Union in the minds of his players before Saturday’s league contest, knowing that Philadelphia is sitting idle this week, Lilley said he’d prepare his side to play their first team on Tuesday.
With a team that’s beginning to round into form after stumbles early in the MLS season, Union boss Jim Curtin confirmed he plans to put out a top lineup.
Philadelphia's Sebastian Le Toux holds off a challenge from Seattle defender Chad Marshall in the 2014 U.S. Open Cup Final.
“We’re going to put out a strong team for sure,” said the Union boss. “Maybe I sprinkle in one or two young guys, but they’re young guys that have played for us already this year and contributed. I’m not going to be fielding a second team and not having a game on the weekend is a good advantage for us.
“The guys are confident right now, they look like the group I remembered from the good moments last year. We’ve gotten healthy at a good time, and everyone’s kind of pushing each other. We’re getting even more healthy, Fernando Aristeguieta is going to be back, Conor Casey, Michael LaHoud, Steven Vitoria are all coming back.”
Curtin also has the competition’s all-time leading scorer, Sebastien Le Toux, to threaten what may be a tired Rochester back line on Tuesday. Le Toux’s 15 modern era Open Cup goals have given the Frenchman plenty of appreciation for the competition.
“It’s a tournament that I’ve had some success in,” he told ussoccer.com “It was nice to play at the beginning in Seattle in USL, getting games against MLS teams, it was nice to try and show yourself to other teams. I scored some goals. We had some good runs in Seattle, twice to the semifinals in 2007 and 2008 and my third year with the MLS squad we won it.
Union head coach Jim Curtin (center) won the U.S. Open Cup as a player with the Chicago Fire in 2003.
“The goal record means a lot to me,” he continued. “I’m a forward and when you play you want to score as many goals as you can. I’ve scored goals with almost every team I’ve played for in the competition and that’s special. I hope to score more and add to the record.”
As the Union begin their quest for another deep tournament run on Tuesday, Curtin has no reservations about treating the tournament and the teams his side faces with respect.
“It’s a very strong team, very organized, don’t give up a lot of goals, they score a bunch and haven’t been beaten this year. We’re not going to take them lightly,” he said of the Rhinos.
“Teams can handle it however they want, but I handle it in the way that: it’s one of the two cups you can win in our country. If you don’t take it seriously, you’re full of it to be honest. It’s pro sports and any time there’s competition you want to win. That should be the mentality. It was ingrained in me in Chicago and I’ve carried it with me to Philadelphia. We’re going to take the cup seriously and hopefully we can make another deep run like we did last year.”
Arnhem sits on the banks of the Rhine River, a sleepy Dutch city 60 miles from Amsterdam. The town usually enjoys a quiet existence, except for the roars that emanate every weekend from the legions of black-and-yellow-clad fans that pack the GelreDome, home to Arnhem’s top attraction: Vitesse.
Matt Miazga can accept responsibility for disturbing the peace in town last spring. The American defender brought some of the madness of the GelreDome to Arnhem’s avenues when he and his Vitesse teammates paraded through with the 125-year-old club’s first trophy: the 2016-17 Dutch Cup.
“It was amazing to be a part of that first trophy,” Miazga said. “Playing in final, that joy, that excitement and just that goose bump feeling after winning was amazing. The city was crazy. We had a big parade and a big celebration after. There was a stage in the middle of the city. Probably 30 to 40,000 fans were there cheering. It was an awesome celebration.”
When Miazga signed to play in Europe, he didn’t imagine he’d hoist a trophy and spark one of Arnhem’s rowdiest parties in recent memory. This sleepy hamlet has served as an important step in his single-minded quest to become the best player he can be.
“He came here with a mission,” said Marc van Hintum, Vitesse Sporting Director. “He’s a winner that you don’t see every day. That is something that gives him an extra dimension. His mentality is superb. He’s a guy that comes in and says ‘I need to succeed. I need to train hard, work hard every day, take my rest to train hard the next day.’ Of course he has the ability to play in Holland, but what makes him exceptional is his mentality.”
