Spokane and the US Open Cup

Photo Jan 04 2024, 3 22 00 PM

The US Open Cup was a big topic in the news recently. For a lot of general soccer or sports fans in the greater Spokane community the event may be a bit of a mystery, BUT there is quite a bit of nearly forgotten history with the tournament and the Lilac City that includes an upset win and area players finding tremendous success. 

First, let’s start with the basics. What is the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup? Well, if you follow the sport abroad much at all, it is basically the American version of England’s FA Cup and other domestic tournaments that feature all levels of the sport. In 1999 the tournament was named after Lamar Hunt, a renowned sports team owner primarily known for his role in the North American Soccer League (Dallas Tornado owner) and his significant role in supporting Major League Soccer through the first half of its existence (owned Columbus, KC and Dallas) – which made all of the drama surrounding the league’s controversial decision all that more of a disgrace. His family currently operates Hunt Sports Group, which owns FC Dallas and the Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL. 

As for the format, similar to other domestic tournaments elsewhere the lower levels battle it out in the early rounds to narrow down the participants for the later rounds and – more importantly in the today’s era of professional off the field standards – reduce the chance of amateur teams hosting the top-level pro clubs. The format has changed quite a bit over the years as the capabilities of clubs off the field have improved, transitioning from an era in the late 1990s when only a few clubs from each league chose to participate to all professional clubs being required to take part. For example, in MLS’ first year only five teams entered the tournament in 1996 and eight of 10 the next year when the event expanded. This was a major change from the old NASL era in which teams rarely chose to enter the event, which existed primarily as national amateur championship until USL professional teams entered in 1995, altering the future of the tournament forever. 

This is where the Spokane ties begin. 

The first champion of the modern era of the tournament was the Richmond Kickers, the first opponent fans will see on March 16 in the Spokane Velocity‘s USL League One home opener. A Premier Development League (now branded USL League Two) team at the time, Richmond downed an amateur entrant in the First Round and then topped two professional teams en route to facing a USL Pro side, El Paso Patriots, in the final, taking the trophy in a shootout following a 1-1 draw. A year later the Kickers elected to become a professional club and have been one of the historic franchises in USL since. 

Though the Kickers were amateur in name at the time, 1995 and 1996 were truly formative years in the game at the lower levels as clubs and markets were feeling things out to determine what level to play at. Was the talent in the community good enough? Was there a significant enough level of fan support to sustain a pro team budget? That was a major factor for clubs for 20 years through much trial and error as franchises came and went and still plays a bit of a role today. But the Kickers, members of USL since 1993, clearly found their place as the split between pro and amateur became clearer going into 1997. 

And one of those teams that came into the picture at that time – the Spokane Shadow. Formed in 1995 and playing a series of exhibitions as a provisional member, the team became an official PDL member the next year (now under the ownership of Brett Sports and Entertainment – also owners of Spokane Chiefs and Indians). They were an immediate force to be reckoned with, winning the Northwest with a 12-2 record and reaching the Western Conference final in 96. 

Though the team was regularly at the top of the division table, qualifying for the US Open Cup was a tough task in those days as prior to 2012 teams had to have the best results from a selection of four divisional league games that doubled as qualification matches, besting other sides from across the entire conference for a coveted birth. The Shadow finally broke through in 1999 and became a part of US Open Cup history. 

Spokane had to hit the road for a tough First Round contest against stiff competition in the form of the Chico Rooks, a successful USL D3 Pro (now branded USL League One) club at the time. The Shadow, led by coach Sean Bushey, trailed twice in the game, allowing the opening goal in the 19th to Luis Orellana, one of the league’s top players, before finding an equalizer from Jeff Rose in the 39th. Joe Munoz put the hosts back on the top in the 63rd with Dave Berto knotting things back up from the spot 10 minutes later. The match would move onto overtime with Alika Cosner scoring the game winner in the 108th, giving Spokane the eighth-ever PDL win over a pro side in the tournament (11th ever for an amateur team in the modern era). 

Spokane's lineup card and Chico's matchday program

The 1999 tournament was quite the event as three other PDL teams and an entrant from the US Adult Soccer Association also registered upset wins. Oh, and USL A-League (now branded USL Championship) Rochester Rhinos went on to win the whole thing, downing four MLS teams to become the only non-MLS champion since that league’s formation. 

