In its first-ever competitive game, Northern Colorado Hailstorm pulled off a shocker by defeating in-state rival Colorado Springs Switchbacks 1-0 in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
On Wednesday, the club, which plays in USL League One, the third division of American soccer, in its fourth-ever competitive game, took it even further and stunned an MLS team, defeating Real Salt Lake 1-0 at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Hailstorm chased the ball for much of the game with just under 40% possession, but in the 70th minute on a moment of brilliance, captain Robert Cornwall hit a stunning volley to beat RSL goalkeeper David Ochoa, a former U.S. U-23 goalkeeper who filed a one-time switch to play for Mexico last year.
Northern Colorado is the third team from USL League One to advance to the fourth round of the tournament, as Union Omaha beat Chicago Fire Tuesday in penalty kicks and South Georgia Tormenta beat USL Championship side Birmingham Legion. Two other MLS teams were upset as San Antonio FC of the USL Championship beat Austin FC, and Detroit City FC, also of the USL Championship, came back to beat the Columbus Crew.
However, Wednesday night’s cup shock is up there with one of the biggest “cupsets” in tournament history. It’s hard enough for a team from one division lower to pull off a win, it’s more difficult for a team from two divisions down, especially one that has played just four games in club history.
“Phenomenal effort and fight from the lads tonight who stuck with the game plan the whole way through,” Hailstorm head coach Éamon Zayed told The Post following the match. “We had to stay disciplined and compact and we did that.”
Real Salt Lake managed to control most of the first half with eight shots and five corner kick attempts, but it never threatened and went into halftime even at 0-0.
The story would be much the same in the second half as RSL created half-chances, at best. The team finished with a dismal two shots on target, which allowed Hailstorm to not only stay in the game, but grow into it.
On the goal, Hailstorm had its first chance at sustained possession for a large portion of the second half. Cornwall came up from center back in order to help the team keep possession. After a cross was initially half-cleared, Daniel Scally headed it back to Cornwall, who hit a curling volley into the corner of the net.
“It was a proper captain’s performance,” Zayed said. “He organized the back and stepped up when he needed to. But everybody did, really.”
For Cornwall, he knows how much a cup run can mean for a team. He helped Bohemians, a Dublin-based squad, reach the League of Ireland Cup final and helped them also make a run at qualifying for the Europa Conference League, a UEFA club competition.
“There’s no history yet and we’re the first team to start it and it’s special,” Cornwall said. “People say there’s no pressure on us because we’re a lower-division side, but we put our own expectations on ourselves and it’s great to get a massive result. Everyone stepped up. … We’re a really good team, we just have to show people it now, not just in the cup, but in the league as well.”
From there, Hailstorm were able to hold on, despite nine minutes of additional time, as RSL had three excellent chances to level the game, including two shots that narrowly fizzed over the crossbar. At the full-time whistle, Rio Tinto fell silent, fans hardly believing what they had just witnessed.
For Zayed though, even though he is thrilled with the win, it was anything but a surprise knowing the caliber of team he brought in for the inaugural season.
“I genuinely didn’t think they were good enough to break us down, but more importantly, we showed so much fight tonight,” Zayed said. “Everybody worked their socks off. We have a group of guys who have been in big games before, nobody was nervous and they didn’t shy away from the occasion, playing in front of an MLS crowd or at this stadium.”
Northern Colorado will find out its fourth-round opponent at 10 a.m. Thursday, which has the possibility of being the Colorado Rapids since the Open Cup is drawn by region.
The Hailstorm will have 10 days before its next League One game, an April 30 clash away to North Carolina FC.
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