CARY, N.C. — On the west side of WakeMed Soccer Park, hanging on the backside of the bleachers, is a banner commemorating a piece of North Carolina FC history. It’s also an unfortunate note in the career of new head coach Dave Sarachan.
It is a blown-up photo from the 2012 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Then known as the Carolina RailHawks of NASL, the club hosted the Los Angeles Galaxy on May 29 that year, in the third round of the tournament — and it should’ve been a comfortable victory for the Galaxy, who were the reigning MLS Cup and Supporter Shield champs, and were on their way to winning another MLS Cup later that season. Instead, the RailHawks pulled off a historic upset, winning 2-1 behind goals from Ty Shipalane and Brian Shriver while Sarachan was an assistant coach on that Galaxy team.
A year later, the RailHawks made a run to the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals, again beating the Galaxy and topping now-defunct Chivas USA along the way. In 2014, the RailHawks bested the Galaxy and Chivas again for a second straight appearance in the tournament quarterfinals.
Though the club’s name, league and head coach has changed over the years, one of the things that has remained constant at North Carolina FC is its pride in performing well in the U.S. Open Cup. Since 2012, the club has missed on advancing to the fourth round only once. Way back in 2007, it made the tournament’s semifinals. All time in the competition, NCFC is 22-11.
So, while there are some clubs out there that do not take the U.S. Open Cup seriously – by fielding inferior rosters or by overlooking opponents from lesser leagues – do not count North Carolina FC as one of them. For them, this tournament is just as meaningful as the USL Championship season.
“It’s a very big deal here,” said NCFC forward Robert Kristo.
The Open Cup has become more crucial with the arrival of Sarachan. The veteran coach knows the tournament very well. He’s been on the end of monumental upsets – like those RailHawks-Galaxy clashes – and he’s also guided teams to the title, capturing a pair of Open Cup’s with the Chicago Fire in 2003 and 2006.
“Dave has won it twice. For him, it’s a very, very important tournament, and we’re going all the way,” Kristo said. “That’s the plan. We don’t take our foot off the pedal and we keep going.”
North Carolina FC opened its 2019 Open Cup campaign by hosting the Richmond Kickers, of USL League One, on May 15. NCFC started slow and at halftime they were at a 1-1 stalemate. Sarachan went into the locker room and lit a fire under his men. He wasn’t about to lose another Open Cup game in the Tar Heel State.
“We could have been down, to be frank,” Sarachan said. “I had some words with the boys at halftime and we made a few adjustments, and I thought our second half was much better.”
In the final 45 minutes, Kristo netted two goals and Yamikani Chester added another to make it a 4-1 win for NCFC.
“Honestly, we came out terrible. Everything was a bit too slow,” Kristo said. “We let them get a chance after a mistake on our part, not clearing the ball. We had to get to halftime to gather ourselves and get it together. Coach put us together in the locker room, told us to be a step faster and think a little faster.”
North Carolina FC can’t afford to begin with a lethargic form against its next opponent in the tournament. It’s a team that shouldn’t be in the third round. It’s a team with nothing to lose.
The Florida Soccer Soldiers are going to throw the kitchen sink at NCFC on Wednesday night in Cary. They’re coming off of a pair of upsets, beating the NPSL’s Miami FC – a typical tough tournament team – and the USL Championship’s Charlotte Independence.
When the Soccer Soldiers beat Charlotte on penalty kicks on May 14, Sarachan was among those rooting for them. On Wednesday though, he won’t be.
“This is the beauty of this tournament. I am pulling for that team; other than the next time we play them. You pull for teams like that. When we play them, I will not be pulling for them. We’re going to be looking to beat them,” Sarachan said. “That just tells you about this tournament, that anybody can enter, play well and win. We’ll be ready, and obviously they’re a well-coached team and a good team. We will certainly not take them for granted.”
In the third round, the Soccer Soldiers are the lowest-tier team remaining. The club – based in North Miami Beach, Florida – is less than two years old and plays in the UPSL. It got into the Open Cup as one of eight local qualifiers. In the third round, it and NPSL’s Orange County FC are the only two amateur or semi-pro sides remaining.
The drive from North Miami Beach to Cary is about 12 hours long. To make the trek, the Soccer Soldiers started a fundraising effort on GoFundMe. In 11 days, 80 donations were made to help the club surpass its goal of $1,500. The club wrote that those funds will go towards food, travel expenses and new shoes.
In a tournament that has been full of them over the years, the Soccer Soldiers make for a great underdog story. They feel a little like Christos FC in 2017, or even the RailHawks in — well, pick a year: 2007, 2013 or 2014.
To avoid becoming a note in another club’s history – the way the Galaxy are forever connected to the RailHawks – NCFC can’t underestimate the Soccer Soldiers on Wednesday.
“We can’t look past anyone,” Kristo said. “Even (against Richmond), we came out soft and that could’ve been a thing. We should be better. We learned our lesson. We can’t be 1-1 going into halftime at home.”