Now it’s getting serious. With their dramatic Open Cup third round Penalty Kick triumph last Wednesday night at Toyota Field, San Antonio FC managed to slay a big dragon – and no offense to the Colorado Switchbacks, we don’t mean them – we mean the Penalty Kick losses that plagued this team throughout 2017.
And in the process, they have set up arguably the biggest match at Toyota Field in the SAFC era. We have a Texas-based MLS team coming to town, and it’s a match that will very much count for something. That something is a place in the final 16 of the 2018 Open Cup Tournament. It would be no small achievement for the third year USL club. But before we get into all of that, let’s flesh out some of what occurred in the match that vaulted them there. It was quite a bit of action and drama at Toyota Field last week.
First and foremost, we saw the professional debut for San Antonio FC Pro Academy phenom Ethan Bryant, as the 16-year-old started the match. It had been building up towards that moment for him in the previous two games. He earned his first spot on a match day roster in the Second Round Open Cup match at Midland-Odessa and then again over the following weekend in a USL game against Tulsa. So, it wasn’t all that surprising to see him get time. But to start? Maybe that raised an eyebrow or two. And how did he perform? All he did was draw a vital penalty in the sixth minute of the match. And we do mean vital, as it turned out to be the only goal for SAFC on the night, delivered home by Rafa Castillo.
That sure is one heck of a start. And you could see what it meant to him, throwing a heavy fist pump into the air once the penalty was confirmed by the Referee. He would go on to play the full 120 minutes once the match was sent into extra time thanks to a Colorado set piece goal in the second half. No small feat for such a green player, even one with youthful legs under him. While he definitely appeared to cool off as the game wore on, and the physicality of the game seemed to also affect him – he was muscled off the ball a few times – he clearly proved his worth and proved that he belonged. Bryant also showed off some nifty moves.
Watch him split two Colorado defenders in the box with ease, creating a goal scoring chance.
It’s that old saying – if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. Bryant was good enough and he was thrilled about the outing.
“I feel happy to have made my debut, happy the coaches believed in me and put me in there, but most importantly I feel happy with the team performance,” he said. “We gave it all out there, we laid it all on the line and I’m really proud of the performance of the team and proud of the result.”
Then there were late some game dramatics to deal with. At the tail end of the second half of extra time, a straight red card was issued to the Switchbacks Saeed Robinson – and this just 16 minutes after he picked up a yellow card – for a very hard and aggressive challenge. Tempers were flaring and in the scrum, an SAFC player got forearmed to the face. It probably should have been second red for Colorado. Just another night with two USL teams on the pitch and an Open Cup win at stake.
That set up the decisive penalty kicks. Let’s go back and set the mood going into the PKs. It was less than confidence inducing. SAFC’s best penalty taker was not on the pitch, with Rafa Castillo subbed out in the second half. Another very likely candidate was Omar Gordon – also subbed off in the second half. So, who would take the kicks? There were some probable candidates in Escalante and Lopez – they ended up bookending the kicks. But beyond that, were there any clear takers? Seth had just played a match in his true Forward position for the first time in a long time, but he looked extremely tentative in his return to that role, especially in the second half. Would they trust him? Surely they weren’t going to put this on Bryant? Any of the Defenders? Cuomo or Maxi? It wasn’t exactly a group of dominant goal scorers that most would have felt completely comfortable about given SAFC’s PK history.
Ahh, yes, that pesky recent Penalty Kick history weighing over their heads. The 2017 USL Cup Playoffs. A PK loss to OKC. To a smaller degree of consequence, but no less disappointing, a friendly PK loss to Liga MX’s Club Santos last July. And then there was Tulsa in the Open Cup. This very same spot. This very same tournament. Another PK loss. That had to have been on the minds’ of these players, even if it was in the tiniest fashion. Could San Antonio erase all these bad memories? This was no sure thing.
The Toyota Field crowd was sparse on the night, typical for a midweek match in this tournament at this stage of play. But once the side was chosen, a good majority of the stadium hustled to the south end of the stadium and a mini cauldron of noise was generated. It was something to see. And to hear. Toyota Field can be such a noise cannon when in full throat, and it’s always extra fun when it is.
We know the rest. SAFC didn’t miss a single kick. Escalante was first. Followed by Darnell King. Then Maxi Rodriguez. Maxi came the closest to having a kick saved. Switchbacks GK Moise Pouaty guessed correctly and got his hands on the ball, but Maxi had enough mustard on the shot to power it across the line. Mike Seth put whatever doubts there were about him to pure shame as he delivered the best one of all. No hesitation, top shelf, struck with power. Precise. Clinical. A beautiful take.
