When the majority of the Third Round of the 2014 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup kicks off on Wednesday, there is one mouthwatering draw that will make soccer enthusiasts from all across the country pay attention.
That match will have North American Soccer League (NASL) veteran Atlanta Silverbacks making the short 120 mile trip to National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) heavyweights Chattanooga FC. The two know what’s on the line, as the winner will host a formidable Major League Soccer (MLS) opponent, last year’s MLS Cup and Open Cup runners-up, Real Salt Lake.
Before they can even begin to think about RSL, you better believe they know the competition they are facing.
Both clubs will be balancing a heavy schedule coming into the match, but neither club is ready to lay over, as both are looking for the taste of success in the oldest soccer competition in the United States.
“We’re just excited to be a part of it,” Atlanta Silverbacks Director of Public Relations and Marketing Neal Malone said of the competition. “To go up to Chattanooga and see some of the environment that we’ve been hearing about, we expect a very tough challenge from them and whatever happens, the winner gets a great reward.”
“I think where we are today, Chattanooga FC and the NPSL, from where we were a short five years ago is just a testimony of how strong the league, the leadership has become, the teams as they’ve grown in the eyes of US Soccer,” Sean McDaniel, General Manager of Chattanooga FC, said of the growth of the NPSL. “To now have over ten spots in the Open Cup, speaks to the strength of the NPSL.”
One of the hardest challenges that both clubs will face comes even before the kickoff of the Cup match. Atlanta will have a regular season match the Saturday prior to the Open Cup in Edmonton, Alberta then have to head back to Chattanooga for the midweek fixture.
“Everybody in the NASL knows that this trip to Edmonton is not easy,” Malone said of their travels. “There are very few places that fly directly to there, so you are not looking at one flight, you are looking at two, and a layover situation. It’s a different type of surface, a very bouncy surface with football lines and there are a lot of things stacked against teams even before the ball is kicked in Edmonton.”
He added, “As professionals, that’s just part of it and it’s something you have been doing for years, and I think that we have the depth to play some guys on the weekend and others midweek and not have too much of a drop-off.”
While Chattanooga does not have the tremendous task of traveling to Canada, they will play four matches in eight days, only one of which, the Cup match against Atlanta, will be at home. That includes a NPSL Saturday fixture against the New Orleans Jesters, Sunday in Florida against Pensacola City FC, then the following Saturday (May 31) in Tennessee to face the Knoxville Force.
“I think one of the things we did well this year, was that since we knew we had the Open Cup this season, we brought in more quality players, we built our depth,” McDaniel said. “We hate that we have to play so many matches in such a short amount of time, however, we made the commitment to have a very deep roster and the ability to utilize quality players between the Open Cup and league matches.”
No matter what the result comes from this Open Cup match, both teams know that the ground that they have already laid this year has been a success.
Chattanooga has already completed the herculean task of beating a club a level above them, as they defeated the Wilmington Hammerheads, of USL PRO, just a week ago.
“(The win) has been tremendous for a couple of reasons,” McDaniel claimed. “First, from my understanding, it’s the first time that a NPSL team has beaten a full-time professional side, so from a league standpoint, it helps proves that NPSL is even further up, as far as the value of soccer in America.”
The Hammerheads were defeated 3-1 at Finley Park, where forward Luke Winter scored a pair of goals for the home side and Luis Trude assisted two goals to give CFC their first win of 2014.
“Locally,” McDaniel adds, “within our own market, not just the success of the victory, but the success of hosting, hosting it well, our fans are the best in the entire country, and the fact that we had 1,500 turn up in a downpour to watch that match, give a testimony the city itself.”
Despite the Open Cup having an exorbitant amount of riches, both transparent and not, both clubs will weigh the ability to win their league and matches in the Open Cup.
“They are both equal important,” McDaniel said of the success in both competitions. “The NPSL is the league we want to win every year and although we have had success in reaching the league final a couple of times, it’s tremendously important because we want to win the league we are in.”
He went on to add, “The Open Cup is an added bonus, as each round progress, if Chattanooga is fortunate enough to advance to the next round, it builds a wave of excitement and it gives our guys something else to shoot for. From a national exposure, the creditability for the NPSL as a whole, and winning the league does the same thing.”
For the Silverbacks, they know what it feels like to get to the MLS competition level of the Open Cup. Last year after beating NPSL side Georgia Revolution on the road, they played Real Salt Lake in Utah to a 3-2 loss. However, it took a Khari Stephenson goal in the 100th minute for RSL to seal the Open Cup win.
“Due to the regional congruence of other MLS teams and since there are not too many MLS teams in the Southeast, we kind of knew that we would again draw a mountain or western team from the MLS. I think what we were really thrilled about was that we could potential host the game, which was not the case last year,” Malone added. “As for the opponent, I don’t think there was nervousness about RSL, but excitement about possibly playing a team at that level.”
Neither club can claim that there is no familiarity with each other, as the Silverbacks have faced the Georgia Revolution of the NPSL in the Open Cup for the past two years, as mentioned above.
“The last two years we won by a very narrow margin and the level of play has been very good,” Malone said of their competition. “I find that the level of play in the game to be very high and also a lot of the players that we have gotten have been with NPSL teams and have made a pretty good impact. The cool part about the Cup is that both teams get up for it because it’s sort of their one shot at professional competition. It transcends the technical skills on the field, it’s that energy and effort that we see as well.”
But as a twist of ironic fate, these two franchises should have already been scheduled against each other. The Atlanta Silverbacks Reserves play in the same NPSL conference (Southeast) as Chattanooga, and each club in their conference has one club that they do not face. Can you guess which club the Reserves side doesn’t play in 2014?
“We went through the Reserves schedule, and thought that it was interesting that the pro team was playing them (Chattanooga) and the Reserves were not, even though they are in the same conference.”
Now, the most important aspect to this entire match will be the chance to host 2013 MLS Cup runner-up Real Salt Lake in the Fourth Round of the Open Cup. What both teams can agree on, however, is that if there was ever a year that a MLS side could be challenged for the Open Cup trophy, this could be the year.
“I think it’s possible, especially this year with the MLS teams having their superstars away at the World Cup, it probably levels the playing field a little bit more, but I think those teams are top-tier for a reason. It would take an amazing run of form for one of these second, third, or fourth division teams to go on and win it,” McDaniel concluded.
Maybe this can be the year that the magic happens and one of these two clubs start their Cup form next week in Chattanooga.