Kwadwo Poku’s reputation was forged in the fires of the U.S. Open Cup.
“Opportunities come in this competition that you have to be ready to take,” Miami FC’s dynamic midfielder, among the best in the NASL, told ussoccer.com ahead of next week’s do-or-die meeting with MLS’ Orlando City. “It’s a chance to move up, to show what you’re made of. To prove yourself.”
That’s precisely what the Kumasi-born Ghanaian did three years ago when playing for second-tier Atlanta Silverbacks under Eric Wynalda, an avowed and unabashed advocate of the 104-year-old Open Cup and the magic it produces for clubs and players. “Eric saw that I had potential,” said Poku, who came to the States to chase a collegiate career before opting for the pro game. “He told me I could play at the highest level and he always stressed the Open Cup and how it was a place where I could prove who I was.”
The Silverbacks, then of the North American Soccer League, roared to the quarter-finals in 2014, beating big boys Real Salt Lake and Colorado Rapids along the way. Poku scored a last-second winner in the Fourth Round against RSL that had MLS scouts and coaches drooling. Both physically imposing and nimble, he could grab a game by the scruff of the neck and shake it hard. “The career he has now was born in the Open Cup,” said Wynalda, the former U.S. National Team ace, now a well-known TV analyst and head coach of talented amateurs L.A. Wolves.
Poku spent a season and a half at New York City FC, becoming a fan favorite in the club’s inaugural Major League Soccer campaign. But he returned to the NASL last summer, unable to refuse a huge salary – among the highest in the second division, it dwarfed what he was making in the first. It was also the chance to play for a club part-owned by Italian legend Paolo Maldini and coached by Alessandro Nesta. “Poku has a different speed, a different gear,” said Nesta, whose achievements at the top levels of the game include a World Cup crown and Champions League medals. It’s safe to say the Italian, an artful and artistic defender in his day, knows talent when he sees it.An Extra Gear
“When he starts to run and change the pace, you’re in trouble,” added Nesta in a serviceable English still tinted with the syntax of his native Italian. “There’s no one who can run with him in our league. Maybe not in any league.” It’s high praise from one of the best players of his generation and proof of the kind of skill-set that led Wynalda to claim: “Poku’s the best player in the NASL and maybe too good for MLS.” Still just 25, Poku’s earned a cap for Ghana and sparked the interest of former USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann who encouraged him to seek American citizenship.
No longer an anonymous midfielder hungry for opportunities and hunting chances, Poku is back in the Open Cup again and he’s eager to make a run deep. The Cup still holds the magic of possibility for Poku and he was hands-down the best player on the field in the Third Round game when Miami FC – comfortably on top of the NASL standings after a wobbly first season – dominated USL neighbors Tampa Bay Rowdies. He linked up again and again with Jamie Chavez, teammate and friend from the 2014 Silverbacks’ Semifinal dream-team and another player whose career was forged in the free-form cauldron of the Open Cup. The Rowdies’ former England international and captain Joe Cole had no answers for Poku’s menace and constant motion. No one did.
“The biggest thing about the Open Cup is that the whole team, every player, has to be willing to prove a point. They have to want to do that,” said Poku, his West African accent thinning with every day he spends in the States. “We want to show what we have. We have the players, the coaches and the ambition to go a long way.”
Miami FC find themselves in the curious position of being underdogs and favorites at the same time. With their huge budget and obvious ambition, they’re the first non-MLS team you’d pick to make a Cup run. “People say if an NASL team is going to go far in the competition, it’s obviously going to be Miami FC,” said Poku. “But it’s not that easy. No matter how good you are in the second division, or how much money or quality you have, you’re still the underdog when you play a top-flight team. We have great players in Miami, but you can’t compare it to what Orlando has.”
Orlando City will host the Fourth Round all-Florida affair at their brand-new soccer-specific stadium. “The excitement is already building with our fans,” said Poku. “They’re getting ready to pack into their cars and go fly the flag for us. It’s a game for bragging rights and for us to represent not just our own team and city, but to show what we’re doing in the NASL and the state of Florida. There’s a lot on the line.”
There’s also a personal component for Poku. He’ll be going up against Jason Kreis, his old coach at New York City FC, where he showed moments of brilliance in what was ultimately a disappointing first season for the young club. “Let’s just say it will be a lot of fun,” Poku added, a smile registering around the edges of his voice. “A good game.”
Poku’s former coach will have a conundrum on his hands. Kreis, who won the Open Cup as a player with the Dallas Burn (now FC Dallas), might be tempted to rest a few stars like Brazilian maestro Kaka, MLS All-Star Cyle Larin and Italian midfielder Antonio Nocerino. But that could spell disaster against a Miami FC side who test the boundaries of the term lower-league club. “We have nothing to lose,” added Nesta, playing up the underdog angle. “If you win it’s a miracle; if you die, you die.”
“It’s 90 minutes, or 120 minutes, of knockout soccer,” said Poku, a man who knows better than anyone the stresses and strains of the Open Cup, but also its glories. “If we win this game, we end up in the pot in the Quarterfinals and from there it’s not far to the Final. We want to win. We want to show our pride and our identity; what makes us special. In this stage, people are paying attention.”
Poku is at a crossroads. He’s a favorite and an underdog. He’s raking in the big bucks, but in the second division. Expectation is high and the chance to make another deep Open Cup run is there for the taking, but most betting folks won’t pick Miami over Orlando. “No one expects us to win,” he said, his voice a little quiet. But knowing the magic of the Cup, being born in its flames, you get the sense that he does.