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FC Tucson's weekend opponent has something only a few U.S. soccer teams can claim: a history

1995 U.S. Open Cup winners have a legacy going back longer than most pro clubs

Obsessive followers of the U.S. Open Cup, me included, divide up the history of the tournament into pre-MLS and post-MLS eras. Since 1996, all the champions except one have been Major League Soccer teams.

Before that, there was a confusing and fascinating mix of amateur and professional teams that competed in the final. The very last champion in that antediluvian period was the Richmond Kickers.

That’s right, the team that will be playing FC Tucson at Kino North Stadium on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

There are teams that adopt an old name to cash in on U.S. soccer history but have little connection to the original squad (I’m looking at you Bethlehem Steel and San Jose Earthquakes) as well as long standing teams that had a few gaps in their history (Seattle Sounders, for example). The Kickers, however, have played continuously since 1993. That makes them one of the two longest running professional teams in the country. They are tied with longtime rivals Charleston Battery for that distinction.

They get some grief for the '90s-era name, but in a sport where even successful franchises can barely make it a decade, they have had real staying power.

“In Richmond, there’s always been a very strong youth soccer participation and history,” said Leigh Cowlishaw, the recently retired long time coach for the team. “Clearly a pro team bubbling up in the early nineties was ahead of its time. Right before the World Cup in the US and before MLS.”

“You’ve got a rich soccer history and many quality individuals with a soccer passion in the city.”

Cowlishaw found himself attracted to the soccer scene in Richmond. The English-born midfielder moved to the area to play at the University of Richmond. He joined the Kickers in their inaugural season before becoming their coach for nearly two decades. He retired as a coach last year, but still works in the front office.

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Cowlishaw recorded an assist on the goal that future New England Revolution player Rob Ukrop scored in that 1995 Open Cup win against the El Paso Patriots. That team was coached by Dennis Viollet, one of Manchester United’s legendary “Busby Babes.”

“You had a team of highly talented, motivated individuals with great chemistry that refused to lose matches,” he said. “Probably the most successful team in Kickers history.”

“It was more than an enjoyable experience,” he added. “We were victorious after overtime in penalties, which tells you all you need to know about that group.

In addition to Ukrop, that squad also included future MLS goalkeeper Jeff Causey and Richie WIlliams, who would win MLS Cup and the Open Cup again the next year with DC United.

The Kickers continued to be a competitive team, and according to longtime soccer writer and broadcaster Mark Bushman, it was more than just local soccer culture that kept it going. 

“They recruited good players and competed for the title every year, good support from the fans and good sponsorships,” he said. “Just from top to bottom, they’ve been a class organization from day one. It’s a great story of how soccer can succeed in America.”

Among the players that came through the team was Dwayne De Rosario, who scored 17 goals for the team in the 1999 and 2000 seasons before graduating to Major League Soccer and the Canadian National Team.

“When they signed him, I talked to one of the coaches and he said, ‘watch this guy, he’s different’,” he said. “I met him and he was Canadian but he was a Rasafarian. It was a little weird at first, but he lit things up.”

As for the current season of the Kickers, they are under new ownership, a new league and a new coach, former Kicker Dave Bulow. Richmond has had their struggles, losing their last three matches, but two of those were one goal margins. Former CF Monterrey youth player Joe Gallardo leads the team with four goals.

This weekend’s contest will feature two of the few “legacy” teams in the league, but also the two teams that are tied on points. Despite being in 7th and 8th place, both teams have a chance to vault themselves into the league’s top four “playoff zone” teams with a win this weekend.

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The two teams last met in Richmond on May 11. Gallardo didn’t score in that match, but the trouble he caused for FC Tucson’s back line earned him Man of the Match honors from USL League One. FC Tucson ended up losing 2 - 0, which was Richmond's last win.

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Richmond Kickers

The 1995 Richmond Kickers after winning the U.S. Open Cup.