Seattle brought the amateur side from Thousand Oaks, Calif. crashing to the ground on Tuesday night, but Sounders FC's 5-0 win does not tarnish a glorious run to the fourth round.
That one moment didn't end Cal FC's fairytale run to the fourth round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. It just extinguished much of the ambition and the hope from it.
Make no mistake: both qualities were in full force during a tight first half in Tukwila, Wash. Seattle – as Portland did last week before it ultimately fell to an Artur Aghasyan goal in extra time – enjoyed much of the play without locating the necessary end product. Maybe Cal FC lacked a bit of the sharpness in possession it showed at JELD-WEN Park last week, but Sounders FC faltered in its technical abilities as the tempo increased, too.
When the halftime whistle blew, the improbable dream remained alive. Quite alive, in fact. Cal FC had its blueprint to follow – defend at all costs, play out of the back whenever possible and try to nick a goal somewhere along the way – and it followed the plan well enough to survive the previous 165 minutes against MLS competition. Why not another 45 minutes to send the match to extra time against the three-time defending champion?
All of those fleeting visions of extending this wonderful run to another match dissipated at the moment referee Daniel Radford pointed the spot. After Kris Boyd missed from the spot last week to somehow grant an unexpected reprieve in the late stages in Portland, Cal FC had used up all of its luck in this particular department. Ex-Seattle trialist Derby Carrillo dove the right way, but Osvaldo Alonso's penalty kick slipped underneath his hand to give Sounders FC a precious 1-0 lead.
One goal, in and of itself, isn't enough to turn the game. Cal FC possesses enough technical quality to snatch an equalizer from somewhere during the course of a 40-minute stretch of play. Even if that piece of silky play never transpired, it could have come from some alternative avenue. Odd things happen in cup ties, after all.
But the first goal reduced the likelihood of those peculiarities popping up on this night. Cal FC felt compelled to press forward and leave gaps at the back (what else could it do, really? mount a stand until the final ten minutes or so, perhaps?), while Seattle found the belief and the confidence to push onwards and secure a place in the quarterfinals.
The final score line flattered Seattle on the night (though well taken goals by Alonso and Fredy Montero underscored the gap in overall quality) and showed the altogether ruthless nature of cup competitions. Room exists for wonderful Cinderella stories, but the clock usually hits midnight at some point and the richer, stronger clubs emerge to live to fight another day.
In this particular instance, the previous day (or three) still matters. Cal FC can return to southern California with a real sense of pride. This group tackled the tournament in its own way (adventurous, bright and technical rather than cynical and direct) and reaped the benefits from it. Several players will likely earn a look from professional clubs domestic and foreign, while their coach, former U.S. international striker Eric Wynalda, likely deserves a second glance from just about everyone after cobbling together this talented squad. Their collective toil justifies every forthcoming opportunity that awaits them.
While that particular journey toward a career in the game will continue over the next several months, this amateur club must now hand off its mantle as rank outsiders to the professional upstarts in Charlotte (a 1-0 winner at NASL side San Antonio) and Harrisburg (a contentious 3-1 victory over New York in extra time) and the surprise package out of Dayton (a 2-1 decision over fellow PDL side Michigan Bucks).
All three of those clubs will travel to face MLS foes in the quarterfinals, desperate to find a way to prolong their own improbable voyages in the tournament. As Cal FC can attest, they will find their leeway reduced and their path toward continued progress even more arduous as the stakes increase even further in the next round.
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