Prior to 1999, only the Kickers’ three-game run in 1995 and Mid Michigan’s 1997 win over USL D3 Wilmington Hammerheads represented PDL success along with a pair of USASA upsets in 1996 and 1997 (total of six). The Shadow’s upset was the latest of the 1999 first round PDL wins by date, but not the last as the Mid Michigan Bucks, a perennial power in the PDL along with the Shadow back in the day, made further noise in Round Two with a win against A-League powerhouse Minnesota Thunder. 

Representing the true spirit of all domestic cups, the Bucks were not quite satisfied with that as a year later they shocked the New England Revolution in Foxboro 1-0 in the first-ever PDL upset of an MLS side and nearly repeated the feat at home the next round, ultimately falling at home in sudden death of the shootout after a 3-3 draw against the Miami Fusion. They would become famous for their Open Cup results over the years, forcing every pro club they faced to take them seriously. 

Anyway… back to the 1999 Spokane Shadow tourney run. Excited to return home from California and what they believed to be a home match against the then USL A-League Seattle Sounders, the squad were struck with bad news. Despite an earlier verbal agreement to play in Spokane, the Sounders altered their decision and would end up being the home side at Memorial Stadium. 

A top A-League side at the time, the Sounders took care of business at home with a squad that included two former Shadow players in Kieran Barton and future MLS standout (and now Sounders GM) Craig Waibel, a Spokane native. Longtime standout pros Erik Storkson (28th and 56th) and Peter Hattrup (74th) gave the hosts an insurmountable advantage with Jeff Rose spoiling the shutout in the 79th with his second of the tournament in the 3-1 result. The Sounders would go on to nearly upset the Colorado Rapids of MLS in the next round with Waibel and Barton in the starting lineup, falling 1-0. 

On the squad for Spokane that also saw action in the tourney that year were a number of players familiar to the current and recent generations of youth products in the community were Tim Seely, Abbas Faridnia, Zane Higgins and Chad Brown.  Berto also recently served as a coach in the community and Billy Sleeth, a defender on the team, would go on to be drafted and play for the Chicago Fire. Sleeth and Faridnia were part of the U19 developmental roster allocations utilized by the league at the time to encourage incorporating youth prospects. 

A copy of the lineup cards for the Spokane-Sounders showdown

It would take another five years, but the Shadow would go on to finally host a US Open Cup match at Joe Albi Stadium, facing the Sacramento Knights (NPSL) in the first round in a heartbreaking overtime loss. Troy Ready (now head coach of Warner Pacific U) scored the opener in the 29th, but the visitors equalized through Chris McDonald in the 60th and netting the win from a controversial penalty in the 91st converted by Jeremy Field. Seely was again on the squad managed by ex-player Stuart Saunders along with the return from Seattle of Barton. Another familiar name was John Palladino

Unfortunately, the state of the turf at the stadium became sticking point in a battle between USL, the Shadow and the City of Spokane over the next year and saw the PDL team disbanded following the 2005 season, though the youth club (currently Spokane Sounders) remained and would eventually revive the First Team in the Evergreen Premier League in 2014. 

Beyond the Shadow badge though, Spokane ties are plentiful in the US Open Cup as many players saw time in and would raise the trophy. 

Most famously, former Shadow and Gonzaga standout Brian Ching won the US Open Cup with the Los Angeles Galaxy in his rookie 2001 MLS campaign alongside former Shadow teammate Waibel. The pair were significant contributors in the first three games of LA’s run, with Ching starting twice and Waibel all three. Waibel would score a goal in their Third Round win against the Sounders Select (PDL) team and convert a sudden death penalty in the 10-round shootout to advance out of the Quarters against his future San Jose Earthquakes side, whom he also played in a win against in the Third Round for the Galaxy in 2002 as they made a return run to the final. The pair, remaining teammates for many years, would come back together in 2003 and go on to continue featuring in the tournament with the San Jose Earthquakes (2003-05) and Houston Dynamo (06-10 for CW and 06-13 for BC). Ching would finally get an Open Cup goal in the 2004 quarterfinal along with a shootout penalty as the Earthquakes topped USL’s Minnesota Thunder on the road. Bet you would never have pegged Waibel, a defender, to have scored in an event before Ching! 

Beyond that 1999 tourney, Barton and Brown pop up in the annals of the US Open Cup as they continued to play for the Sounders along with Ryan Edwards, another former Shadow player, as the Sounders played in the tournament from 2000-05.

