When Josh Hakala arrived in Philadelphia in 2003 to study at Temple University, he brought with him a passion for the beautiful game and the sport’s oldest competition in the U.S. he had recently helped launch a website covering.
Now known as the TheCup.us, the independent website dedicated the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup grew out of an American soccer radio show the native Michigander was hosting at the community college he attended in Lansing.
“This was before podcasts were a thing,” Hakala said. “We covered every level of American soccer and part of that was giving in-depth coverage to the US Open Cup. Since we were the only one covering the tournament, Demosphere, a website company, reached out and offered to build me a website and the rest is history. That was 15 years ago.”
Not long after taking on this massive project that would go on to require an untold number of hours over the better part of his adult life, Hakala enrolled as a broadcast journalism student in North Philly.
“Well, I started the site in Lansing and it was actually my move to Philadelphia in 2003 that brought an end to the radio show, but I kept the website going,” Hakala said. “So, really, most of the first year of the website was constructed in Philly while I was attending Temple. Believe me, going to school full time and working full time also made it really hard to keep the site going, but again, we were the only ones doing it so I felt like I had a responsibility to keep doing it.”
Hakala ended up staying in Philadelphia beyond his graduation from Temple in 2005, but he and his family returned to Michigan in 2008.
“It was an unfortunate final day in Philadelphia because after working so hard to establish myself in broadcasting and journalism in hopes of landing a job with a professional soccer team, we were packing the moving truck on the day that they held the press conference to announce that Philly was being awarded a MLS franchise,” he said.
While he left the area before the Philadelphia Union played their first U.S. Open Cup match, Hakala attended and called many games in Ocean City for the team now known as the Ocean City Nor’easters.
“I don’t exactly recall how I got in touch with the Ocean City Nor’easters (then known as the Ocean City Barons), but I was asking around looking for some freelance play-by-play work and I made the trip — without a car — down to the Jersey Shore where I did play-by-play for the team during the 2005 season,” he said. “One of those games included Ocean City’s third round game where they lost 8-4 to the Richmond Kickers in the highest-scoring game of the modern era.”
Hakala continues to do freelance work for the Nor’easters, who he had the chance to see play in person again when they visited AFC Ann Arbor in the first round match of this year’s competition.
Going to Open Cup matches isn’t a regular occurrence when you have a site to run and dozens of volunteers scattered around the country to coordinate (I am proudly one of those volunteers). But one of Hakala’s fondest memories of an Open Cup match he attended in person also happens to be one of the greatest moments in the competition’s history: the 1999 final, which is still the last time a non-MLS team won it all.
“Columbus is a little less than a four-hour drive from Lansing, so my best friend and I bought tickets and drove down in the middle of the week to witness the game,” Hakala said. “It was a pretty empty stadium since the home team wasn’t involved. While not a Rhinos fan, we did sit in the Rhinos section hoping to see an underdog actually win the tournament.”
The Rhinos beat the Colorado Rapids to hoist the trophy and accomplish a feat that hasn’t been matched in the almost two decades that have passed since. Hakala’s first Open Cup match was earlier in the same year in Michigan.
“I discovered the US Open Cup in 1999 when the Michigan Bucks hosted the Tampa Bay Mutiny of Major League Soccer at a middle school field in Saginaw, Michigan,” he said. “It was amazing to me — and still is amazing to me — that this tournament existed where an amateur team could take on a team from the top professional league in a March Madness-style tournament.”
That love for the sport and a competition that has survived — through decades of upheaval, leagues starting and forming, national teams failing to qualify for World Cups, etc. — has sustained Hakala for 15 years even with the enormous time commitment required of maintaining the coverage at the level TheCup.us regularly delivers.
“I often wonder if I was to just stop doing it, and believe me, I’ve had some personal challenges that almost brought it to an end but I think the reason it keeps going is a combination of ‘if I don’t do it, who will’ and ‘I’ve put this much time into this, how could I walk away?’”
TheCup.us will be covering the Philadelphia Union’s fourth round game against the Richmond Kickers tonight, along with the other 14 teams playing in the round this week. The site also selects a player to honor from each round based on the voting of volunteers and representatives from the North American Soccer Reporters and provides coverage for local amateur qualifying while also profiling lesser known teams and tackling rule changes and issues as they arise.
“Without the numerous volunteers over the years, I’m not sure how I could have kept it going,” Hakala said.
One of those volunteers, Phil Naegely, first interacted with Josh and TheCup.us as an intern for Reading United, a frequent participant in the Open Cup that holds the modern era record for most consecutive appearances in the competition for an amateur team (10).
“I think it’s great what Josh does,” said Naegely, who has helped out in some capacity over the past five years. “It forced US Soccer to show they care about the game from a promotion and coverage perspective.”
Since TheCup.us was launched in 2003, the tournament it exhaustively covers has expanded in terms of participation, particularly at the amateur level, and now gets prominent coverage on the USSoccer.com website, which streams all of the games, but Hakala still sees a lot of room for growth.
“There’s still a long way to go to give this tournament the exposure that it needs, but it has come a long way from when I started the site in 2003 where we had to gather results and match details from message boards and cold calling teams and coaches,” Hakala said. “There’s a story I like to tell about how far we’ve come from the first year of the site. There was a game, and I wish I could remember which one, where it took two days for us to find out who won the game. We only had a contact number for one team and that team lost and the coach — the contact — was so angry that he didn’t return any phone calls.”