Only two weeks ago Orlando City SC defeated Sacramento Republic FC to lift the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. It was the culmination of a tournament which had been two years in the making thanks to COVID-19 complications. Most interestingly, it involved a lower division punching above their weight class hoping to make history - something that was common in last year’s tournament.
While second-division Sacramento came up short in their quest a new line of contenders are already on their way. The first qualifying round for the 2023 tournament kicked off last weekend around the country featuring over 60 teams. Plenty of which fall into the local Tri State Area. One game in particular stood out for plenty of reasons ranging from hometown bias to historical significance.
On Sunday night, Queensboro FC II took its first step towards qualifying for a first ever U.S. Open Cup tournament. The United Premier Soccer League side defeated Scots-American AC, 5-0. Jonathan Santillan had an MVP performance at Kearny High School, scoring four goals with the backdrop of Lower Manhattan glowing in the distance. Speaking to OaM after the game, head coach Diego Gomez explained games like this are critical for what is, at least for now, the top team in Queensboro’s academy structure.
“We have one player that is under 20 but all the others are under 19,” Gomez said. “For us, it was important, this year, we tried to compete (against) older players. It gives a better preparation for the future. At the end of the day, we want this group to have as many professional players as we can. So what we want is to put them in that environment. Competing against grown players and, of course, the goal is to get to the main cup and to compete in the Open Cup.”
On paper, this was a game between teams at completely different levels. QBFC reached the national semifinals of the UPSL this past summer. Meanwhile the Scots only escaped relegation from their regional league by the slimmest of margins. In the end, the result really wasn’t a shock for anyone paying attention.
But just looking at that game through that veil won’t tell the whole story. Sunday night’s first round qualifying match for the 2023 U.S. Open Cup featured two teams separated by 126 years of history. No other game that weekend, this year, or in recent memory has had that sort of age difference between clubs.
Queensboro FC II was only founded in 2021 ahead of its inaugural season in the UPSL’s American Division (Northeast). They finished the regular season at the top of their highly competitive division before going on to win multiple postseason trophies (both conference & region). A second half collapse against Beaman United FC (TN), led by former New York City FC star Poku, ended their run (minus a win in the third place consolation game).
QBFC II is the reserve side of the yet to launch Queensboro FC professional men’s team. Originally scheduled to begin play in the second-division USL Championship this year, COVID and other logistical problems forced the organization to push back the launch date to 2023. In the interim, the organization’s academy has expanded into high profile amateur leagues and even women’s soccer. Its temporary home at Queens College is a formidable place to play, even with no fans in the stands due to the college’s still-in-place COVID policies.
On the other side, Kearny Scots-American Athletic Club was out of their depth from the moment they entered the Open Cup. The team joined the Eastern Premier Soccer League (EPSL), a regional amateur league in the Northeast, last year and struggled heavily. The team barely avoided finishing last in the league’s NYC focused Metropolitan Conference, which would have seen them relegated to a New Jersey state league. This season has already started out better, opening with a draw earlier this month against Zum Schneider FC 03. But against competition such as national amateur contenders Lansdowne Yonkers FC getting a foothold will be tricky.
But the Kearny Scots are more than their recent struggles. Officially founded in 1895, the Scots had been a pillar team in the early history of U.S. Soccer. The five-time American Soccer League champion, winning five straight seasons between 1937 & 1941, was a powerhouse during the early 1900s.In fact, the team competed in the second ever National Challenge Cup (later named the U.S. Open Cup) in 1914-15. A quarterfinals loss to eventual champion Bethlehem Steel F.C. ended that tournament run. But they continued on and the early 20th century included multiple cup runs.
Their last, on record, Open Cup match came in May 1948 - a second round loss to Elizabeth S.C. (NJ). That potentially means it’s been over 27,000 days since the club officially competed in the competition.
Any person who travels to the Scots American Club on Patterson Street in Kearny will see countless black and white photos dating back 100 years. Trophies covered in dust, etched with names that have long since passed away. Current Scots’ head coach Robert Gjoca says entering the Open Cup now is just one way he and the team hope to live up to their team’s historical roots.
“That is our goal actually. To return the glory to a club that’s been so successful in the past.” Gjoca said. “And we’re working on that. It’s not as though we aren’t having any improvement, we are. We feel it since the first game actually. But we are going to keep working. That’s our goal. Maybe in two or three years we are going to be very good in competition and maybe try to win the league.”
In the present day though, it didn’t take long for Queensboro to demonstrate the talent gap between the two teams on Sunday night. In the second minute, QBFC’s Rasheed Willis collided with Kearny goalkeeper Arturo Botero cleanly, sending both to the ground. Former LA Galaxy academy product Jonathan “Jona” Santillan jumped on the loose ball and struck it into the empty net from the top of the box.
The UPSL side dictated the pace of the game for nearly the entire affair. Attacking through a 3-4-3 formation, a pattern soon began to emerge. The visitors would get a drive into Scots’ territory, Kearny would clear, and Queensboro would recover to start again. It took Kearny 17 minutes just to get their first drive into the opposing end. That ended with a weak cross from the right side that was easily handled. A minute later, a free kick for the home team saw Julian Ramirez have a look from the right side of the box. He curled a shot on net that was easily saved by Queens keeper Daniel Alzate. That was one of the team’s few shots on net the entire match.
