We’re all Sacramento fans now

We’re all Sacramento fans now

Ralph-Lundy-soccer-sponsorship-message-2The 100th U.S. Open Cup began play yesterday with the play-in game, won by Hasental FC (in German: Rabbit Valley), which defeated the Fresno Fuego to advance to the first round for the first time in Hasental history. So, congratulations to the California boys from Conejo Valley (in Spanglish: Rabbit Valley).

Also, the Georgia Revolution downed the Colorado Rovers on penalty kicks.

And that’s more than enough about them.

The big questions for Charleston Battery fans when it comes to the 2013 Open Cup are who the Battery will play and where will the game be held when it’s our turn to enter the fray in Round Two on May 21. None of the play-in participants figure into our scenario, which involves Portland instead.

If the host Portland Timbers U-23s beat the visiting Sacramento Gold on Tuesday, then the Battery will be flying out to Cascadia for Round Two on May 21. For Charleston to host a Round Two game, the veteran side from Sacramento (a member of the National Premier Soccer League) will have to win the club’s first-ever Open Cup match on the road at JELD-WEN Field.

And that can be a tall order.

A busy May, then a slower pace

First, a quick review of this year’s Open Cup.

In its 100th year, the Lamar Hunt U.S Open Cup field comprised 68 teams from multiple levels of the sport. Match play began with the preliminary round on Tuesday, and first three rounds of the tournament proper will take place over the next three Tuesdays in May. On Tuesday, the lone representatives from US Club Soccer (the Fresno Fuego) and the U.S. Specialty Sports Association (Colorado Rovers) were eliminated by two of the eight representatives of the National Premier Soccer League.

In Round 1, those eight teams from the NPSL will join eight teams from the U.S. Adult Soccer Association, 16 teams from the USL PDL, and four teams from USL PRO (expansion VSI Tampa Bay FC and FC Phoenix, plus the Dayton Dutch Lions and the Pittsburgh Riverhounds). A week later, the winners from Round 1 join the eight remaining USL PRO teams (including Charleston), plus all six NASL sides. That’s Tuesday, May 21. 

On Tuesday, May 28, the 16 MLS teams from the United States join the competition. That’s Round Three.

After the 28th, the tournament takes a short break, then returns for the serious business of Round Four on Wednesday, June 12. The fifth round is the quarterfinals on Wednesday, June 26, followed by the Semifinals on Wednesday, Aug. 7 (and possibly on the 21st, too, but only if there’s a conflict with a team in CONCACAF Champions League the week of Aug. 7). The final will be played on Tuesday, Oct. 1, or Wednesday, Oct. 2.

From a Charleston-centric perspective, the USL PRO calendar makes the Open Cup schedule a bit more challenging. May is the Battery’s busiest month, with seven league matches and up to two Open Cup dates. If our boys are going to advance — and everyone in the club says a deep cup run is a 2013 priority — they’re going to have to do it while carefully managing the health and fitness of the squad.

The other two factors? Time and money. If the Timbers U-23s win next Tuesday, the Battery will have to fit a trip to the Pacific Northwest into their schedule between their away-game at Houston on Sunday the 19th and their home game against Rochester on the 25th. Battery President Andrew Bell said the U.S. Soccer Federation (the Cup’s sponsor) provides a travel stipend, which reduces the financial burden for road teams, so cost is less of an issue. But traveling to Soccer City U.S.A. means playing in front of a rabid Portland fan base that will bring the noise (and the smoke bombs) to JELD-WEN. It also means spending two long days on airplanes.

Would the Battery be favored in such a match? Sure. But if there’s a tougher possible road date in Round Two, tell me about it in comments.

Who are these guys?

The Timbers U-23s have been one of the better West Coast PDL units in recent years. Current Batteryman Jarad van Schaik played part of the season for the Timbers U-23s in 2010, when the team went 16-0-0 to become the first undefeated PDL regional champion. Like a lot of affiliated U-23 teams in the PDL, its roster is usually made up of collegiate stars from schools around the country, although most have ties to the region.

