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VE wins on PKs to qualify for 2024 U.S. Open Cup



Evan Vare converted the final penalty kick to send Vereinigung Erzgebirge back to the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup for the first time since 2002. Growing into the game, VE overcame a slow start and an unfortunate sending off in extra time to win 4-2 on penalties against the UPSL’s New Jersey Alliance FC after the teams finished 0-0 after regulation.

After being mobbed by teammates and fans, who witnessed a spectacular game between two very good sides, Vare and his VE brothers unraveled the “Qualified” banner then hosted a boot party, celebrating with hundreds inside the club’s Rathskeller.

One of eleven amateur teams to qualify for the 2024 tournament, the 109 th year, VE last qualified for the 2020 edition before it was cancelled for two years due to Covid, never getting the chance to prove themselves at the next level.

Vare, along with several teammates who were a part of the squad that missed out on the opportunity, said he felt good after the game about having the chance to play in the Open Cup proper again.

“We get to fully make the bracket,” he said, “and who knows what can happen from here.”

It was fitting that Vare, who also scored the winner in the Third Round PK win over rivals UGH, stepped up to seal the win, blasting his shot beyond NJ Alliance keeper Freddy Salcedo. Vare started his career playing for VE as a youth and was the 2015 Philadelphia Inquirer Player of the Year and Southeastern Pennsylvania POTY after scoring 42 goals to lead CB East to a PIAA State Championship. The NSCAA All-American starred for two years at Lafayette then Villanova.

“They came out strong,” he added. “They were pretty athletic, and they have a lot of skill, but once we settled into the game, put some passes together, got to the final third, we knew we could get some chances on, and got some free kicks and corners. It didn’t go our way, but we just stuck with it and kept grinding.”

Prior to extra time, VE absorbed early pressure from the visitors from North Jersey, building a control on the game which carried into the first extra time before midfielder Kevin Smolyn was sent off for a hard challenge toward the end of the period. Smolyn initially received a yellow for the tackle’s aggressive nature but was later shown a red card minutes later after a discussion between the referee and linesman while a dramatic performance by the affected player ensued.

The period ended with more confusion. Brett Miller ran onto a free ball that was kept in by the corner flag, sending it across the goal toward Baker, but the referee blew his whistle after the New jersey defenders stopped playing. Unsure if the ball was in or out, the players waited as the referee signaled the end of the period with Baker and the ball in front of an empty net.

In the second period, shortened due to the fading daylight, VE sat in while NJ found a renewed energy not seen since early in the game, but keeper Steve Paul made a number of big saves late to send the game to penalties.

After NJ’s Christian Villegas opened the shootout with a tidy finish, VE’s Chris Baker tied the score at 1-1 with a powerful strike as well. NJ defender Ivan Hurtado then smacked the bar before teammate Rodrigo Santiago hit the inside of the post to give VE the opportunity they needed. Sean Peckham and Jalen Weatherspoon scored to push VE’s lead to 3-1 then center back Toheeb Shodimu closed the gap to 3-2 before Vare called game.

“It’s amazing,” Paul said after the game, “seeing tears in Rob’s eyes. It’s the best feeling in the world, can’t ask for anything better, couldn’t have a better group of guys. Just going to keep it rolling. It’s good fun.”

Paul, the unsung hero with close to double-digit saves, guessed correctly on both NJ misses. The former Jefferson University and Father Judge starter credited the change in momentum as the big difference in the game. “The first half, we sort of sat back, saw what they had then realized second half we can look to play in the midfield.”

Paul made several saves in the first half, including a quick one three minutes in. But as both teams traded possessions, VE began to counter open spaces on the flanks. Weatherspoon was dangerous down the right side, getting in behind a number of times with no success, and Alec Neumann had a promising header on goal 25 minutes in that was saved by Salcedo. New Jersey controlled the midfield with Bolaty Kouadio a presence in the air and on the ground while Ali Lakhrif and Kevin Santamaria combined well in the attacking third.

Despite conceding possession late in the half, New Jersey had a flurry of chances in the closing minutes, including two that ended with shots over the bar. Paul’s best saves came in the 41 st minute when he denied Lakhrif from close range then stopped Dorgeles Coulibably on the follow up. In the second half, VE came out as the aggressors, finding plenty of joy down the wings with Vare and Patrick Murphy, whose long throw ins caused problems for the visitors, including a sequence early in the half that forced New Jersey to block an Alex Hajj shot in front before Baker blasted the rebound high from a wide angle. New Jersey’s Isomohi Bello, who had 4 goals against the Ukranian Nationals in Round Three, came into the game midway through the half, but center backs Owen Webster and Braden Slvati did well to keep him away from goal.

Vare impaled a defender with a blast from distance that would have hit the target, and the scramble afterwards fell to Hajj, but the ball ran on him before he could shoot. His cut back found Smolyn at the penalty spot, but Smolyn’s shot was blocked. VE had several chances to find a winner in the closing seconds but couldn’t get the final touch, sending the game to extra time.

“It’s amazing,” an emotional VE coach Rob Oldfield said after the game. “I’m so happy for the guys.”

Oldfield was a player/coach in 2002 when VE qualified after winning the USASA Eastern Regional before falling in the USASA Open Cup national final. They lost to the South jersey Barons 4-0 in the First Round. He waited 18 years to qualify again until Covid shut down most soccer organizations for a year and half. When the Open Cup resumed in 2022, none of the amateur teams who’d qualified for the cancelled editions or who won national titles were given
the opportunity to participate, which left a sour taste in Oldfield’s mouth until now.

“It’s not easy to qualify,” Oldfield said. “You never know if you’re going to be in this position again, and that’s why I said you got a home game here in front of your home fans with a chance to go in. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Another criticism among the amateur teams with U.S. Soccer has been the roster inflexibility. In 2019, Oldfield credited his team’s depth and health as keys to qualifying. “This has been a challenge because the roster has been locked since August 25th. It’s amateur soccer. You can’t control when guys gotta go for work or have a cookie grand opening. So now, we can at least reset the roster. We’ve got a couple young kids that’ll help us out, and it’ll give us some motivation to carry forward to whatever’s next.”

With the draw expected early next year, VE could face rivals West Chester United, who qualified via their runner-up finish in the National Premier Soccer League this summer. The Philadelphia Union will likely enter in the Round of 32 after finishing fifth in the Supporters’ Shield standings.

Bethlehem Steel has the most Open Cup titles with 5 (1915, 1916, 1918, 1920, and 1926), tied with Maccabee Los Angeles. The Ukranian Nationals (Philadelphia Ukranians) are tied for second with 4, winning in 1960, 1961, 1963, and 1966. The modern era tournament shifted with the arrival of MLS teams in 1996, squeezing out some of the history that began in 1913.

Greg Oldfield is a teacher, coach, and writer from the Philadelphia area. His fiction and nonfiction have been published in Barrelhouse, Maudlin House, Carve, and the Under Review, among others. He also writes for the Florida Cup and Florida Citrus Sports. In 2023, he received an award for Best Column from the United Soccer Coaches for his story "A Philadelphia Soccer Hollywood Story." His work can also be found at

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