The ring glints with the same gold as the uniform. Greenville Swamp Rabbits president and CEO Steve Donner keeps a Rochester Raging Rhinos uniform, signed by every member of the club, treasured. He emptied a bag of championship rings, one of them emblazoned with a diamond-crusted soccer ball, and engraved with “U.S. Open Cup Champions” right up front.
It’s not the outrageously gaudy championship rings, studded with diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and all sorts of other precious jewels that we see in the sports world these days, but it gets the point across.
“We helped design the ring and we wanted to make sure the ring had a classic, national championship look. We were focused on how we put that ring together, and the fact that it was our first national championship ring, we wanted to bring in the elements of U.S. Soccer,” Donner said. “It’s a ring I’m really proud of for a lot of reasons because it was an unbelievable achievement, and we were relatively new to the soccer business. We wanted it to reflect our great achievement.”
The U.S. Open Cup presents opportunity to soccer teams all throughout the United States. It’s a true litmus test, and a showcase of parity in the game. Fledgling teams have the opportunity to take on Major League Soccer clubs. This week, the Greenville Triumph will embark that same journey, attempting to bring the U.S. Open Cup back to the Upstate. Not only that, but a championship win adds $300,000 in prize money, and a berth in the 2020 Concacaf Champions League.
That journey begins tonight in Greenville against their League One rivals, Tormenta FC.
Back in June of 1999, Donner, then the CEO of the Rochester Raging Rhinos of the USL’s First Division, saw his club go through some of the most nail-biting soccer en route to winning it all. It took four one-goal games to get to the championship, where a clean sheet from goalkeeper Pat Onstad in front of over 4,500 fans at Columbus Crew Stadium on September 13, 1999 paved the way for the Rhinos to hoist the cup.
“Being from hockey, trying to equate it is impossible. There’s no way an amateur team can beat a pro team consistently,” Donner said. “To have a David and Goliath opportunity to compete every week in a sudden death situation, and to think “could we ever get to the top?” Could we defeat one, let alone four?”
“Being in a tournament where we could be an underdog and go the distance and win it was a unique and really cool experience.”
Perhaps it’s not that Kodak moment Donner remembers the most. It was the semifinal on September 1 in Virginia Beach, an unlikely 3-2 win over Columbus, that might have been the most memorable moment.
September is usually the beginning of peak hurricane season, but only the fourth named storm of 1999 was about to make a September 1 game memorable. Hurricane Dennis brought tropical storm-force winds and a soaking rain to the semifinal round against the Crew at the Virginia Beach Sportsplex.
Whoever won the toss for possession was going to have a massive advantage.
“We lost the toss,” Donner laughed.
It didn’t matter. Two goals in the final four minutes of action spurred the Rhinos to victory. They were a team of destiny, so Donner recalls. And so they were. They barely got to the second round because they went to penalty kicks against an amateur club in the first round. That didn’t stop them. They just kept winning.
“Winning put Rochester on the national soccer map. If the Triumph win, it would put the focus of the soccer world on Greenville and the Upstate. It would unlock the passion and the uniqueness of professional soccer,” Donner concluded. “I would love for that to happen for the Triumph.”
The U.S. Open Cup is legitimately anyone’s game. It could very well be the Greenville Triumph who bring it home. Who’s to say otherwise?