US Open Cup Scheduling Not Just A Problem For Big Teams

Written by Ian Thomson
Harrisburg City Islanders dug deep to overcome New York Red Bulls in extra time (Photo: Ian Thomson)

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Major League Soccer teams frequently field weakened line-ups in the U.S. Open Cup, whether by design or due to scheduling issues, adding to their vulnerability against lower-tiered opposition.

New York Red Bulls, for example, traveled to Harrisburg City Islanders this week minus a clutch of players on international duty: Rafael Marquez, Joel Lindpere, Dane Richards, Roy Miller and Victor Palsson. Captain Thierry Henry didn’t travel as he recovers from a hamstring strain.

What’s often lost is the problems posed for smaller teams. Tuesday’s game was Harrisburg’s eighth in 25 days, and the United Soccer Leagues Pro Division side don’t have the luxury of a 30-man roster to call upon.

“We’ve played twice a week for the last four weeks,” Islanders Head Coach Bill Becher told The Soccer Observer after Harrisburg’s 3-1 extra-time win over New York. “We’re trudging out a lot of the same guys.”

Becher fielded the same 11 players Tuesday that had miraculously recovered from a three-goal deficit in extra-time to beat New England Revolution in a penalty shootout one week earlier. Ten of those players also saw action in last Friday’s 1-1 tie with Richmond Kickers in the USL.

Backe, meanwhile, had the relative luxury of a free weekend after New York’s comfortable 3-0 win at Charleston Battery in the third round. His line-up was depleted by national team call-ups, but only two players hadn’t started at least five MLS games this season – experienced Colombian defender Wilman Conde and first-year forward Jhonny Arteaga.

“What we didn’t want to do was give them easy switches of the field,” Becher said. “We were trying to do the best we could to keep them contained at one side and try to win balls and go from there.”

Kenny Cooper, the joint-leading scorer in MLS this season, was the obvious threat for Harrisburg. Becher’s game plan was to shore up the middle of the penalty area to deny him space. That meant conceding huge amounts of room down both flanks.

“You’re always going to have to give up something,” Becher said. “We said let’s defend the middle first and if we have to give some space out wide, we will.

“We’ve just got to get out and challenge the crosses.”

That they did, with center-backs Tom Brandt and Andrew Marshall turning in outstanding performances as New York bombarded Harrisburg’s penalty box for much of the game. The Red Bulls, with full-backs Connor Lade and Jan Gunnar Solli operating wide in midfield, lacked the nous of Lindpere and Richards to try something different.

“They had a good team on the field,” Becher said. “We know if a few of the other guys came it would have made things very, very difficult for us.”

Harrisburg have become adept at knocking off MLS teams since their inception in 2004, chalking up a 5-3 record overall in U.S. Open Cup clashes against D.C. United, New England and New York. Tuesday’s win was the club’s second over the Red Bulls in three seasons after beating Backe’s side 1-0 after extra time in 2010.

Next up for the Islanders is a first-ever competitive meeting with Philadelphia Union, a team with whom they share an affiliation, on June 26. The Union include former Harrisburg players Sheanon Williams and Chase Harrison in their ranks, while teenage forward Jack McInerney had a brief loan spell with the USL side in 2010.