And then it happened. With chants of “FEAR THE BEARD” echoing throughout Toyota Field from literally behind Matt Cardone, and with San Antonio up 4-3 in PKs, Colorado’s Uriel Macias skied his fourth round shot over the bar to the delight of the crowd. And then in very fitting fashion, one of the best offensive players of 2018 so far, Midfielder Mikey Lopez, calmly delivered the winner, took his shirt off Messi style, and a crazy dog pile celebration of players and fans in the Bud Light Beer Garden was on.
You can re-live the entire PK shootout, here.
— San Antonio FC (@SanAntonioFC) May 24, 2018
If you were there – it was one for the memory banks. A truly momentous win for San Antonio FC. Just look at the raw emotion of the moment captured in this photo.
That’s what an Open Cup win can mean to the fan-base and players of a lower division team. And that’s why this tournament, and this opportunity, and this upcoming match are all so important and should be treated as such.
And that, friends, takes us back to what is next. And what is next is that MLS’ FC Dallas is coming to Toyota Field on June 6th for a Fourth Round Open Cup Match. The two teams have met in pre-season play before – but this is something different. This one counts. This one matters. The winner will be one step closer to an Open Cup title and an automatic birth in CONCACAF Champions League. Oh, what dreams may come for SAFC.
With all due respect for USL competition, which will always be the bread and butter of this team as long as that is the league they play in, this is a very special opportunity that doesn’t come around very often and, in the opinion of this writer, one that should take temporary priority over league play. If that means sacrificing a league match or two, so be it. SAFC should send its best possible 11 to every Open Cup match from here on out. All the chips on the table.
Not because the caliber of opponent has risen, although that’s just as good of a reason as any, but because of the opportunity this tournament presents. We all saw how FC Cincinnati was able to capture the collective hearts and attention of lower division soccer fans – and well beyond – last summer with their run to the Semifinals. You can’t buy that type of exposure. Sure, they were already drawing huge crowds before that run, but you can’t convince me their Open Cup run didn’t play an important role overall for a team that is set to be announced as the next MLS team this very week. A run in this tournament could elevate San Antonio FC beyond its current scope. That’s a chance worth fighting for.
And while they’ll never admit it, you have to think Spurs brass will relish the chance to take a bite out of MLS. After everything that has transpired in the last several months which has all but ended SA’s MLS chances via backdoor deals and the undercutting of San Antonio’s expansion bid by all the ridiculousness surrounding the impending move of the Columbus Crew to Austin, the thought of sending an MLS team home in Open Cup play on our turf has to make them crack a sly smile, at the very least. It would be a small win compared to getting another major team that the city rightfully deserves, but one that San Antonio and their fans would no doubt treasure all the same. After all, there are Texas bragging rights on the line here too. Just think back to all those great Spurs/Mavs matchups of the 2000’s. You remember. That raw emotion of a Texas rivalry will surely fill Toyota Field on June 6th.
And then there’s that other matter worth repeating. An automatic spot in CONCACAF Champions League. Allow yourself to imagine it. It’s five wins away. That’s still a long way from being done and dusted, but it’s also completely possible. Just last year, San Antonio reeled off five straight wins. It can be accomplished. And just last year, two of the final eight Open Cup teams were from outside of MLS. Why not us?
San Antonio has never been further in this tournament than this round. Last time, in 2016, they had to travel to Houston and they were thumped. Sure, that could happen again, too. But let’s think positive. This time, it’s a home match. That fact alone is cause for jubilation after this team had to endure five straight road matches in this tournament over the course of two calendar years. This time, it all feels different. This time, it feels like SAFC has an intangible edge.
It all starts next week by ousting FC Dallas. It won’t be an easy task. Dallas knows all about this tournament. They won it as the Burn in 1997, and again as FC Dallas just two years ago. They are currently third in MLS West. Even a lesser FC Dallas team – if that’s how they decide to play it – will be a formidable challenge for San Antonio FC.
Beyond the friendly confines of Toyota Field, San Antonio FC are clearly the ones with the most to gain. They’re the ones that can bring the most heart and soul to the match. They’re the ones with you behind them– the great fans of San Antonio football. And miracles happen every day. And sports upsets, even more frequently than that.
Allow yourself to dream it. Allow yourself to believe it. Then bring your loudest voice to Toyota Field and help SAFC take the next step in making those dreams come true. This opportunity doesn’t come around very often. It’s special. It’s potentially monumental. And you just might find yourself in a celebratory dog pile with the players. You won’t want to miss it.