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2 Arizona soccer teams in action in 3rd round of U.S. Open Cup this week

Struggling FC Tucson, Cal United face off at Kino on Tuesday; Rising plays New Mexico...again

Two Arizona teams are still alive in the 2022 U.S. Open Cup as the third round begins on Tuesday.

The Open Cup is one of the oldest knock-out soccer tournaments of its kind in the world. Teams of all levels, amateur, semi-pro, lower division and Major League Soccer compete. Because of soccer’s low scores, an occasional top-level team not taking lower opponents seriously and the single-elimination format, the minnows can beat the big names.

“You get a goalkeeper that plays out of his mind and a forward who's lucky, anything can happen,” said current Phoenix Rising coach Rick Schantz to the Tucson Sentinel back in 2011.

Two years later, Schantz got a taste of that when he was coach of FC Tucson. That year, his team, then a high-level amateur side, beat two professional teams before falling to Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo.

This year, FC Tucson is a professional team, playing in the third tier of American soccer. They have already won one Open Cup match, a 3 - 2 victory over the Las Vegas Lights, who play in the second tier USL Championship.

The team could have drawn Major League Soccer sides LA Galaxy or Los Angeles Football Club for their third round match, but they lucked out a bit and will be playing California United Strikers FC, who play in another third division league, National Independent Soccer Association.

Even though on paper, Cal United are at the same level as FC Tucson, they are also a team that has made it this far in the tournament. The team needs to take them very seriously.

“It’s massive,” said Charlie Machell, a midfielder who wasn’t on the roster for the last Open Cup match. “We have to treat them like they are an MLS team…it’s going to be interesting and I’m really looking forward to it.”

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The team just played a match on Saturday. With a break for Easter, it meant that there was only one day for training. That will present a challenge for the team that, despite their success against Las Vegas, has struggled in league play in their still young season. Their two games in USL League One so far have been a loss and Saturday’s 1-1 draw against Madison.

Machell touched on one of the issues that the team has faced when he noted that his fellow players can use the match to “build fitness.” The team had a preseason, but many of their key players were not available. This, according to coach Jon Pearlman, is the reason for the slow start in league play. Even though a midweek game can disrupt a training schedule, this game can do a lot to help improve the team.

“We never were able to use the preseason to get us into our natural playing form,” said Pearlman. “We’re in an extended preseason…it’s also a chance to go further than we’ve ever gotten (in the tournament).”

Young Cal United led by former Cosmos player

If Pearlman and his team have any grousing about the lack of training time before Tuesday’s game, there is one team that has a few more complaints: Cal United.

Tuesday night’s visiting squad also played a game on Saturday night (a 2 - 0 win over Los Angeles Force), had an Easter break and spent Monday traveling rather than training.

Cal United came tantalizingly close to winning the league last year and also boasts of one of NISA’s top forwards, Omar Nuño. So far, 2022 has been a different story. Like FC Tucson, they have had struggles and the feeling the team hasn’t gelled yet. Saturday night’s match was the only win, and only goals, so far this season.

“Right now, we’re just trying to find the stride, figure us out,” said Cal United coach Don Ebert. “These are young guys that are trying to get into this profession. To me, whether it’s an Open Cup or a NISA game, we’ve got a lot to do.”

Ebert has been coaching Cal United since 2019. His playing career included a season with the New York Cosmos alongside Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto.

“We aren’t under any illusions that we are going to win it all…we are just trying to go out and get better with every game,” he added.

The match kicks off at 7:30 p.m. at Kino North Stadium on Tuesday.

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Rising vs. United

Phoenix Rising coach Rick Schantz had been the coach in several Open Cup runs for the then-amateur FC Tucson. Motivation was not a problem in those days.

“It was so easy to sell your players the idea that ‘hey, let’s upset someone.’,” he said. “We had a lot to prove.”

Motivation can be a bit more of a problem when you are one of the bigger names in that stage of the tournament playing against a lower-division team. Schantz saw this in the team’s second round match against Valley United.

“It’s always a challenge when you are expected to win,” he said. “The intrinsic motivation of playing against a higher level team doesn’t exist…we were a little bit too confident.”

Valley United, who play in the third division, kept the score 0 - 0 until deep into overtime, losing only when Rising’s Claudio Repetto finally hit the back of the goal in the 115th minute.

The team will not be either an over or under dog when they play their third round match on Wednesday night. They will be playing New Mexico United, a team that is a regular opponent of theirs in the USL Championship, in fact, they just played on Saturday. Phoenix won that one 1 - 0.

While the contest will be with a familiar opponent and past results will provide motivation (New Mexico knocked Phoenix out of the tournament in 2019), Schantz was hoping to get a chance to play against other teams.

“I was bummed that Tucson got the California division because those were a lot of teams we’ll never see,” he said. “But, we beat them Saturday, and we beat them in the Open Cup, we can really hurt one of our rivals for the rest of the season.”

Schantz is also looking forward to possible match ups in the next round.

“We’ve never hosted an MLS team in our stadium in a game that really matters,” he said. “It would be a great honor for our fans, our city and our community to have an MLS team play here…it’s a big opportunity.”

Rising’s match with New Mexico United kicks off at 7:30 p.m. at Wild Horse Pass in Chandler.

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Joshua Pearson/TucsonSentinel.com

Louie Perez celebrates one of FC Tucson's goals against Las Vegas Lights in the second round of the US Open Cup.