ERIE, Pa. -- On Wednesday, the Riverhounds took the field for a 2-1 win against an amateur team on a small-college football field in front of a few hundred fans here in northwestern Pennsylvania.
It might not sound like the most prestigious of surroundings, but it was the start of the path toward one of the oldest prizes in both North American sports and soccer worldwide.
The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, now in its 105th year of competition, is unique to U.S. team sports in that it allows both amateurs and pros to compete, and it truly is open to any team able to navigate qualification. And while a few soccer trophies pre-date the Open Cup — England's FA Cup was established in the 1871-72 season — no trophy in North American sports has been played for on an annual basis for a longer run. (Thanks to the 1994 MLB strike for that.)
Western Pennsylvania has a long history with the cup, which was first known as the National Challenge Cup. The area's long soccer history, much of which was tied to ethnic communities in mining towns or industrial river cities, produced championship-winning teams that included Donora's Pittbsurgh Gallatin (1942), Bridgeville-area's Morgan Strasser (1949) and the Harmarville Hurricanes (1952, '56).
This is a different era for the cup, however, with fully professional first- and second-division leagues — MLS and USL — making the era of community teams winning the cup a thing of the past. That doesn't mean the dream has died, however.
Take, for instance, the first cup match held at Highmark Stadium, a 2013 first-round match between the Riverhounds and RWB Adria, an ethnic Croatian club from Chicago. Having reached the tournament through regional qualifying, Adria pushed the Hounds to the brink, and the hosts needed a shootout to advance to the second round after a 1-1 game.
The crowd for that match was distinctive, as Pittsburgh's own Croatian community came out to see the match with mixed loyalties, many clad in the Croatian national team's distinct red-and-white checkerboard colors. Even the Steel Army, the Hounds' most loyal fans, gave the visiting amateurs hearty applause after the match, especially Adria's goalkeeper, Igor Dimov, a player who first turned pro in 1995 and was still at it approaching age 40.
After the match, I went to interview the plucky amateurs and spoke to the team's general manager, Ante Loncar — their head coach at the time spoke very little English, and my Croatian is limited to knowing I did something well if I hear "Dobra!" shouted toward me. The interview happened behind the Highmark Stadium locker rooms, where a handful of Adria staff and players — some of whom played the full 120 minutes — had stepped outside for a cigarette break.
Loncar praised his team's effort, telling me many of them had to be back to work Friday after the Wednesday night game, but the best part of the interview was when one player interrupted to say to Loncar, "Tell him (meaning me), we only practice once a week and we only come to the games to drink beer afterward."
Pittsburgh's own Tartan Devils Oak Avalon, then the champions of the Greater Pittsburgh Soccer League, made their own cup run in 2017. The local amateurs — the first Western Pa. amateur team to get through qualifying in more than 25 years — went on the road to advance through the first round on penalties before suffering a 9-0 loss at Highmark at the hands of eventual USL champs Louisville City FC. I had the chance to talk to players after that game, as well — first on the field before filing my story, then later that night when a few were lingering in the wee hours at their team's sponsor, Piper's Pub.
That sort of setting — David vs. Goliath, Joes vs. Pros — is what makes the single-elimination cup such a great event... think March Madness if Carnegie Mellon got a shot at Villanova.
The Hounds' third-round match this year is all business, however. They will host fellow USL pros FC Cincinnati at 7 p.m. Wednesday, with the winner getting their own shot to be a lower-division David against an MLS Goliath in the next round.
• Speaking of the Hounds next cup match, tickets for the match go on sale Friday, and all seats are $5. Attendance for the Hounds' midweek games always seems to be low, but with the low price, the Penguins' season over and the Pirates in Cincinnati, the club is hoping for a strong cup showing on the field and in the stands.
• One last cup item: Nine amateur teams advanced to the third round, including two, the North Texas Rayados and Sporting Arizona FC, who don't play in a national league and came through local qualifying like the Tartan Devils. They will hope to emulate the 2016 run of California club La Máquina, who advanced all the way to face MLS' L.A. Galaxy and forced extra time before losing 4-1, in part because of some dubious officiating that led the amateur club to file a protest, which later was denied.
• Credit the Pitt athletic department for some quality trolling of Penn State. After the 8 p.m. kickoff for this year's meeting between the two rivals was announced Wednesday, the Panthers went into the archives for this tweet of the last prime-time game between the two:
The last time Pitt and Penn State played out the rivalry in primetime...
Billy Owens became a legend.
Nov. 14, 1987 at Pitt Stadium.
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) May 16, 2018
• Perhaps lost in the shuffle with the announcement of that kickoff time is that Pitt also knows the kickoff time for its game Oct. 13 at Notre Dame, a traditional 2:30 p.m. start. Given that those are the two true national matchups on Pitt's schedule — and TV dictates all of this — it could be some time before more kickoff times are released.
• I've got to admit, the way the Boston Celtics have run circles around the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals is impressive, to say the least. Sure, LeBron James is an all-time great, but the team basketball the Celtics are playing — without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, no less — is making them look like the next coming of the San Antonio Spurs dynasty. Jayson Tatum is a star in the making, people forget how good Al Horford is (remember those Florida teams?) and Brad Stevens can flat-out coach. Yes, they're probably not ready to take down Golden State, especially without Irving, but they've been fun to watch. (And as a Pittsburgher, it never hurts to see Cleveland lose in any forum.)
• I'm curious to see what the local TV ratings for the NBA Playoffs are now that the Penguins are out of the playoffs. The last time the Penguins weren't in the Stanley Cup Final, 2015, the NBA Finals absolutely crushed the NHL and came out slightly ahead of live Pirates games in terms of local viewership. I'm not trying to anoint Pittsburgh a basketball hotbed, but there's a pretty loyal and growing fan base here for a city with no local team.
• In the final on-campus sporting events of the school year, Pitt baseball hosts No. 8 Clemson in a three-game series that began with a 16-6 loss Thursday night and continues at 3 p.m. Friday and 1 p.m. Saturday. Despite the loss, the Panthers clinched a spot in the ACC Tournament in Durham, N.C., with Virginia Tech's loss to North Carolina on Thursday. Admittedly, the conference tournament is a modest milestone, but until Thursday, qualifying was something the Panthers (27-23, 11-17) had yet to do since joining the conference.
• Lastly, and specifically for the Pitt readers out there, a farewell should be said to Oakland watering hole Peter's Pub, which announced it will be closing its doors May 25 after 44 years of business. While I wasn't a regular patron while I attended Pitt during the previous decade, Peter's was known as an institution on the campus. Some of the stories involving Pitt legends like Dan Marino at the bar — stories which are probably more fiction than truth — still circulate as Oakland legends, and it will be sad to see another local business shutting down in an increasingly chain-populated neighborhood.
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