The Magic of the Cup: A Night to Remember in San Diego

The Magic of the Cup: A Night to Remember in San Diego

There is nothing quite like the U.S. Open Cup.

The notion that we as the collective culture of American Soccer have something steeped in over a century of history and tradition, an event very much akin to the FA Cup in England, is as marvelous as it is mind boggling.

We’re supposed to be the new kids on the block when it comes to the world’s game, and soccer is supposed to be that slowly growing game in the States.

But the fact of the matter is, in the U.S. Open Cup, we have something that is older than the NFL, the NBA, the NHL, and most certainly Major League Soccer. In fact, the U.S. Open Cup has more history than many top flight soccer leagues and competitions around the globe. It’s a worldly tournament that is uniquely ours as members of the American Soccer community, and it never fails to offer up spine-tingling drama and storylines aplenty.

The Open Cup gave San Diegans a night to remember on May the 10th, 2017. While it could very well be looked at as a night to forget for local NPSL side Albion Pros, (who were playing in their first ever Open Cup match as a result of their quarterfinal finish in last season’s NPSL) it takes two to tango, and the spectacle could not have been without the side that hosted and ultimately lost one of the wildest knockout affairs imaginable.

Chula Vista FC, the South Bay club whose U-23 first team plays in the So Cal Premier League, took to the field at Mission Bay and defeated Albion 3-2 in a game that was scoreless after 73 minutes of play.

As enthralling as the match ended up being, what was all the more impressive was the atmosphere inside the ground. An estimated crowd of over 2,000 packed both sides of Buccaneer Stadium on an overcast yet slightly orange skied Wednesday evening, creating an environment that would be the envy of most any of the competition’s locales.

(The calm before the storm, kickoff in the U.S. Open Cup at Mission Bay)

“I love this tournament,” said Albion Head Coach Ziggy Korytoski in the buildup to the match. “The more and more it gets promoted, the more it can truly come to the forefront of our soccer culture in this country.”

The Albion folks certainly didn’t hold back in the Open Cup promotion department. What was already one of the biggest and most boisterous crowds to ever attend an Albion match was aided by an equally raucous away section, looking like an all black clad, human rampart covering the visiting stands as kickoff approached, a few hundred fans of all ages singing songs in both English and Spanish and continuously chanting “CHULA VISTA” for all to hear.

“For me,” Korytoski added, “it doesn’t get much better than the Open Cup. And with Chula Vista FC being the team coming to Mission Bay for this first round match, it’s somewhat of a local derby, which just adds to the whole experience. There’s gonna be a really good energy at this game. I know it. We want the community to come see what it’s all about. It’s gonna be a special night.”

The Albion gaffer wasn’t wrong. It was to be a very special night.

I sat pitchside, for the entirety of the match, right on the midfield line, adjacent to both benches and just a few steps away from the fourth official, a privilege bestowed only to those who are lucky enough to cover the lower leagues of American soccer and the early rounds of historically significant cup competitions. It was as much of a grassroots experience as covering a match could possibly be.

(The great Spanish soccer writer Guillem Balague once told me to never use the word “grassroots”, because it creates a separation of sorts, as if grassroots football is somehow a different sport. “Football is football” is the phrase Guillem and his friends from Biggleswade United FC, a 9th tier English side, have repeated to me over and over again. Whether it’s the U.S. Open Cup or La Liga, a pub team or a squad of millionaires, football is football. It’s the same game being played, 11 v. 11 on a big field.

While a night like this one certainly had that phrase echoing around my brain, I was also reminded of the fact that in no MLS, Liga MX, or Copa America match that I’ve covered in recent years would my pitchside domain be a reality. It was a glorious experience, effectively being a fly on the wall for every argument and conversation, and hearing the unmistakable sound of every crunching challenge in the middle of the park, having the accessibility of a high-school game when there was a full blooded, full bodied, professional, grown-man level of intensity and passion in play.)

The match… How about this freaking match…

There were no goals in the first 73 minutes. There were five when the final whistle sounded.

Albion’s Luke Staats was sent off for an apparent elbow inside the opening quarter of an hour. The home team had their backs against the wall as Chula Vista’s creative weapons were shining bright, the away stands brimming with excitement as it looked like their side could easily take advantage of the additional player on the field.

(Staats taking a throw for Albion just moments before he was sent off)

The home team stayed organized, Albion never wavering and thwarting the strong and often flashy Chula Vista attack. But the levee finally broke with just over fifteen minutes remaining, Alberto Diaz (the younger brother of Chula Vista FC Head Coach Jose Hector Diaz) showing off his dazzling dribbling ability as he had all night, slicing through a trio of Albion defenders before unleashing a bending right-footed effort to the far post from the top of the eighteen, the ball flying just past the outstretched arms of Albion goalkeeper Jean Antoine.

What ensued was one of the most raw, authentic, and fantastically passionate celebrations, the moment summing up so much in terms of what this game meant to the players and to the people of Chula Vista.

The ear-splitting noise coming from those away stands at Mission Bay suddenly went mute, as less than a minute later Albion were awarded a penalty at the other end. The noise picked right back up (and may have even gone to 11) as David Luquen’s spot-kick caromed off the post and was cleared away.

