The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup runs made by New Mexico United and Saint Louis FC ended on Wednesday night, but both clubs produced magic in this year's tournament. | Photo courtesy New Mexico United
When the final whistle blew at Allianz Stadium on Wednesday night, so it did too on the USL Championship’s involvement in the 2019 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
But as New Mexico United and Saint Louis FC departed on a night that saw Major League Soccer’s Atlanta United, Orlando City SC, Portland Timbers and Minnesota United advance on to this year’s Semifinals, the impression both clubs had made on this year’s tournament was plain to see.
Across social media, opposing fans and national media were effusive in their praise, and rightly so. While the tournament’s 106th edition has been viewed more widely than ever before thanks to U.S. Soccer’s new partnership with ESPN+, what has always made the tournament special are the stories, and both NMU and STLFC both had great ones to tell.
There aren't enough superlatives to encapsulate what @NewMexicoUTD has pulled off. Twelve months ago, they were a twinkle in ownership's eyes—no coach, no players, nothing.— Jeff Rueter (@jeffrueter) July 11, 2019
Now, they're a USL Cup contender with a #USOC2019 quarterfinal run to their name. Watch out.
In Saint Louis’ corner was the history of the Open Cup in its own city, and the passionate fans that had embraced the game from generation to generation. Then there were the remarkable individual performances, starting with 18-year-old Academy goalkeeper Patrick Schulte’s heroics on the road in a penalty shootout against USL League Two’s Des Moines Menace that saw him record three saves in his debut for the club to send it through in the Second Round.
Then there was fellow goalkeeper Tomas Gomez, whose eight saves thrilled a packed house at Lindenwood University, and midfielders Austin Martz and Guy Abend, who brought the same crowd to its feet with two goals four minutes apart in a 2-1 win against the Chicago Fire. And who could forget the captain, Sam Fink, and his stoppage-time winner in the Round of 16 against FC Cincinnati? As a local player come good, it didn’t get much better than the goal, or the reaction at World Wide Technology Soccer Park.
If STLFC had history on its side, for New Mexico United it was the explosiveness of something new on the scene that drew the attention. So, too, did the side’s penchant for drama. From a penalty shootout victory against fellow USL Championship side Phoenix Rising FC, to an extra time win against another Four Corners Cup rival in Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, to another shootout win against Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids, New Mexico kept fans on the edge of their seats.
You want drama? How about Cody Mizell’s save on Rising FC’s A.J. Cochran to send his side through in its first Open Cup contest? Or Kevaughn Frater’s 94th-minute equalizer against the Rapids that sent the game on to extra time and eventually a penalty shootout when all seemed to be lost. There was even the early thrill of Santi Moar’s goal against Minnesota United FC that brought extra energy to the almost 200 travelling fans on Wednesday, only for a tsunami of goals to arrive in response from the Loons on their home turf to end NMU’s dream run.
And while their teams were excelling on the field, the fans of both clubs were also making an unforgettable impression. Wednesday night’s images of a full corner of Allianz Stadium being taken over by fans clad in NMU’s yellow and black colors, and the sea of green filling more than one section at Fifth Third Bank Field – complete with club leaders among both – showed the passion each fanbase brings to its club on a weekly basis, only now in a far broader spotlight.
Great cultural exchange led by @Edotelli89 fan of @MNUFC. He came over and got to meet our @NewMexicoUTD fans and got to meet owner @PT4747. Then he then introduced me to @MNWonderwall and come chants. It was wonderful. Thanks man for Uniting the Uniteds! #SomosUnidos @opencup pic.twitter.com/15UcJGk1rM— Dan Heron (@SuperHeronDan) July 11, 2019
Those memories for some will last a lifetime, just as they did for those associated with FC Cincinnati two seasons ago and Louisville City FC last year as they grabbed the spotlight and captured the spirit of the Cup.
As for next year, who knows? It could be the turn of any number of Championship clubs ready to turn in big performances on the big stage. That’s part of the beauty of the tournament, and a big reason why we’re always up for the Cup.
So, thank you to Saint Louis FC and New Mexico United for giving us more than we could have ever hoped for in thrills this year. As the saying goes, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”
And rest assured, your place on this stage will surely arrive again soon.