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Mike Jeffries won the U.S. Open Cup in 1998 as an assistant with the then expansion Chicago Fire; He now has the opportunity to upset his old team as he guides new expansion side Charlotte Independence against the Fire in the 2015 U.S. Open Cup Round of 16

A look down the list of matchups between lower-league sides and MLS clubs prior to the Fourth Round of the 2015 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup might have given a glimmer of an upset or two.

Perennial U.S. Open Cup powers Rochester Rhinos and Charleston Battery looked the giant-killing type as they took the Philadelphia Union and Orlando City SC respectively to penalty kicks. Defensively solid Louisville City FC kept the Chicago Fire scoreless for 116 minutes and Saint Louis FC held two-time champions Sporting KC to a conservative 1-0 win in front of a sell-out crowd of 19,298 away at Sporting Park.

While all of those clubs made things difficult for their MLS opponents, only one USL side – maybe the most overlooked – pulled the “Cupset” over their Division I rivals as first-year Charlotte Independence used a stunning 55th minute half-volley from Jorge Herrera to dispatch the New England Revolution 1-0 in Boston.

On the surface, perhaps looking past Charlotte was understandable. To that point, they’d lacked consistency, winning just three matches in their inaugural league campaign and sitting second to last in the USL’s Eastern Conference. According to head coach Mike Jeffries, bringing together and gelling a group of guys that hadn’t played together before has presented a welcome challenge – one that might have set his side up well for the “Cupset”.

“We’re learning things along the way and we kind of felt like we’d split the season up,” Jeffries told ussoccer.com. “The first part of the season we hoped it wouldn’t be difficult, but we felt it might be. The middle third, we wanted to be playing good soccer and make a final push and set ourselves up for the final third and make the playoffs. The first part of the season we played good soccer, but couldn’t find results. Now I think we’re doing a bit better finding ways to win and closing out games. We feel good about that and for being a new group that didn’t know each other at all to now they’re developing a little more confidence and belief and knowledge of each other.”

While it took some time to get the group playing in a way that they’re comfortable with, a glance down the roster shows that Jeffries had assembled a talented set of players.

Charlotte head coach Mike Jeffries has deep roots in the American soccer landscape as both a player and coach cultivated over 30+ years.

The center piece of his side is captain Herrera – a long time member of USL predecessors Charlotte Eagles, who sold their franchise rights to the Independence as they dropped down to the Premier Development League in 2015. The Colombian midfielder is joined by former Polish international forward Tomasz Zahorski as well as 13 players that have varying levels of experience with MLS squads – among them leading scorer Ryan Finley, midfielder Alex Martinez, defender Mechack Jerome. Charlotte has also benefited from the play of Ben Newnam, John Berner, Caleb Calvert and Carlos Alvarez – loanees from MLS affiliate Colorado Rapids.

The team’s entry into the 2015 U.S. Open Cup provided a confidence build as Zahorski bagged a hat trick in the side’s 4-2 Second Round victory over the NPSL’s Upward Stars on May 20.

“The Upward Stars game was a good run for a lot of guys that hadn’t got a game to keep themselves sharp. That was very important for us and the mentality of the team and guys continuing to compete with each other. We have a group that’s extremely competitive – that was good and just getting the confidence to win games.”

The win setup a bigger challenge away to the NASL’s Carolina RailHawks on May 27, when the Independence used an 81st minute goal from Ryan Finley to earn the side’s first road win of the season.

“The Carolina RailHawks game was huge,” Jeffries continued. “To that point we hadn’t had a lot of success on the road and it was important for us to develop a decent way of playing away against a very good team. It was nice for us, we defended really well throughout the game and limited chances and were still able to move the ball and create a bit.”

While Jeffries said his team has taken things a game at a time, the chance of getting a shot at an MLS team proved as big motivation for his group of players that have previously graced the U.S. top-flight.

"That means a lot to the guys – a lot of them are on the cusp of MLS. They were in it recently and are trying to get back or want to get there. For the players in that situation, they want to do well against an MLS team. That as much as anything is a big factor for us in terms of approach to the game and finding ways to win." - Charlotte head coach Mike Jeffries

The confident, veteran group of former MLS players headed to Boston to play 2014 MLS Cup finalists New England Revolution in the Fourth Round. Perhaps most overlooked heading into the match was the Charlotte coach himself.

Along with winning the Hermann Trophy as the nation’s top collegiate player at Duke in 1983, Jeffries is a two-time U.S. Open Cup winner as an assistant coach with the Chicago Fire, a former head coach of the Dallas Burn and scout for U.S. head coach Bob Bradley at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. A solid, veteran side combined with the knowledge and experience obtained by Jeffries in big matches over the years combined for the perfect storm in Charlotte’s 1-0 win the biggest upset of the round.

“We defended a fair amount as you’d expect, but there were stretches where we moved the ball pretty well and you could see us developing more confidence and belief.”

As the game wore on, Charlotte picked their moments going forward. Finally in the 55th minute, Alex Martinez lobbed a ball to Herrera just outside the box on the left. The Colombian chested down and then volleyed a magnificent strike into the opposite top corner to give the Independence a 1-0 lead.

“I try to shoot as much as I can from everywhere,” Herrera told ussoccer.com. “When I hit it and the ball started going down, I felt it was going in. It was nice and it was in the right moment.”

Charlotte's Jorge Herrera (right) battles with a Carolina RailHawks defender during the teams' Third Round USOC match up.
Photo by Rob Kinnan.

“After the goal, we knew New England would pour on the pressure, but we showed our ability to close out a game,” added Jeffries. “Winning tight games on the road is important.”

Watching the U.S. Open Cup draw intently the following day, random chance would send Charlotte to a Round of 16 date with the Chicago Fire, a place where Jeffries made his best coaching memories.

“Being a part of the Fire from 1998-2000 gave me a tremendous appreciation and enthusiasm for the Open Cup, which I carry forward to this day,” he said. “We had a great group of players, extremely competitive and winning the tournament was important to us as a new franchise who wanted to establish themselves by winning trophies.  Being able to be a part of the team which won the 1998 Open Cup in front of our home fans a week after winning MLS Cup was truly special for me.”

Jeffries would have two more stints with the club, returning as an assistant coach under Denis Hamlett in 2008 and 2009 and following his stint as a World Cup scout, Jeffries served as the club’s Director of Player Personnel from 2010-2012. 

 “We’ve heard about coach Jeffries and Chicago in the past,” said Herrera. “He’s very pumped to go up there and bring his new team and we are too. We are amazed at the opportunity we have in front of us to get out and play, do our best and try to put together a really good effort and why not get the win? On my mind every time I play a game, I go to win. We have to recognize our a good opportunity – our team is ready and it will be nice if we have a good game that Tuesday and make just not our coach, but everyone with the club proud to get a result.”

Charlotte head coach Mike Jeffries and the Independence are looking forward to playing yet another MLS team in the 2015 U.S. Open Cup.
Photo by Jonathan Aguallo.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say [the game] was a nice opportunity for me,” said Jeffries who still has a house in the Chicago area. “The Open Cup is about the guys and I want them to succeed, but it’s always nice to go home where I’ve been for a long time. It’s special to play the Fire and be back playing at Toyota Park for a night.”

And just as Jeffries helped the first-year Fire to an improbable Open Cup title in 1998, perhaps he has a view of doing the same with Charlotte in 2015.

“The focus really just is the game and trying to figure out a way to beat a good MLS team. We’re competing in a prestigious tournament and we want to push ourselves along and win every game.”