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FC Denver qualifies for 2018 US Open Cup

FCD will be one of two local representatives to the nation’s oldest soccer competition after defeating Indios in a fierce game Saturday. In other action, Azteca downed Harpos to also claim a spot in USOC 2018.

FC Denver’s Alex Bernhardt attacks the Indios defense of #8 Felipe Berrios, #10 Julio Rodriguez, and #27 Maurice Diawara.
Jocelyn Perez

In a regular season football match, a player might hold back on a questionable slide tackle. They might ease up going into a 50-50 tackle. They might try and conserve their energy in spots. It’s a long season. Injuries need to be prevented. A tie will do just fine.

There is no such effort at caution or conservation in tournament football. It’s pedal to the metal for ninety minutes, because anything less, and you’re done; doomed to spend the cold winter with lots of time on your hands. Wondering what you could have done differently; what you should have done differently.

That was eminently evident in the highly physical, end-to-end clash between Indios FC and FC Denver Saturday at Aurora Sports Park. In the final US Open Cup qualifying game between two closely matched teams, it was FC Denver that won out, 2-0, although they needed extra time in order to decide the match.

In the first ten minutes, it was all FC Denver, as the youthful Indios side came out a bit tentative. Denver striker Cesar Castillo had a golden chance in the 6th minute on an ill-conceived backpass from an Indios defender back to the keeper. Castillo juggled with his left, his right, and attempted to volley, but Indios GK Diego Garcia came and claimed it. Two minutes later, FCD left wing Alex Bernhardt got two chances back to back, but could not convert either one.

Soon after, against the run of play, Indios nearly took the lead. Midfielder Julio Rodriguez laced a ball from beyond 35 yards onto goal, rattling the crossbar and bouncing over.

FC Denver would get two more shots, as they controlled possession and tempo for most of the first half. In the 27th minute, an FC Denver slide tackle resulted in a foul, but no call, from the head referee. An eruption of protests from Indios players led to a yellow card and a stern warning in Spanish from the ref. But the physical play, the fouls and the cards were hardly slowed. Only a few minutes later, Indios right back Maurice Diawara would pick up a card on a hard foul. It would prove to be significant later in the match.

In the 32nd FC Denver had perhaps their best chance of the half. A corner kick from the southwest flag found wisened veteren Joel Miller at the backpost. Miller headed the ball down for what looked like a sure goal. But the hard turf surface exerted its laws of physics upon the ball with cruel jest as the ball bounced off the ground, up, and over the crossbar.

Over the final ten minutes, the match was physical and cagey. Both FC Denver and Indios had free kick opportunities inside 25 yards, but the chances went for nought. The two teams went to the half tied, 0-0.

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Halftime! Photo Gallery

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Both teams came out of the half with their aggression levels dialed up a few notches. Denver players earned a pair of early yellows for their players, one on a late slide tackle, another on a leg brought across the body of an Indios player. Indios, meanwhile, drew a slew of fouls that went uncarded as they attempted to slow or contain Denver’s main dribbling threats by any means necessary. Denver’s wily and diminuative attacking midfielder Marco Escobar and swift and aggressive winger Alex Bernhardt created dangerous rushes on several occasions, but were brought down hard, sometimes cleanly, sometimes not, as the half progressed. Perhaps one of those was retaliatory, as the crafty Escobar put on an in-step cut and spin move to put the ball through the legs of his Indios defender, to the howls of the crowd in attendance.

Indios picked up another yellow, this time for a dive in the box by striker Mirza Karasalihovic. The Bosnian was dribbling in the Denver box and went down suddenly and with a theatrical flourish, but the referee was having none of it and went straight to his pocket. Not soon after, another rocket was put on goal by Denver’s Castillo, only to be parried by another fantastic save from GK Diego Garcia.

In about the 71st minute, FC Denver’s player/manager Drew Melin went in for slide tackle on a loose ball by the north sideline, and an Indios player reached it a second before, leaping to avoid Melin, but unintentionally kicking the player in the head. Melin rolled in anguish and had to be helped off the pitch. FC Denver would play with 10 men until a sub could be made ready after a five minute delay.

The game pivoted significantly in the 88th minute, when Maurice Diawara went in full throttle on a slide tackle that was well late of the play, sending an FC Denver player crashing to the plastic turf. Diawara was sent off with his second yellow.

In stoppage time, FCD put up two more fantastic chances, one into the top corner and another to the bottom left of the keeper, but Diego Garcia halted them both, sending the game in extra time. The sunset a few moments before the end of regulation dropped the temperature precipitously, and fans began huddling under blankets.

As the overtime period began, Indios faced two tremendous close range shots from FC Denver once again in the 93rd minute, and once again Diego Garcia came up big for them. Two more came on corner kicks for Denver just a few minutes later.

It seemed like the non-stop pressure would inevitably crack the Indios team. And just after the extra time break, it did. In the 107th minute, midfielder Mark Wallace, a sub that came on in the second half for FC Denver, fired a long shot from a central spot 30 yards out that hit the left post and rattled in, giving FC Denver a 1-0 lead. Just four minutes later, another FCD attack would culminate in a low cross through the box and neat finish right in front of goal by Alex Bernhardt. Indios could not organize much of a comeback, although the final ten minutes would see plenty more action; a fierce collision between an Indios attacker and the Denver GK; Denver forward Peter Jacobsen limping around and even clearing balls despite a pulled hamstring; and Indios receiving a second red card in the 120th minute for denial of an obvious goal scoring opportunity. And in the end, FC Denver emerged victorious, 2-0. This will be FC Denver’s first ever trip to the US Open Cup in the 11 year history of the club.

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In other local US Open Cup action, the 2017 Colorado amateur representative, Azteca FC, took on Colorado’s 2016 and 2015 amateur representatives, Harpos FC of Boulder, in a match at Broomfield Commons Soccer Field. An action packed tie culminated in a 4-3 victory for Azteca.

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The 2018 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup begins with first round action between the amateur participants in approximately the first week of May. The date of the draw has yet to be announced, but in past years, amateur teams have been drawn against other teams nearby to them in their region. Azteca, Indios, FC Denver, and Harpos will return to action in the Colorado Premier League and United Premier Soccer League in early spring, 2018.

Note: Thanks to Jocelyn Perez (contact her for photo work at basshead14636@yahoo.com) for providing us with the lead photograph, and to FC Denver board member Kyle Farbaugh and Indios President Irwin Gonzalez for providing rosters for their clubs.