Charlotte presents Open Cup test
CARSON -- Chivas USA has survived stiff tests from two lower-division teams to reach the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals for just the second time, and they know that's not about to change.
The Charlotte Eagles, the Goats' foe in Tuesday night's final-eight showdown at Cal State Fullerton's Titan Stadium, have an air of destiny about them -- and a belief, tested and proved, they can handle whatever a Major League Soccer team throws at them.
The third-division club has shown it already, winning its first three matches in the 99th edition of America's longest-running soccer tournament on the road, in Texas, the last two against higher-division teams. The defining result: 2-0 over FC Dallas, the MLS club.
“We feel like we deserve to be here, because we've really put some good games together,” said Charlotte head coach Mark Steffens, whose team also beat second-tier San Antonio Scorpions in the fourth round. “Now if we added all of our play the whole season, I'd say, no, we don't deserve to be here. But the way we've played the second half of the season, it hasn't been a surprise winning a few big games.”
The Eagles, who are affiliated with Christian group Missionary Athletes International and, Steffens says, consider their religious mission more important than winning trophies, are ninth in the 11-team USL Pro with a 3-8-2 record (and a game at home Thursday against the L.A. Blues). They're 6-4-1, including the Open Cup wins, since the end of April, and the losses have come to the league's Nos. 1 and 3 teams and to longtime rival Richmond Kickers, a result they answered in a 4-1 romp a week and a half ago.
“Our turnaround has been defensively,” Steffens said. “So we're not going to do anything different than we've done [during a 4-2-1 run] the last six weeks. We're just working on defending and defending as a unit and getting behind the ball, so that's what we're going to do. If we can counter and get one [goal], it's always good to get ahead.”
Chivas, which made it to the semifinals two years ago, understands well Charlotte's approach. The Goats have had to battle to get past amateur powerhouse Ventura County Fusion in the third round, then needed a Juan Pablo Angel penalty kick in stoppage to beat second-tier Carolina RailHawks three weeks ago.
“In some respect, these games are harder than MLS games because you're playing guys who are salivating at the mouth, and that's always difficult,” said Chivas midfielder Peter Vagenas, who has won four Open Cups, twice with the Galaxy and twice with three-time defending champion Seattle Sounders. “You're playing teams that are desperate and have nothing to lose, and that's always difficult. ...
“By no means are we taking it lightly. The first two games were, quote-unquote, lesser opponents, and at some point they gave us everything we could handle, and we expect more of the same. We have to make sure that we match [their] intensity, and if we match [their] intensity -- this is no disrespect to them -- but certainly our soccer will prevail.”
Chivas has big aspirations, Vagenas said.
“Look, at the end of the day, this is the quickest step into [CONCACAF's] Champions League, and that would be a great step for this team, for this club in general,” he said. “I don't think this club has won a tournament, yet, or trophy, yet, so we're three steps away.”
Charlotte has been off since beating Richmond on June 16. Chivas is playing its fourth game in 11 days, and eight players have been on the field for all or nearly all of it. Injuries have been an issue. “We had a lot of guys put in a lot of minutes in the last week," Chivas coach Robin Fraser said, "and we'll look to some of them and look to some guys who are fresher.”
Midfielder Nick LaBrocca returned Saturday from a hamstring injury that sidelined him for a month, and Fraser said his “understanding” is that forward Jose Erik Correa and midfielder Miller Bolaņos have recovered from their hamstring strains and would be available. Defender John Alexander Valencia and midfielder Ryan Smith are out.
Vagenas, winger Laurent Courtois, midfielder Blair Gavin and left-sided flank player Jorge Villafaņa saw limited minutes in the three games and are expected to play major roles. Angel didn't travel to Dallas for Saturday's 0-0 draw, so he's rested, as well.
It doesn't really matter who's out there for Chivas, Steffens suggests.
“For sure they're extremely technical, they move the ball well, they're very good at possession,” he said. “It will probably be no shock that they outpossess us, but possession doesn't necessarily win games. It's not the possession rate, it's who puts the ball in the net.”
WORTH NOTING: The victor will play at the winner of Tuesday's San Jose Earthquakes-Seattle Sounders quarterfinal on July 10. ... Charlotte has four players with a concrete MLS connection, one of them a former Chivas USA forward. Milton Blanco, who this season joined the Eagles from fourth-tier Fresno Fuego, was with the Goats in 2005. The others are goalkeeper Corbin Walker (Houston, 2008), midfielder Scott Jones (FC Dallas, 2007) and Trinidadian forward Darryl Roberts, a 2007 Toronto FC draft pick who spent preseason this year with the Houston Dynamo. ... Cerritos' Steve Shak, the No. 1 selection in MLS's 2000 draft out of UCLA, is an Eagles assistant coach. The roster also features Laguna Hills' Eric Reed, another UCLA alum, and Loyola Marymount product Brad Stisser. ... Roberts and Nathan Thornton lead the Eagles with three goals apiece; two of Thornton's have come in the Open Cup. ... Charlotte opened with a 1-0 victory at fourth-division El Paso Patriots. ... Fraser said he possesses “not a great deal” of knowledge about the Eagles. “It's difficult to track information down about them,” he said. “Certainly, we know they're a gritty team, they fight hard, they have some decent players, they're coming off a good result lately, a couple good Open Cup results. We know that they're a capable team.”