McCarthy's Musings: Lower-tier sides bow out as U.S. Open Cup field shrinks to four

The romance of the Open Cup lingers even as the competition hits its centennial anniversary, but Cinderella exited stage left when the quarterfinals came to a close.

It never comes as a surprise when a competitive side from outside of MLS works its way into the latter stages of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Rochester won this tournament in 1999. Charleston reached the final in 2008. Richmond progressed to the semifinals two years ago. One or two (and sometimes more) of their brethren reach the quarterfinal stage each year.

But there comes a time when the burden of advancing becomes too great to bear. Several factors – depth, scheduling and travel feature prominently among them – limit lower-tier teams' ability to submit their best performance. And the talent gap – a point of contention in terms of magnitude from year to year, but always there in some form – eventually tells.

The NASL's Carolina RailHawks and USL Pro's Orlando City SC reached the seemingly inevitable breaking point on Wednesday night. The draw placed them in significant peril by handing them difficult away matches at Real Salt Lake and Chicago, respectively. The results followed along the expected path and winnowed out the second- and third-tier sides for another year.

RailHawks coach Colin Clarke understood the difficulties his team faced when a trip to Sandy, Utah, popped up on his calendar. Clarke once guided Puerto Rico to the latter stages of the CONCACAF Champions League. He knew all about navigating through these sorts of difficult tasks. And devising a way through the RSL first team on short rest proved just a bit too much to do for his side.

“For us, we’ve done well in the Open Cup, it’s a big tournament, an important tournament,” Clarke told reporters after his side fell to a 3-0 defeat at Rio Tinto Stadium. "We’ve got a very big game coming up this weekend. We’ve had a pretty tough time of it as far as travel and games, some overtime games in the Open Cup and picked up a few injuries in the past week or two. We just had to be careful with how much we pushed some of our starters and our first guys. So we changed some things up and tried to keep it tight for as long as we could. See if we could get to a point where we had a chance to win the game, it wasn’t to be.”

The realities of the situation start to take hold at this stage. No shame exists in bowing out at this point. Carolina and Orlando (brushed aside in Bridgeview, Ill.) played their parts in the Open Cup this year. They dispatched four MLS sides between them and underscored the strength within their ranks with their run through the tournament. They also leave with one primary piece of consolation: There is always another chance on the horizon next season.

Here are highlights from Wednesday's quarterfinals:

Real Salt Lake 3 – Carolina 0: Tony Beltran, Álvaro Saborío and Chris Wingert all featured on the scoresheet as a full-strength Claret-and-Cobalt side defeated the RailHawks to set up a semifinal date with Portland at Rio Tinto Stadium.

FC Dallas 2 – Portland 3: Frédéric Piquionne scored the eventual winner after 72 minutes as the Timbers booked their semifinal berth with a victory at FC Dallas Stadium.

Chicago 5 – Orlando City 1: Chris Rolfe scored twice – including the critical third goal shortly after the hour with the match poised at 2-1 – to send the Fire through to a semifinal tie against D.C. United at Toyota Park. Mike Magee scored for the seventh time in seven games since being traded to Chicago from LA.

D.C. United 3 – New England 1: Dwayne De Rosario headed home the winner after 69 minutes and Lionard Pajoy sealed the victory with a late penalty to hand Ben Olsen's side a second consecutive victory and keep their hopes of a surprising cup triumph alive.

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