A look down the list of matchups between lower-league sides and MLS clubs prior to the Fourth Round of the 2015 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup might have given a glimmer of an upset or two.
Perennial U.S. Open Cup powers Rochester Rhinos and Charleston Battery looked the giant-killing type as they took the Philadelphia Union and Orlando City SC respectively to penalty kicks. Defensively solid Louisville City FC kept the Chicago Fire scoreless for 116 minutes and Saint Louis FC held two-time champions Sporting KC to a conservative 1-0 win in front of a sell-out crowd of 19,298 away at Sporting Park.
While all of those clubs made things difficult for their MLS opponents, only one USL side – maybe the most overlooked – pulled the “Cupset” over their Division I rivals as first-year Charlotte Independence used a stunning 55th minute half-volley from Jorge Herrera to dispatch the New England Revolution 1-0 in Boston.
On the surface, perhaps looking past Charlotte was understandable. To that point, they’d lacked consistency, winning just three matches in their inaugural league campaign and sitting second to last in the USL’s Eastern Conference. According to head coach Mike Jeffries, bringing together and gelling a group of guys that hadn’t played together before has presented a welcome challenge – one that might have set his side up well for the “Cupset”.
“We’re learning things along the way and we kind of felt like we’d split the season up,” Jeffries told ussoccer.com. “The first part of the season we hoped it wouldn’t be difficult, but we felt it might be. The middle third, we wanted to be playing good soccer and make a final push and set ourselves up for the final third and make the playoffs. The first part of the season we played good soccer, but couldn’t find results. Now I think we’re doing a bit better finding ways to win and closing out games. We feel good about that and for being a new group that didn’t know each other at all to now they’re developing a little more confidence and belief and knowledge of each other.”
While it took some time to get the group playing in a way that they’re comfortable with, a glance down the roster shows that Jeffries had assembled a talented set of players.
Charlotte head coach Mike Jeffries has deep roots in the American soccer landscape as both a player and coach cultivated over 30+ years.
The center piece of his side is captain Herrera – a long time member of USL predecessors Charlotte Eagles, who sold their franchise rights to the Independence as they dropped down to the Premier Development League in 2015. The Colombian midfielder is joined by former Polish international forward Tomasz Zahorski as well as 13 players that have varying levels of experience with MLS squads – among them leading scorer Ryan Finley, midfielder Alex Martinez, defender Mechack Jerome. Charlotte has also benefited from the play of Ben Newnam, John Berner, Caleb Calvert and Carlos Alvarez – loanees from MLS affiliate Colorado Rapids.
The team’s entry into the 2015 U.S. Open Cup provided a confidence build as Zahorski bagged a hat trick in the side’s 4-2 Second Round victory over the NPSL’s Upward Stars on May 20.
“The Upward Stars game was a good run for a lot of guys that hadn’t got a game to keep themselves sharp. That was very important for us and the mentality of the team and guys continuing to compete with each other. We have a group that’s extremely competitive – that was good and just getting the confidence to win games.”
The win setup a bigger challenge away to the NASL’s Carolina RailHawks on May 27, when the Independence used an 81st minute goal from Ryan Finley to earn the side’s first road win of the season.
“The Carolina RailHawks game was huge,” Jeffries continued. “To that point we hadn’t had a lot of success on the road and it was important for us to develop a decent way of playing away against a very good team. It was nice for us, we defended really well throughout the game and limited chances and were still able to move the ball and create a bit.”
While Jeffries said his team has taken things a game at a time, the chance of getting a shot at an MLS team proved as big motivation for his group of players that have previously graced the U.S. top-flight.
"That means a lot to the guys – a lot of them are on the cusp of MLS. They were in it recently and are trying to get back or want to get there. For the players in that situation, they want to do well against an MLS team. That as much as anything is a big factor for us in terms of approach to the game and finding ways to win." - Charlotte head coach Mike Jeffries
The confident, veteran group of former MLS players headed to Boston to play 2014 MLS Cup finalists New England Revolution in the Fourth Round. Perhaps most overlooked heading into the match was the Charlotte coach himself.
Along with winning the Hermann Trophy as the nation’s top collegiate player at Duke in 1983, Jeffries is a two-time U.S. Open Cup winner as an assistant coach with the Chicago Fire, a former head coach of the Dallas Burn and scout for U.S. head coach Bob Bradley at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. A solid, veteran side combined with the knowledge and experience obtained by Jeffries in big matches over the years combined for the perfect storm in Charlotte’s 1-0 win the biggest upset of the round.
“We defended a fair amount as you’d expect, but there were stretches where we moved the ball pretty well and you could see us developing more confidence and belief.”
As the game wore on, Charlotte picked their moments going forward. Finally in the 55th minute, Alex Martinez lobbed a ball to Herrera just outside the box on the left. The Colombian chested down and then volleyed a magnificent strike into the opposite top corner to give the Independence a 1-0 lead.
“I try to shoot as much as I can from everywhere,” Herrera told ussoccer.com. “When I hit it and the ball started going down, I felt it was going in. It was nice and it was in the right moment.”
Charlotte's Jorge Herrera (right) battles with a Carolina RailHawks defender during the teams' Third Round USOC match up.
Photo by Rob Kinnan.
“After the goal, we knew New England would pour on the pressure, but we showed our ability to close out a game,” added Jeffries. “Winning tight games on the road is important.”
Watching the U.S. Open Cup draw intently the following day, random chance would send Charlotte to a Round of 16 date with the Chicago Fire, a place where Jeffries made his best coaching memories.
“Being a part of the Fire from 1998-2000 gave me a tremendous appreciation and enthusiasm for the Open Cup, which I carry forward to this day,” he said. “We had a great group of players, extremely competitive and winning the tournament was important to us as a new franchise who wanted to establish themselves by winning trophies. Being able to be a part of the team which won the 1998 Open Cup in front of our home fans a week after winning MLS Cup was truly special for me.”
Jeffries would have two more stints with the club, returning as an assistant coach under Denis Hamlett in 2008 and 2009 and following his stint as a World Cup scout, Jeffries served as the club’s Director of Player Personnel from 2010-2012.
“We’ve heard about coach Jeffries and Chicago in the past,” said Herrera. “He’s very pumped to go up there and bring his new team and we are too. We are amazed at the opportunity we have in front of us to get out and play, do our best and try to put together a really good effort and why not get the win? On my mind every time I play a game, I go to win. We have to recognize our a good opportunity – our team is ready and it will be nice if we have a good game that Tuesday and make just not our coach, but everyone with the club proud to get a result.”
Charlotte head coach Mike Jeffries and the Independence are looking forward to playing yet another MLS team in the 2015 U.S. Open Cup.
Photo by Jonathan Aguallo.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say [the game] was a nice opportunity for me,” said Jeffries who still has a house in the Chicago area. “The Open Cup is about the guys and I want them to succeed, but it’s always nice to go home where I’ve been for a long time. It’s special to play the Fire and be back playing at Toyota Park for a night.”
And just as Jeffries helped the first-year Fire to an improbable Open Cup title in 1998, perhaps he has a view of doing the same with Charlotte in 2015.
“The focus really just is the game and trying to figure out a way to beat a good MLS team. We’re competing in a prestigious tournament and we want to push ourselves along and win every game.”
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.