In Arnhem, Vitesse serves as the main show in town. There’s not a long block of fancy nightclubs and the libations of Amsterdam seem worlds further away than just a 70-minute car ride. As a kid in the suburbs of New York, Miazga picked soccer over everything. He missed school dances, dinner invitations and countless excursions with friends in favor of training and games. As he grew up, those decisions formed Miazga’s unilateral focus. In Arnhem, the lack of alternatives makes the decision a foregone conclusion. That makes the city an ideal home for a footballer devoted to the perfection of his craft.
“I'm here to play football,” Miazga said. “I go train, I sleep, I eat, I rest and repeat and play games. It’s not a big city. There’s no distractions, no extracurricular activities. You just come home, do what you have to do, focus on your craft and prepare. That’s been very beneficial for me.”
Miazga’s parents forged his one-track mind from an early age. He started to play soccer because his Polish parents grew up around the game back in their home country. When he first started to kick the ball around at age four, it didn’t take long to realize that his parents passion would also become his.
“A lot of different kids, a season comes and they play a different sport,” Adam Miazga, Matt’s father said. “I said to him ‘You’re not going to play a different sport, you choose one sport, what you want to do. We’re not going to jump from flower to flower and try everything and when the season is done, you don’t know anything. If you want to play soccer, let’s do it.’”
The local Clifton Olympians provided Miazga’s first competitive soccer, but as he conquered game after game in his small pond, a new challenge became necessary and Miazga joined the New York Red Bulls’ academy set-up. He once again rose to meet each obstacle in his path, and conquered the U.S. Soccer Development Academy as a U-15/16 age group champion in 2012.
His imposing frame and knack for physical, lock-down defense caught the attention of scouts from all over as he led the Red Bulls to the Academy championship. Miazga signed a letter of intent to attend the University of Michigan in 2012, but the Red Bulls organization had bigger plans for the young defender. In 2013, he signed as the eighth Homegrown player in club history.
Miazga’s first professional contract indicated that he figured into New York’s future plans, but his progress began slowly. In 2013 and 2014, Miazga only saw the field sparingly across a handful of appearances. Everything changed in 2015, when new head coach Jesse Marsch came to Harrison, N.J. Miazga would carry the banner for a wholesale shift in organizational philosophy.
“I felt strongly that Matt just needed to be challenged in a big way,” Marsch, now an assistant coach for German Bundesliga side RB Leipzig, said. “There was a lot of change in the organization, an emphasis away from the superstar player and more toward developing young players. He was never really entrusted to do the job. It was mostly because it was a team of veterans and a team of very established players.
“In the previous teams, the young guys were treated like the guys who carried the bags and they were the butt of the jokes, but they weren't really engaged as a real part of the team. I told him for that mentality and shift to change, it was going to be on his shoulders and even though he was 19 and it wasn't fair for to demand that he become a man now, it’s the reality of this business. The best young players, they grow up quickly.”
Prior to 2015, Red Bull Arena had served as a final home for some of the game’s biggest names and a haven for MLS veterans. Legends like Thierry Henry closed out their careers in Harrison and the team enjoyed moderate success. Marsch had other ideas. He gave Miazga just what he needed: an opportunity.
“He gave me that role to try to establish myself as a significant member of the team,” Miazga said. “I embraced that challenge. I thought I took it on well and he kept pushing me along. I really knew what it meant to be part of a professional team fighting for trophies.”
Marsch’s trust in Miazga may have seemed misplaced at the start. In the season’s first match, the young center back committed several errors that almost cost the Red Bulls a draw on the road at Kansas City. After New York survived to salvage a point against Sporting, Marsch didn’t show Miazga the bench. While they broke down his mistakes, they took more time to discuss his mindset and how he translated the tactics to the field. Miazga started for the Red Bulls the following week, and logged 24 more appearances throughout the season.
Miazga’s mission in those matches: shut down the opponent’s best attacking threat. Week in and week out, he would line up with a singular focus to shut down the most dangerous strikers in the league. Sebastian Giovinco. David Villa. Cyle Larin. No matter who lined up on the other side of the field, Miazga would do everything in his power to keep their name off the scoresheet.