It was the weirdness of deja vu all over again when Albion were awarded a second penalty kick just a minute later, this time with Gilberto Perez-Lopez being sent off as a result! This penalty was to be converted, Luan Oliveira slotting it home. 1-1 with a little over ten minutes to go, both teams playing with ten men. We were all set up for a barnstorming finish. And that’s when the barn was stormed.

Chula Vista continued their offensive push, and after Antoine made a stunning save and was confined to the turf for a fraction of a second, Jaime Veron leaped into the air and redirected the rebound back toward goal with his head, contorting his body and lofting the ball over two scrambling Albion defenders and into the back of the net.

More jubilant celebrations ensued, as surely Chula Vista had pulled off another U.S. Open Cup masterpiece, channeling inspiration from their 2015 run in the tournament that saw them beat both FC Tuscon and Arizona United, the club now known as Phoenix Rising.

In added time, Chula Vista made it 3-1, a sloppy goal that will not be easily erased from the memory bank of Jean Antoine. It proved to be a valuable piece of insurance, as substitute Tre Hayes scored an equally scrappy goal at the other end just before the final whistle sounded. The scoreboard read “Albion 2 Chula Vista 3”.

More chants of “Chula Vista” came down from the stands, and a stirring rendition of “Canta y no Llores” rang out for all to hear (Cielito Lindo for the more Vicente Fernandez inclined crowd).

There was a party to be had for the Chula Vista fans, players, and coaches who look at themselves as one big family. But before the post-match celebrations were allowed to begin, Jose Hector Diaz and his assistants looked to their adoring supporters and told them to stay calm, and to stay off the pitch. Those supporters miraculously obliged.

Diaz shared a handshake and brief chat with Ziggy Korytoski, the Albion Head Coach wishing Diaz the best of luck in the next round of the tournament, where Chula Vista will take on the L.A. Wolves, the side managed by United States National Team great Eric Wynalda that just dispatched of San Diego Zest 4-1 in their first round match.

After a game that saw two red cards, five goals, and a fair amount of chippy and physical play, there was not even an inkling of an altercation after the final whistle. Instead, it was quite the opposite, every player and coach on both sides making a point of sharing a few hugs and handshakes with the opposition. It was a spirited display all night from everyone who stepped foot on the pitch. It was a classy display of sportsmanship that capped it all off.

As the Chula Vista players posed for pictures and sang songs with families and friends, I caught up with Jose Hector Diaz, discussing what this game and this tournament mean to he and his team.

“That was exciting,” Diaz said. “Our boys have been in this thing before. They really wanted it, and at the end of the night, I think that experience is what really put us through. I’m so happy for these guys. We get to celebrate tonight, but then it’s back to work tomorrow.”

(Chula Vista FC players basking in the glory of their latest Open Cup win)

“We love this tournament. When I was brought on board in 2011, we wanted to create something for our kids in the club and the Chula Vista community to look up to. I think we’ve met that goal as a club, and a lot of it has to do with this tournament. 2015 was our first year in the Open Cup and we did well. 2016 was a tough learning experience, and we lost to La Maquina, who ended up playing and almost beating LA Galaxy. And now here in 2017, I think we’ve got a great group of very experienced players, balanced with some young guys that are just hungry and full of energy and don’t ever stop believing.”

I asked Diaz specifically about the history of the Open Cup, and what it means to be a strong part of something that is over 100 years old and loaded with footballing nostalgia.

“It’s amazing. This is what the game of soccer is all about. It’s one of the most unique cups in the world. I think it deserves and needs to get a lot more coverage. We try to do our part, and promote it within our club and within our Chula Vista community. I think we’ve done a good job with that, and Albion did a great job of that as well to help create this atmosphere tonight.”

“When we played our first match in the Open Cup in 2015, Albion Pros didn’t exist. SoCal Surf didn’t exist. San Diego Zest didn’t exist. Now, those teams are here, and they’re all involved either in the Open Cup or just deeply involved with the community, creating these local rivalries among the teams and just growing the game. It’s beautiful.”

And lastly, some words on what it meant to see and hear all those Chula Vista fans supporting their team.

“Our fans were wild, maybe a little too wild at times. But I love the support. We all love the support. We knew they were gonna come through, maybe not in this high of numbers, but we knew they’d be here for us. We’re a family, a real family, from our U-8’s all the way to our U-23’s. We all know each other, and we’re all there for each other. Plain and simple, Chula Vista FC, it’s a family.”

The U.S. Open Cup, in and of itself, can feel like a familial type of thing. It can feel rather tight-knit, like it’s some kind of secret tradition that only some of us are privy to. If you’re one of those people that loves this tournament as much as I do, as much as Jose Hector Diaz and Ziggy Korytoski do, and as much as the thousands upon thousands of players and coaches who’ve taken part over the last hundred plus years, do us all a favor and take it upon yourself to pass this thing on. Go tell someone about the U.S. Open Cup, and just how special it can be, here in San Diego or anywhere in the country.

Spread the word. Share the magic of the cup.

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