Los Angeles Soccer: Darryl Roberts
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.”