Freeman Chasing Open Cup in Miami

Former New York Cosmos defender Hunter Freeman has his eyes set on the final four of the U.S. Open Cup with Miami FC. Image, J.C. Ruiz Photography

By JAKE NUTTING

Miami FC logoMiami FC taking the North American Soccer League’s Spring Season championship felt like a foregone conclusion for a few weeks now. Still, no one would have predicted the dominant scoreline the team would drop on the second-place San Francisco Deltas over the weekend to clinch the title and lockdown a berth in the league’s postseason tournament.

In the stadium named after its owner, Riccardo Silva, Miami poured three goals on the Deltas in the first 15 minutes and added four more after the visitors were reduced to 10 men by a red card.

“To come home is always nice and win a championship at home and celebrate in front of your fans makes everything a little sweeter,” Miami defender Hunter Freeman said. “If you told us we were going to win this as convincingly as we did and be up, 3-0, 15 minutes into the game, I think everybody would’ve said you were crazy.”

Miami (10-2-3, 33 points) has come a long way since finishing last in last year’s Spring Season. The ambitious team began to rebuild by splashing money on transfers and signings during its inaugural season and wound up pushing for a postseason spot in the final weeks. Miami only got richer in the off-season, adding the 2015 NASL Golden Boot Winner Stefano Pinho and the spark plug midfielder Dylan Mares from Indy Eleven. Freeman sees a parallel between Miami and his old team, the New York Cosmos.

“The depth makes for good competition within the team,” he said. “I think almost every position there’s two guys that could easily start. Having been on teams like that in the past, New York for example, we have the same quality, the same depth. That makes everybody work that much harder to keep their position or to fight to gain a position.”

While some NASL teams were scrambling in the turbulent off-season to ensure they had a full roster to take the field, Miami proceeded full steam ahead. The team kept its core of high-performers and added a few key pieces, allowing Coach Alessandro Nesta to remain committed to his aggressive, possession-based philosophy that had achieved mixed results in his first year.

Nesta is a fiery presence on the sideline. Watching the animated expressions of the former AC Milan star during matches can be as entertaining as Miami’s high-powered attack run roughshod over the competition.

“It wasn’t that long ago that he was still playing,” Freeman said. “He’s really passionate, so sometimes he can be a little crazy, but he always means it in a good way. He’ll oftentimes admit when he was maybe a little too crazy. He always means well and he’s also lighthearted. He jokes around with the guys, but when it’s time to concentrate and be serious he means it. If you can’t separate the two, he’ll quickly put you in your place and let you know. I think that’s what you need from a leader.”

With the Spring Season title wrapped up, Miami’s attention can be placed on achieving what no other NASL team has in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Despite the league’s teams placing a high priority on the tournament for the last six years, none has reached the semifinals. In fact, no lower division team has made it to the competition’s final four since the United Soccer League’s Richmond Kickers in 2011. That is guaranteed to change on Wednesday as Miami hosts the FC Cincinnati of the USL in the quarterfinals. Miami defeated two MLS clubs — Orlando City and Atlanta United, to advance.

Freeman is accustomed to the pressures of the Open Cup, having been a part of several impressive runs by the Cosmos in the tournament. By reaching the quarterfinals with Miami, though, Freeman has already gone farther than he did in New York.

“The expectations there for us were always high,” he said. “It was the same here in Miami. Everybody expected us to do extremely well. I don’t know if they expected us to do as well as we’ve done, but the expectations were high outside and inside camp. The Cosmos never made it this far in the Open Cup. We always had good games against MLS competition and we knocked some off, but we could never get over the last hurdle. To have a chance to make it to the semi-final is certainly special.”

On paper, Miami is the clear favorite over Cincinnati. The Cosmos, however, learned this year that there are no guarantees in the Open Cup after losing on a high school field in Reading, Pa., an amateur side.

“We’ve played some good teams and we’ve been up for it,” Freeman said. “No game in the Open Cup is ever easy and that has been very true for us this year. Cincinnati is not going to be an easy game. That’s another team that has surpassed expectations. It’ll be another interesting game for us. We have a chance to play at home and keep writing new history for Miami FC.”