When it comes to capturing the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup title, the task for every MLS team is simple: Win five elimination games in a row, and the trophy is yours. It’s about as straightforward as it gets to earn silverware, but it’s not a path the San Jose Earthquakes have every completed.
Wednesday night, against Sporting Kansas City, the Quakes take step four of five to the trophy, as they face their Western Conference rivals in a win or go home semifinal match at Children’s Mercy Park, kick-off at 5:30 p.m. Pacific time.
San Jose has never progressed past the semifinal round of the annual tournament, last reaching this stage in 2004, also against Kansas City. The faces of both teams are entirely different now, but the Earthquakes will be seeking a measure of revenge as they continue their run at their first title of any kind since winning the Supporters’ Shield in 2012.
“Everyone’s excited,” said Tommy Thompson. “Every team in the United States what’s to lift the Open Cup, so to have the opportunity to play in a semifinal is something that we are looking forward to in the locker room. It’ going to be a tough game against Kansas City, to be going to Kansas, but everyone’s looking forward to another game and the opportunity to put another team on its back foot.”
Thompson, in his fourth year as a professional, has not played in a more important game in his career, and he won’t take the opportunity to play for a final for granted. Earthquakes head coach Chris Leitch, who so far has guided the team to its first two Open Cup wins against MLS competition — San Jose had never beaten a league foe in the tournament until this year — didn’t mince words when asked about his approach to the semifinal against SKC.
“You better believe we are going to take it seriously,” said Leitch. “It's a good little gut-check time for us where there's a lot on the line ... We want to win the game on Wednesday.”
The Earthquakes could be excused for possibly taking the Open Cup for granted. After all, they face a daunting weekend league game at Houston this Saturday, and they are barely hanging on to a playoff place in the standings with only 11 games remaining in the season. Still, the allure of winning a title like the Open Cup, an annual tournament that has been contested since 1914 — it is the oldest running team sports tournament in the United States — will dictate his coaching moves Wednesday night.
“Semifinals are big,” said Leitch. “It’s not an easy road there, going to Kansas City and having to go through them, that’s for sure. But I don’t think there’s any semifinal you’re going to face that is an easy test, so I know we are going to be excited for it. I know it’s a chance to win two games and be able to bring back some silverware, so I know we’ll be up for it.”
Should the Quakes beat Sporting, they will go on the road for the final on September 20 against the winner of the other semifinal match between the New York Red Bulls and the USL’s FC Cincinnati — the last non-MLS team left in the competition. One of the few players on San Jose that has experienced a Cup final is Chris Wondolowski, who played with the Dynamo when they won MLS Cup in 2006 and 2007. The Quakes captain and all-time leading scoring in the Open Cup knows what a win would mean to himself, his teammates, and the club as a whole.
“It would mean that we would get to go to a final, which is an amazing thing, and you never take those opportunities for granted,” said Wondolowski “It’s a huge deal, and that is why we are going to continue to push for it.”
Wondolowski is expected to start, as is Thompson, but the rest of the line-up remains somewhat of a mystery. Forward Danny Hoesen, who has had a great Cup run so far with two goals in his last two tournament games, should get the start up top. Midfielders Jahmir Hyka and Anibal Godoy are also available following their paths back from injury, and the Open Cup match would be a great time to reintroduce them to the line-up. Homegrown player and rookie sensation Nick Lima is also a sure bet to play on Wednesday.
Sporting Kansas City has won the tournament three times in the club’s history, including 2004 when the beat San Jose en route to the final and two years ago in a thrilling penalty kick shootout against the Philadelphia Union. They will almost certainly field a first-rate Starting XI, and given the team’s impressive home record, especially on defense, they are the heavy favorites to win Wednesday night.
But San Jose has something to prove, and the team is hungry to taste success on this stage. The atmosphere at Children’s Mercy Park will be daunting, and SKC will be formidable, but these Quakes don’t care what the odds are. The math is simple: Win, and you’re in the final.