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Tournaments Jun 05, 2012

Md. SoccerPlex labors to provide fitting home for U.S. Open Cup matches

The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is the grand dame of American soccer, a century-old knockout tournament which gives plucky amateur and minor-league teams a chance to compete with the nation’s top pro squads.

It doesn’t hold the glitz or popularity of other competitions, but it routinely offers up dramatic contests and shocking upsets. Those who catch an Open Cup game usually tend to fall in love with it – including the venues that host it.

The Maryland SoccerPlex in Germantown, Md., home to tonight’s U.S. Open Cup Fourth Round match between D.C. United and the Philadelphia Union, is one such spot. The sprawling suburban facility’s Championship Stadium has become a regular choice for United’s cup games, and occasionally hosts other Washington, D.C.-area teams who qualify for the tournament, including the Northern Virginia-based amateur side Aegean Hawks earlier this spring.

“You know, we love the Open Cup matches,” said Trish Heffelfinger, the SoccerPlex’s executive director, told The Soccer Wire this week. “We were lucky this year because we held two matches for the Aegean Hawks in the early rounds. We’ve had more Open Cup matches this year than we’ve ever had in the past. And it’s great to have D.C. United here.”

Still a niche event in terms of fan interest, the Open Cup usually plays out in intimate settings, often small and scruffy ones like artificial-turf high-school football stadiums and tiny recreational parks. But with its 5,000-capacity stadium and near-religious devotion to turf maintenance, the SoccerPlex tries to provide a worthy stage for one of the oldest elimination tournaments in the world – no easy task amid the packed calendar of youth soccer events that are the facility’s bread and butter.

“I think it’s exciting for the people who come out and watch a game in Germantown, where they are right on top of you,” United coach Ben Olsen said on Monday. “[It’s] always a really nice field, and I think it’s a unique atmosphere for the fans, a little bit more up-close and personal…They usually do a great job.”

SoccerPlex turf manager Jerad Minnick and his staff have worked busily to prepare the Championship Stadium’s grass field, which has been in heavy use over the past two weeks but is nonetheless likely to rank as one of the top playing surfaces in the Open Cup. Minnick’s manicured lawn stands out amidst a nationwide trend towards artificial surfaces at the game’s lower levels, thanks in large part to increasing field demand and limited budgets.

Tonight will also feature a beer garden, allowing those of legal drinking age to partake – a welcome addition for United supporters groups, who, according to Heffelfinger, can thank Montgomery County police and government officials for speeding up their usual alcohol permitting process from two weeks to two days in light of the short turnaround time from this game’s scheduling last month.

Meanwhile, younger fans and their parents can also enjoy themselves in other areas of the stadium bowl, where the snug dimensions allow all to catch close-up glimpses of pro play which are often missed at larger venues.

“One of the things that we hear over and over from people who come to the D.C. United games that are here is they just love the atmosphere,” said Heffelfinger. “It’s very family-friendly, you’re really close to the action – you can hear the players talk, which is so cool. And they just feel like they’re part of the game, which is what’s really exciting when you have the big professional matches here.”

Besides the budding soccer rivalry between Philadelphia and D.C., Tuesday’s game at the SoccerPlex also features the homecoming of Freddy Adu, the Union star who grew up in nearby Potomac, Md. and spent the early years of his pro career with United. To hear Heffelfinger tell it, her staff – and many of the locals in attendance – will be hoping that Adu delivers a man-of-the-match performance in a losing cause against his old team.

“He’s sort of a favorite son around here,” she said. “In offseason he sometimes come here and trains, so we’ve seen a lot of Freddy over the years and think so highly of him. We’re really rooting for him. But make no mistake, D.C. United is our home team and that’s who we will be cheering for.”