But here’s one important thing to keep in mind. The Timbers U23s start their 2013 season with their U.S. Open Cup match against Sacramento. No real warm-ups. They have only 12 players currently listed on their roster. And while they were OK last season in earning qualification for the second year in a row, they flamed out in the First Round of the 2012 Open Cup, losing 1-3 at home to PSA Elite of the U.S. Adult Soccer Association.

So while the USL PDL sends more teams to the Cup (16) than the NPSL (8), and PDL players are usually considered better prospects, that doesn’t mean that a U-23 squad has an advantage in a match like this. The difference? Experience.

Sacramento: Same city, but not who you think it is

As many Battery fans are aware, USL PRO is expanding on the West Coast, and announced a deal to add a Sacramento team in 2014. That franchise — currently dubbed “Sacramento Pro Soccer” — is holding a contest to name the team and booking soccer exhibitions, but it won’t actually begin play until next season. So if you were one of several people who were wondering if the Sacramento Gold were a placeholder for “Sacramento Pro Soccer,” the answer would appear to be “No.”

But while the players for the Gold might not rank high on the prospect scale, that doesn’t mean they aren’t an interesting and effective group. The Gold have played five league matches so this season, compiling a 3-1-1 record and a +3 goal differential. But those game came after the NPSL Western Play-In Tournament in March, which the Gold won handily, outgunning its opponents 10-1.

John Jones II

John Jones II

So while the kids in Portland are just getting to know each other, their first guests will be a mixture of young and old players with a mixed bag of college and professional experience. And one of those Gold players will be familiar to long-time Battery fans: 39-year-old John Jones II, who played four matches for the Battery during a brief stay in 1998. He returned to the Battery four years later — after stints with the Nashville Metros, L.A. Galaxy, and Pittsburgh Riverhounds — to play in 21 games in 2002. Between his two season here, Jones scored five goals. And he’s more or less tearing up the NPSL these days.

Who else do they have? Well, there’s a thirtysomething high school soccer coach who was drafted by the L.A. Galaxy once upon a time. Some guys who played (or still play) for California colleges. It’s a mixture of people at various stages of their career, and they play not for money or fame.

Which is why you love the Open Cup. Because sometimes the amateurs teach the pros a thing or two.

So let’s say the Gold win

For the sake of the argument, what happens if the Gold go up to Portland and win next week?

From a competitive perspective, it’s usually an easier task to win at home, and staying put after their flight home from Houston would probably make for a fresher Battery team on Tuesday — as well as the following Saturday against Rochester.

From a balance-sheet perspective, the home date isn’t a great boost to the club’s finances. Bell said the Battery wouldn’t expect to draw large numbers to a mid-week match against an amateur side from California, and might open only one side of the Stadium. Advancing to Round Three would mean a game against an MLS team, but there’s no promise that the Battery would be able to host that match like they did last season. And while there’s money to be made hosting games in the late rounds of the Cup, there are also hosting fees involved.

So it’s probably best to look at this simply in terms of competitive advantage. And the Battery are not being coy about their Cup goals this year.

“It’s a privilege to play in the National Championships,” Bell said. “Beating (an MLS team in the later rounds) is a big deal, and we’ve done it before several times, particularly back in the old days when they didn’t take it that seriously.”

That seems to be changing, Bell said. MLS teams covet the automatic CONCACAF Champions League bid that comes with the Open Cup Championship, plus there’s more money in the pot this year.

But the biggest thing for the Battery is the memory of their 2008 cup run, which ended in the finals against DC United. They’re the last non-MLS team to make it that far, they want to go back, and they’re not the only people who think this year’s Battery squad might have the torque to overturn conventional wisdom about underdogs in this tournament. Joe Prince-Wright at NBC Sports’ ProSoccerTalk.com named Charleston along with three other USL PRO and NASL teams as lower-tier sides that could make a tournament run.

The others: Orlando City Lions, plus the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Carolina Railhawks of NASL.

And if you’re wondering about how the Battery compare to the mighty Railhawks, allow me to point you to Exhibit A and Exhibit B.