“(It) was not a good performance, especially in the first half,” Gjoca said after the game. “For whatever reason our players were afraid or they were not trusting themselves and (Queensboro) took advantage. Plus, two stupid goals. And then the game was basically over in the first half.”
It got worse in the 22nd minute as Kearny continued to try and find any offense. A quick counter attack by Queensboro down the left side saw Jona taken down from behind in the box. Stepping up to spot, Santillan chose violence and converted a panenka chip down the middle to make it 2-0.
There’s probably 100 years worth of former Kearny Scots players rolling in their graves after seeing that goal. It wasn’t even out of the ordinary for Santillan, who led the team in goals last season in the UPSL. From the concrete stands, members of the team’s front office fully expected him to shoot down the middle like he did.
“Actually I’ve been trying to change it up,” Santillan laughed about it after the match. “I mean my last couple of PKs were chips but I think I’m going to need to change it up.”
He followed it up six minutes later and capped off the hat-trick all before the half hour mark. A run by Moussa Diarra set up Jona about 20 yards out on the right side, where he slammed home a shot into the right corner past a diving Botero. His fourth and final strike came in second half extra time. Despite being down a man due to injury, Caleb Taylor ran a ball nearly unopposed down the right side of the field and crossed into the middle. Jona ran into it and scored with a low shot to make it 5-0.
“I (was) very confident today. I feel the team had my back the whole time,” Santillan said afterwards. “You know, I was enjoying myself, playing my football and… I happened to score four goals today.”
As the game progressed so did Kearny’s tactics and desperation. The team initially tried to focus offense through forward Jordan Macquairre, with almost nothing to show for it. Despite being set-up top with another forward in Kevin Valdivia, Kearny constantly tried to pass up to Macquairre. It did little whether he was at home in the center or trying to run down a wing as QBFC nearly always smothered him. The home side nearly made it 3-1 late in the first half. Former Allentown United player Ebenezer Oduro jumped to head it on the goal line but Alzate punched it away. The rebound was fought for before it was played up and covered by the Queensboro keeper.
The second half saw Kearny get more attacking chances but possession still fell somewhere around 70-30 to QBFC. Still for the 75 in attendance (counted by me), most stayed loud for the home side. Kevin Valdiva had an onside break in the 48th minute, bringing most of the fans to their feet. But a defensive effort from Jaeyoon Jang denied a shot attempt and got the ball out of play for a goal kick.
According to Gjoca, at halftime he told his players to go out and not worry about the result. After that, the group did start to have more cohesion especially through the midfield. It’s hard to quantify that against QBFC II but it was noticeable.
Hans Leza, Queensboro’s captain, continued to call shots out from the midfield like his team was still knotted at 0-0. Immediately after Valdiva’s breakaway he was organizing a counterattack against Kearny. Despite his team being up by three goals and until he was subbed out midway through the second, Leza was lasered focused on using his team’s middle diamond to pierce through Kearny’s backline.
The game’s only goal to not come from Jona came in the 65th when second half substitute Minguk Seo stepped up for a free kick. Despite being known as a player who could score from 20 yards out on attempts, the South Korean was generous and hit the ball towards the front of the box. Former Fort Lauderdale CF (now Inter Miami II) player Joshua Saavedra deflected the ball into the net to make it 4-0.
It was a nice return for Seo who had been recovering from a right ankle injury. After getting a shot attempt of his own though, a challenge in the 86th minute forced him to leave the field using his teammates for support. After the match, he continued to strain in pain as Gomez explained he’d hurt his left knee. While nothing is known right now he needed to be carried to the team bus by at least five teammates.
Despite being a new team in the heavily contested Northeast, many of the lower division sides in qualifying have told OaM about their hesitation to play Queensboro II. It says something that a second year team is turning heads in an area that includes former national champions and some of the toughest amateur leagues in the country.
“That’s a sign of pride for us,” coach Diego Gomez smiled when asked about his team’s reputation. “We are happy that teams here, (even though) we are new, we are young, that they respect us. As we respect the other teams. And I think it talks good about the group of players that I have that they are that respected.”
On Wednesday, U.S. Soccer revealed the draw for the Second Qualifying Round next month. Queensboro will host UPSL divisional rival and 2022 Open Cup participant Oyster Bay United FC on Saturday, October 15. Kickoff is scheduled for 10:30 AM at Queens College Varsity Soccer Field (Flushing, N.Y.).
Here are the rest of the local results from last weekend’s games:
Saturday, Sept. 17
Oyster Bay United FC (NY)
Germantown City FC (PA)
Aegean Hawks FC (D.C.)
SC Vistula Garfield (NJ)
Lansdowne Yonkers FC (NY)
Manhattan Kicker FC (NY)
Sunday, Sept. 18
Lancaster City FC (PA)
Lancaster Elite (PA)
3:3 (11:10 PK)
Newtown Pride FC (CT)
Jackson Lions FC (NJ)
Bye through this round: IASC Boom (Rochester, NY)