The 2003 Sounders, in their first of two historic pre-MLS tournament runs, also features another local name famous in Spokane worth highlighting – Rich Cullen. With the starting keeper Preston Burpo out injured, the former Colorado Rapids draft pick finally took the pitch after several seasons as the backup. His run in goal started with a 1-0 shutout win at league foe Minnesota Thunder (league finalists that season). Then the history. He posted his second consecutive shutout in a 1-0 victory against the visiting Earthquakes (featuring Ching and Waibel), giving the Sounders their first-ever win against an MLS opponent in the tournament. Edwards also started with Brown coming in as a sub in the match. The run came to a close though in the quarterfinals in a 5-1 loss to the Galaxy. 

You want more Open Cup tidbits you say? Well then… we got it in the form of a couple of former Spokane natives and Shadow players – Sleeth and Zach Kingsley – also saw the pitch in the US Open Cup after being drafted by MLS clubs; Mikey Ramos and Elliot Fauske represented Kitsap Pumas; and recent Spokane Sounders product out of Moses Lake Ray Serrano became the most recent participant. 

We’ll start off back with more of the 99 era players. After being selected in the First Round (10th overall) out of the University of Washington by the Fire Sleeth went on to start for them in their unusually brief 2002 US Open Cup appearance. Fellow Husky grad Kingsley, meanwhile, was drafted by the USL Sounders and later traded to Colorado that year, going on to start twice for the Rapids in a split of 1-0 overtime results in the third round and quarters. He went on to appear as a sub twice more in the 2003 tournament. 

Prior to their time in MLS though, the duo of Sleeth and Kingsley also helped lead the Sounders Select PDL team to success in 2001. In fact, the pair helped that team earn a US Open Cup win against MLS club earlier than their professional counterpart. Kingsley tallied in their 4-1 win against Olympia Stamford (USASA) in the opening round and then in a stunner scored the second go-ahead goal for them as they knocked off the Dallas Burn (now FC Dallas) 3-2 in overtime in the second round. It came to an end though when their former Shadow teammate Waibel scored in the 3-1 Galaxy win in the third round.  

In Kitsap, the Pumas were much like those early Richmond Kicker teams with pro level players over the years, sometimes playing as a professional side within the PDL as there was no pro regional league footprint sustainable in the northwest. Fauske – another U19 Shadow developmental player a few years after Sleeth, Kingsley, Faridnia and Ready – was a member of the squad in 2011 when they posted a pair of early round wins prior to a close-fought 2-1 loss to the Sounders MLS in the third round. A few years later after reviving his career with the EPLWA Shadow, Ramos would join the squad for a couple more runs. He scored two goals in the second round of the 2015 tournament in a 4-2 overtime loss against USL Pro side Sounders FC 2 (the development team) and tallied again in their run to the fourth round in 2016. The goal came in a 3-1 win against USL Championship side Sacramento Republic in the third round, setting up a meeting with the MLS Sounders, who ended the run with a 2-0 result. 

And now to cap it off, the beginning of the story for Serrano. After earning his professional contract as a teenager, he spent several years with the Tacoma Defiance in USL and MLS Next (an ineligible team due to rules changes regarding MLS owned development teams) before moving on to join Louisville City of the USL Championship. In 2022 he played in the side’s three wins. They topped USL1 Chattanooga Red Wolves 1-0 in the second round and got past independent MLS Next Pro side St Louis City in the third in a lengthy shootout (9-8) after a scoreless draw in which he converted his tiebreaker attempt. Another shootout (4-2) was needed in the fourth round as they eliminated fellow league foe Detroit City after a 1-1 tie. Serrano unfortunately did not play in their narrow 2-1 loss to MLS Nashville SC in the fifth round. He was back in the starting lineup this past tournament, seeing them past USL1 Lexington in round two before coming off the bench in their exit in the following round courtesy of MLS Cincinnati FC 1-0. 

And whilst we are at it, here’s a little central Washington bonus. The Yakima Reds (currently Yakima United in EPWLA) played in the 2008 tournament, travelling all the way to Pennsylvania in the first round – a rare lengthy and taxing first round road trip – and falling 5-1 to the defending USL Second Division champions. 


Bonus materials!...

Here’s an excellent breakdown of the MLS controversy as well as the format and administration of the tournament from TheCup.us, the longstanding site dedicated to  covering the event. 

TheCup.us Breakdown [+]


Here’s a fun Men In Blazers video about the US Open Cup (prior to 2023 Final)…

A pair of excellent videos from ESPN FC commenting on the controversial MLS move and USSF reaction…