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Soccer greats Eric Wynalda, Paul Caligiuri reunite at US Open Cup

Updated May 28, 2019 - 4:48 pm

The latest installment of Eric Wynalda’s “This Is Your Soccer Life” comes Wednesday when he will lead Lights FC onto the Cashman Field pitch to face Orange County in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

The knockout tournament has entered its third round. During the second, the Lights defeated amateur side Cal FC, which Wynalda formerly managed.

In the third round, he’ll match coaching wits with Paul Caligiuri, his roommate when both starred for the U.S. Men’s National Team.

The Las Vegas manager is a major advocate of the tournament renamed in honor of Major League Soccer founder Lamar Hunt in 1999, though Hunt probably is more famous for owning the Kansas City Chiefs and having pro football conference championship trophies named for him.

A defining feature of the U.S. Cup is that it is open to all domestic sides, regardless of payroll or the size of the sponsor patch on the jersey. Orange County will be sporting a Dairy Queen logo on theirs — probably all you need to know in handicapping the match.

The winner most likely will receive a fourth-round match against a MLS team and perhaps a free Blizzard.

“I have an affinity for this competition; I love it, and not just because I have a good track record,” said Wynalda, who directed Cal FC to a 1-0 victory over MLS side Portland Timbers in the 2012 U.S. Open Cup — still considered the biggest upset in the history of an ancient tournament that began in 1914.

“In this particular game, I’m (coaching) against my mentor. This is my guy.”

Soccer twins

Wynalda and Caligiuri are practically joined at the soccer hip. In addition to having been roomies, each has scored major goals in the evolution of U.S. soccer.

Caligiuri, who played 14 years as a defensive midfielder for the national team, produced the “shot heard round the world.” He scored the only goal in a victory at Trinidad and Tobago that propelled the U.S. into the 1990 World Cup in Italy, its first berth in soccer’s biggest event since 1950.

Four years later in the World Cup, Wynalda tallied on a free kick to give the U.S. a 1-1 tie against Switzerland in front of 73,425 at the Pontiac Superdome.

Caligiuri scored the national side’s first World Cup goal in 40 years during a loss to Czechoslovakia. Six years later, Wynalda notched the first goal in MLS history for the San Jose Clash.

Both played professionally in Germany when there were few American exports.

They went into the National Soccer Hall of Fame together in 2004, and later sought to to reshape domestic soccer as president of the U.S. federation. Neither got the job, and thus find themselves tying to prove their coaching mettle while developing raw talent in soccer’s minor leagues.

“Neither Eric nor I are looking at this as being a game about us,” Caligiuri said. “But certainly it does draw a lot of attention because of the impact of what we’ve done.”

Mickey vs. Willie

It’s soccer’s version of Mickey Mantle vs. Willie Mays, if Mickey were managing the Double A Richmond Flying Squirrels and Willie the Long Island Ducks of independent baseball.

Orange County FC is affiliated with the National Premier Soccer League, which is amateur in almost every way. The team’s home grounds are a modest park on the UC Irvine campus and a high school soccer field in Irvine. Either makes fading 10,000-seat Cashman Field look like Wembley Stadium.

“When you look at this game, it’s like David vs. Goliath, amateurs vs. the pro team,” Caligiuri said. “My guys are blue-collar guys who get up when it’s still dark outside (to work real jobs).”

Caligiuri, whose sisters Roberta and Lori are school teachers in Las Vegas, said most of his players will have to take off work for three days just to play against the Lights.

“So they’re losing money, having to make an additional sacrifice to live out this dream,” he said.

Likewise, Eric Wynalda is willing to chase the dream to the touch line. He badly wants to go up against another MLS side in the next round. And he hates to lose. But should David cast a stone from inside the 18-yard box that beats Goliath, he’d almost be willing to live with it.

“It’ll be sad to beat him, but I’ll actually be happy if he wins as well — and I very seldom say that,” Wynalda said of his buddy Caligiuri. “Either way, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is very special to both of us.

“This is one of those games we’ll probably be talking about for years.”

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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