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It's the anniversary of Harrisburg's biggest ever Open Cup comeback

On May 29th, 2012, the Harrisburg City Islanders erased a three goal deficit in extra time to cupset the New England Revolution on penalties

Skyline Sports Complex in 2019
Chris Bratton

The City Islander fans were dejected as they walked back across the Walnut Street bridge into downtown Harrisburg. They had just sat in the rain for hours watching Harrisburg hold their own against an MLS team only to see them give up three goals in the first period of extra-time. Rather than spend another 15 minutes in the rain, most of the fans who remained headed for the exits.

As they reached the other side of the bridge, a strange sound came from City Island. A sound that was unmistakable, even over the roar of a rain-swollen Susquehanna River.

The small crowd of fans who had remained on the island just started cheering.

Background

During the lead up to their first U.S. Open Cup match of 2012, the New England Revolution gave every indication that they weren't going to underestimate Harrisburg. They said all the right things during the pregame hype about not letting their guard down against a lower division opponent.

New England planned to rotate in a few younger players for the match, but they also included some of their most talented starters in their game plan. Players like Kelyn Rowe, Lee Nguyen and Benny Feilhaber were all available to play and only a handful of starters such as Matt Reis and Saer Sene had returned to Foxborough instead of playing in Harrisburg.

One unusual change was that assistant coach David Vaudreuil would be filling in for the match as first-year head coach Jay Heaps had a family issue to attend to. But the fill-in coach still put in plenty of prep time for his lower division opponent. As he said before the match, “every scouting report we’ve gotten has said that these guys have not gone away, no matter what happens in the first half, in the first 10 minutes. If they give up a goal, they immediately respond and they’re gonna fight and they’re gonna play and they’re gonna get their opportunities.”

As luck would have it, Vaudreuil had crossed paths with his opposing head coach before. He had actually spent a season playing with Bill Becher on the Harrisburg Heat in 1991-1992. Bill was now in his ninth year as head coach of the City Islanders and his team had already established themselves as bonafide Open Cup giant killers.

The Harrisburg City Islanders were entering only their sixth U.S. Open Cup, but they already had three previous victories over MLS opponents. They topped D.C. United in 2007, New York Red Bulls in 2010 and they even beat New England back in 2009. Despite being a lower-division side, Harrisburg had reached the quarter-finals in three out of their first five Open Cups.

Neither side would be completely fresh heading into the Tuesday night match up. New England had just suffered a tough loss against D.C. United the previous Saturday and they were due back in Massachusetts to face Chicago Fire a week later. Harrisburg was riding high after an upset victory over the undefeated Rochester Rhinos the previous Friday, but they had a big match against rival Richmond Kickers to worry about the upcoming Friday.

Looking back now, it seemed impossible that New England would have any trouble dealing with Harrisburg. Five of the men who suited up for the Revs that night are still playing MLS soccer seven years later. Only a handful of players from the 2012 City Islanders roster are even still playing professional soccer. And none of those players were suited up for the match against the Revolution.

Matchday

Tuesday, May 29 was going to be hot and humid throughout the day. The temperature was expected to drop closer to game time, but with that drop came a significant chance of rain by the scheduled 7 p.m. start time.

The rain ended up coming early and often. The field was soggy before the match even kicked off and intermittent showers opened up on the island throughout the rest of the night.

Taken during the national anthem just before kickoff
Jaime Garman

New England hoped to jump ahead early, and they nearly did when a Kelyn Rowe shot hit the crossbar in the second minute. But that initial burst of offensive energy didn’t last for long.

Under the wet, humid conditions, both teams slowed down and struggled to get into a rhythm. Harrisburg wasn't getting many chances early on, and it seemed like New England was still favored to get the opening goal.

Everyone's plans got flipped on their head when New England's Diego Fagundez made a reckless challenge on Harrisburg defender Tom Brandt over a loose ball in the 36th minute. His tackle earned him a straight red card, removing New England’s attacking midfielder and leaving them with 10 men for the rest of the night.

Harrisburg was unable to capitalize on their advantage in the first half, but they got the majority of chances in the second. Players like Brian Ombiji and Sainey Touray had a few chances to open the scoring, but their efforts went wide or were saved by Revs goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth. He would end the night with six saves while Harrisburg managed seventeen total shots.

The Revs brought on some offensive firepower in the form of Nguyen, Feilhaber, and Blake Brettschneider, but New England spent much of their time bunkered down to try to take away Harrisburg's man advantage. After almost 90 wet, humid minutes, both sides seemed resigned to taking a break and trying their luck in extra-time.

Extra-time

Wanting to avoid leaving their fate up to penalties, New England went on the offensive during the first period of extra-time. They were finally able to break down the tired Harrisburg defense as Nguyen provided an assist to Rowe who broke through and scored the match’s opening goal in the 95th minute.

It was all New England for the rest of the period. Benny Feilhaber was fouled in the box minutes later and Nguyen buried the resulting penalty to add an insurance goal for the Revs. Feilhaber added another just a few minutes later to presumably put the final nail in the coffin for the City Islanders.

After going down three goals halfway through extra time, most of the fans who had held out this long decided they’d seen enough. Jamie Garman, one of the 441 who were officially recorded to have attended that evening, estimated that only a quarter to a third of the initial fans stayed until the end.

Everything was stacked against the City Islanders when they came out for the final 15 minutes of extra-time. The only advantage they had was that now they had absolutely nothing to lose.

After six minutes of relentless attacking, Harrisburg was able to pull a goal back when Brian Ombiji finished a cross from Tom Mellor. Still up by two, the Revs were not yet too concerned about the outcome. It was only after Sainey Touray’s goal six minutes later that panic mode set in for New England.

Harrisburg went into an all-out attack for the final few minutes. On what amounted to almost the final kick of the game, Harrisburg’s own J.T. Noone took an improbable shot from outside the box that snuck inside the left post to level the match at three. The remaining fans went wild.

Penalties

Harrisburg went first in the shootout and Noone was was selected for the first kick. But the hero left the home team in a hole when his shot was saved by Shuttleworth. Fortunately for him, both sides would be even again after the Rev’s second taker, Kelyn Rowe, put his penalty shot off of the crossbar.

Three more successful Harrisburg penalties put all the pressure on Feilhaber to keep New England’s hopes alive. After a short run up, he tried to put his shot in the bottom right corner but Harrisburg’s Nick Noble guessed correctly to save the penalty and complete Harrisburg's unlikely comeback.

The waterlogged fans at the Skyline Sports Complex lost their freaking minds.

The scene of the comeback, seven years later
Chris Bratton

The Aftermath

The match had not been televised and a total of seven different MLS sides were defeated by lower division opponents during the third round of the 2012 U.S. Open Cup. So Harrisburg’s big comeback has mostly faded from memory. A few videos are floating around on YouTube, but it’s nothing compared to the professional coverage that the Open Cup matches are receiving in 2019.

Harrisburg continued their run of Open Cup success in 2012 when they welcomed the New York Red Bulls to town one week later. This time they took care of business without penalties as they defeated the Red Bulls 3-1 after extra time. That victory got them back in the quarterfinals for the fourth time were they would face the Philadelphia Union in the Open Cup for the very first time.

Philly would not fall victim to the City Islanders’ charms and they put them away by a comfortable 5-2 score line.

New England didn't accomplish much during the 2012 MLS season. They finished near the bottom of the table as Jay Heaps began the slow process of rebuilding the franchise. They made slow and steady progress that ultimately lead to their return to the MLS Cup in 2014.

But they have not played Harrisburg in the Open Cup since.