The first round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup arrives every May at an awkward time for the majority of teams entering at this stage of the competition. 24 teams from USL League 2 (previously Premier Development League-PDL) and the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), join 6 professional USL League One teams and 8 clubs who wended their way through difficult amateur qualifying competitions to complete the 19 matchups to be played in the Open Cup First Round next week.
Midland-Odessa Sockers FC are one of those teams in an awkward position. The Sockers qualified as one of 14 NPSL teams in the tournament, based on their excellent 2018 regular season results. This is the third time the Sockers have participated in the Open Cup, having advanced to the Second Round in both previous competitions before being eliminated. Last year the Sockers hosted San Antonio FC in the second round and were in the match until the last few minutes when SAFC scored three times to win 4-0.
Next Wednesday evening the Sockers will host FC Denver from the Colorado Premier League in their 2019 First Round match. On the surface the Sockers should have a significant home field advantage, but there is one awkward complication for Midland-Odessa that effects many of the teams entering at this stage of the competition. “Our players aren’t here yet. The first one shows up tonight and we have guys rolling in all weekend. We are going to start practice on Monday”, said Jeff VonHolle, Sockers GM-Soccer Operations, in a phone interview on Thursday. He continued, “We have guys coming from colleges all over the country. So we will have a couple of days of practice starting Monday and jump with both feet into the Open Cup Wednesday night.”
FC Denver, on the other hand, are currently playing in the Colorado Premier League regular season and have navigated their way through four rounds of Amateur qualifying to get to this point over the last 8 months. Most recently they improbably came from 3 goals down against UPSL side Southwest FC in El Paso to win 4-3 in AET. FC Denver, who have been in existence since 2006, are an experienced amateur side who also advanced to the Open Cup second round last year, falling 3-2 to USL Championship side Colorado Springs Switchbacks.
VonHolle expressed his respect for FC Denver’s accomplishments to this point, specifically commenting on the challenge they provided the Switchbacks in the Second Round last year and how the FC Denver comeback in El Paso caught his attention. “Even though we don’t know specifically a whole lot about individual players, we are certainly familiar with what they did last year in the Open Cup. I know they won their opening game and then went to Colorado Springs Switchbacks and played a pro team very close.” He continued, “For this year, I figured we had a decent chance of playing the team that won the El Paso-FC Denver game, because I knew they are trying to regionalize [the competition] as best they can. I was following the game on Twitter and saw the FC Denver comeback, scoring all those goals and ultimately winning the game.”
As VonHolle mentioned, the Sockers 28 man roster is representative of colleges all over the country and includes 20 international players who come from nine countries on four continents. Included in this roster are players from six Texas schools, three of whom arrive from Wichita Falls NCAA Division II power Midwestern State University. Two players are from the local community one of whom, midfielder Leo Barba, is the only returnee from last year. The club will be led by a new coach, Johnny Clifford, who played and served as an assistant coach for the Sockers in the past. Clifford is also currently the Head Coach of the Men’s Soccer program at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio.
Midland-Odessa FC will be beginning its 11th season of play, an outlier for lower division soccer teams. The journey hasn’t always been the smoothest. The Sockers began play in 2009 in the Premier Development League (PDL), but were forced by financial realities to switch to the NPSL before the 2017 season because of the travel expenses required to travel between Midland and other PDL cities at the time. The club has received numerous kudos nationally for its recent success. MOFC ended their last year in the PDL with a trip to the semifinal round in 2016 and then, with a completely new roster, made it to the NPSL Final where they lost to Elm City Express in 2017. Last year the Sockers finished in second place in the NPSL Lone Star Conference regular season (7-2-1), but were eliminated in the Lone Star playoff semifinals.
The Sockers share ownership and staff with the Midland RockHounds AA Minor League Baseball team. VonHolle is part of the soccer ownership group and has led soccer operations since MOFC’s inception. Originally from Ohio, he moved to the Midland area in the mid-1990’s to take an entry level job with the baseball team and has also been working with the RockHounds, now as an Assistant GM, for 26 years. He has two young soccer players in his family that have made a name for themselves. His son, Alex, was a part of the Sockers recent success and now plays college soccer for University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. His daughter, Kylie, is a rising sophomore on the St. Mary’s University Rattlers Women’s soccer team in San Antonio.
Unlike many soccer teams affiliated with baseball teams, the Sockers play in a separate stadium located close to the baseball park. Grande Communications Stadium was built in 2002 and also hosts high school football games and other sporting events. The 15,000 seat stadium has multiple player and referee locker rooms and is outfitted to handle modern media and TV requirements. The stadium, owned and operated by the City of Midland, had a new replacement artificial grass playing surface installed in January.
US Soccer recently announced that all U.S. Open Cup matches will be streamed online via the ESPN Plus subscription platform. This is a significant breakthrough and hopefully will provide the impetus to help grow the visibility of the Open Cup in the domestic soccer landscape. Though the Sockers live-stream their NPSL matches on mycujoo, VonHolle said that ESPN will bring its own announcers and work with the Rock Hounds/Sockers media staff to produce the match Wednesday night.
Jeff VonHolle is optimistic about the attendance for this year’s First Round match, though is honest about the challenges in gaining local attention for the season opener. “With FC Denver coming in Wednesday night, that first game is a little bit of a crap-shoot for us. There is not a RockHounds baseball game that night, which is a good thing.” He continued by talking about the promotion efforts that will be put behind the Open Cup match and mentioned an optimistic attendance goal for Wednesday night. “We would love to have 1,000 people there, but will we get to that number?…I don’t know we’ll see in a week or so.” He noted that the club experienced a spike in attendance when San Antonio FC visited last year and hopes this will provide momentum going into this year’s competition.
Dating back to 1913, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is the oldest ongoing national soccer competition in the U.S. Contested by both professional and amateur soccer clubs, this knock-out competition is also one of the oldest continuing (operating under different names) tournaments in the world. The 105th edition last year was won by Houston Dynamo in a 3-0 victory over Philadelphia Union at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston last September.
The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup First Round match in Midland will be played at 7:30 pm Wednesday at Grande Communications Stadium. The winner of this match will travel to play Colorado Springs Switchbacks in the Second Round on May 15th.