CHESTER, Pa. — In 2014 and 2015, the Union were galvanized by the U.S. Open Cup, brushing aside all of the rough moments they endured in MLS play and charging into the title game of the historic tournament that’s open to American soccer teams at all levels.
This year, things might seem a little different as the Union sit in first place in the Eastern Conference heading into their first U.S. Open Cup game Wednesday vs. the Harrisburg City Islanders.
But when asked if the team may approach the knockout tourney differently based on their league success, head coach Jim Curtin gave a hard “no,” insisting that winning the whole thing remains the ultimate goal.
“The only thing that changes is mentally, when you’re a team that’s struggling or maybe having a difficult year, you can use it as a way to bring the group together and get confidence,” Curtin said after Tuesday’s practice. “We’re confident right now. It is the first time we’ve gone in [to the U.S. Open Cup] where we’re clicking on all cylinders. We have a much deeper squad so we can feel more comfortable going to reserves. It sets up nicely for us.”
Open Cup games are often a balancing act for teams as games are usually sandwiched in the middle of the week between MLS contests. So the fact that Curtin may utilize his team’s depth when its former USL affiliate pays a visit to Talen Energy Stadium on Wednesday (7 p.m.) should come as no surprise.
Still, it’s probably fair to say the Union have put a higher priority on the Open Cup than a lot of other MLS teams over the years. And that’s something that will continue, even if they do sprinkle some reserves into their lineup to keep other players fresh for Saturday's road tilt with New York City FC at Yankee Stadium.
“We still value it,” veteran midfielder Brian Carroll said. “We still want to win it. Obviously in the past, we’ve kind of used the tournament to propel us and help our season. Now we just want to continue to do well in the tournament, regardless of having some league success.”
Before the Union’s resurgence this season, you could probably make the case that the majority of the franchise’s best moments came in the Open Cup. From winning games in shootouts to overcoming red cards and weather delays to finding unlikely stoppage-time and extra-time winners, the Union rode a whole lot of cool — and bizarre — moments to the finals in back-to-back years.
But they also understand that part of the tournament's magic is lower-division teams pulling off upsets of MLS teams — or coming close. Last year, the Union needed John McCarthy to stand on his head in a shootout to beat the Rochester Rhinos in their first tourney game. And two years ago, they needed extra time to eliminate the City Islanders.
“For whatever reason, a lot of times they go long,” Curtin said. “I don’t want 120 minutes or penalty kicks. I’d like to come out and dictate the tempo and take our chances and score and be organized and tough to play against.
“I’m proud of our record at the Open Cup. Good teams make it to the finals. I think it’s something to build on, and we have some experience knowing what it takes to get through the tough early-round games.”
The City Islanders pose an interesting challenge to the Union, who were closely tied to the club for several seasons before launching their own USL team — Bethlehem Steel — this year. Curtin credited Harrisburg with being essential to the development of the Union's current starting center back combo of Richie Marquez and Ken Tribbett. And there have been many other players that have played for both clubs, including Harrisburg forward Aaron Wheeler, who has three goals so far this season, including two in a game against the Steel last month.
“There are a lot of close ties there and we’re very grateful for what Harrisburg did,” Curtin said. “But tomorrow they’re the enemy. We want to win and move on.”
Chris Pontius wasn’t with the Union during their last two runs to the title game. But he does know from experience both how difficult the early-round games can be and also how great it feels to win in the Open Cup.
Back in 2013, D.C. United went down two men in extra time before scraping by the Richmond Kickers in a shootout. That turned out to be the beginning of a historic run that saw D.C. win the Open Cup crown despite finishing the MLS season with one of the worst records in league history.
“That was the highlight of my career,” said Pontius, who took some time off of training during the Copa America break last week to rest. “Winning a championship, that’s what we’re all in this business for. For me, that was it.”
As a two-time MLS Cup champion, Carroll has gotten to hoist trophies before. But the 14-year MLS veteran has still never won an Open Cup, which is something he’s eager to accomplish — especially after the Union’s two straight heartbreaking home losses in the finals.
“We’ve had some recent success in the tournament but we want more,” Carroll said. “We want to get a trophy out of it. And it starts tomorrow.”