The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is a spectacle that can’t be found in any other U.S. sport.
The inclusion of amateur teams in the competition creates storylines and Cinderella runs for teams that do not play daily and for players who have jobs outside of playing soccer.
Last year, Christos FC stole the hearts of soccer fans in America. The Baltimore-based side was named after a liquor store and made it to the fourth round of last season’s tournament, scoring the opening free kick to take a 1-0 lead over D.C. United. In the end, D.C. defeated Christos 4-1, but the story was everywhere, including on ESPN with Scott van Pelt.
The North Texas Rayados of the North Texas Premier Soccer Association is this year’s amateur darling. Unlike teams in Major League Soccer, which enter in the fourth round, teams like the Rayados must play a qualification tournament before the cup. It might be the fourth round, but overall the Rayados have played six do-or-die matches to get to this point.
Tito Salas is a player, coach and organizer for the NTX Rayados. He created the team in Fall 2011 to continue his passion for playing soccer with his friends. After receiving a sponsorship for the team, Salas asked the sponsor — a longtime fan of Mexico’s Liga MX side C.F. Monterrey, commonly known as the Rayados — for a name as a token of appreciation. Salas added NTX to the beginning of the name for a geographical touch.
The team decided to register for the U.S. Open Cup in 2012 and has qualified for the tournament annually since. That’s seven straight appearances. Salas says there was one goal for the side when it signed up for the tournament seven years ago: playing FC Dallas.
“We knew what the Open Cup was about before getting in,” Salas said. “That’s always been the goal. The goal has been that we want to play in the Open Cup, so we can play against FC Dallas. I grew up playing against Victor Ulloa. These are guys we used to be playing against four or five years ago. So for us, we can do it. We just have to get past a couple of good teams. That’s where we were getting stuck previously. That was the mission.”
NTX Rayados made it to the third round of the 2014 tournament, losing to the then San Antonio Scorpions 4-2 after grabbing a 2-0 lead. From that group, the team has added some younger faces but maintained a core group of players.
“From that roster [against San Antonio], we have eight or nine players that we still have,” Salas said. “It’s a base we’ve kept. The secret is the youth. We bring young players around us that are hard-working players. That’s kind of how we maintained.”
After the victory in the qualification tournament, the Rayados were pitted against the Fort Worth Vaqueros of the National Premier Soccer League. The game was a stalemate until the 114th minute, where Christian Okeke scored the game-winner to secure a 2-1 win for the Rayados.
It was the next match that changed the mindset and expectations of the squad, when the Oklahoma City Energy of the second-tier United Soccer League came to Richland College to play against the Rayados. The Rayados led 1-0 at halftime, but the Energy came back and scored two goals to give them the advantage late. The run seemed over, with the Rayados struggling to find a breakthrough and the game getting physical. It looked like the professional opponent would get its expected win.
That was until Christian Okeke came on and changed the game once again. He was taken down in the box in the 90th minute and put the ensuing penalty kick in the back of the net, sending the match into extra time for a second straight week.
“A lot of teams would have been like, hey we made it up here against a professional team,” Rayados General Manager Antonio Rodriguez said. “We took them to extra time and we’re cool with that. We actually went out there and we brought it to them in overtime.”
The Rayados scored three goals in extra time to defeat the Energy 5-2. The overtime performance contradicted expectations in a match between an amateur and professional side. The amateurs came with energy and piled on pressure, while the Energy looked out of sorts.
The victory set them up with a match against F.C. Wichita of the NPSL. A win and the Rayados would pit themselves against an MLS side for the first time in the club’s history.
“Especially after that OKC game, we still maintained the focus of one game at a time,” Salas said. “But just keep in mind, if we win this next one, it’s huge.”
Going up 2-0 against Wichita, it looked bright for the Rayados. The team took the foot off the gas and Wichita struck back, scoring two goals in quick succession. The heroics of super-sub Okeke did it again, scoring in the 86th minute to give the team a spot in the fourth round.
“I think, with respect to Wichita’s team, we got a little bit too confident with the 2-0 and we laid back, which we should have never done,” Rodriguez said. “We delayed our substitutions a little bit, they should have been a little bit earlier. Okeke goes in there and we knew he was the solution, but we kind of waited until they scored the second goal. We should have kept that rhythm and momentum going and put Okeke in a little earlier.”
There’s something a bit different with this amateur side compared to others. The players have experience playing in big matches. Goalkeeper Eduardo Cortes was FC Dallas’ third keeper last season and was apart of its youth setup growing up. Many players have played in the developmental academy, including Lucio Martinez, who played for the Houston Dynamo’s academy.
“A lot of the players aren’t new to playing at a big stadium,” Rodriguez said. “[Jose Luis] Burciaga played in MLS. Pollo is fresh out of FC Dallas. We have a lot of players that, in one point of their lives, have played in some type of a stadium. It’s not going to be a complete shocker, but it makes it a little bit more interesting, just the fact that you’re going to be playing against an MLS team and that’s what makes it interesting.”
Burciaga also played in MLS, with the Kansas City Wizards. He won the Open Cup in 2004 and has provided a different dynamic for the Rayados, even at age 36.
“This year, one thing I have to point out is the leadership of Jose Luis Burciaga,” Salas said. “That’s just something we haven’t had in the past six years. We gotta give credit to Jose because his leadership is a whole other level. He’s just as excited as everyone and he has won the Open Cup. He’s never played a first or second round game but he was just as excited and hungry as everyone else. That’s powerful.”
The opportunity to play against Houston is one the team is excited for, but the behind-the-scenes work is tedious. Players must take off work for the match and the management must keep track of finances. The team must also figure out funding to get to Houston and back. The United States Soccer Federation will cover up to $12,000 in expenses, but teams must pay it up front.
There have been fundraisers by Dallas-area fans. The Peticolas Brewing Company gave 10 percent of its profits to the Rayados for their trip to the match. Two FC Dallas supporter groups, the Dallas Beer Guardians and El Matador, donated their tailgate donations to the Rayados to help cover expenses.
“I never expected that,” Salas said. “It makes me happy. It makes me feel like we mean something to them. We understand their FC Dallas supporters. Believe me, I played with FC Dallas growing up. My last year, I played with Francisco Molina. He was my coach at Richland College, so, I mean, we grew up around FC Dallas. We are FC Dallas. We don’t have the name.
“For me to know they’re still behind us even though there is a big possibility, just because of the geographic setting, that we’ll play FC Dallas, that they’re backing us up — that’s important. It says a lot.”
Wednesday will either mark the end of the Rayados’ run or the continuation of something special. Whatever comes, Rodriguez said viewers of the match can expect a team that will not back down, even against an MLS side.
“They’re gonna expect a hungry Rayados,” Rodriguez said. We were expected to lose the first game, so we have nothing to lose. We’re going out there and giving it our all.
“It won’t be easy for them, I’ll tell you that.”