With the 2023 U.S. Open Cup round of 16 ready to kick off next week, here’s what we have our eyes on.
The best tournament in American sports has reached the round of 16. Since 1916, the U.S. Open Cup has given every club an opportunity to prove themselves against top level competition. It’s the only way in which communities like Omaha, Monterey Bay, and Birmingham can compete and win against first division clubs.
The USOC shows every aspect of American soccer, and works as a great historical appraisal of the game in this country. From steel towns like Bethehem dominating the early tournaments, to community-led teams like Maccabee Los Angeles reaching the final seven times from 1971 to 1982, you can trace soccer’s presence in America through this tournament. Recent history has been dominated by MLS clubs like the Chicago Fire, Sporting Kansas City, and Seattle Sounders, however the bracket is broken often by USL sides tripping up teams atop the closed American pyramid.
The storylines and matchups in this edition’s round of 16 provide one of the most exciting final stretches in recent years. Two USL clubs are hosting MLS competition in what should be some cagey battles, and two MLS derbies are going to be played over a knockout tie. it’s gonna be fun.
The Spiciest Matchups
May 23: FC Cincinnati @ New York Red Bulls
New York Red Bulls surprisingly dispatched DC United 1-0 in the round of 32 on short rest, with a heavily rotated squad and a brand new manager. Their basement-dwelling position in MLS has become a cause to push for the USOC, bringing some hope to an otherwise dull year. If the trajectory of their league campaign is anything to go by, I would say this is their biggest match of the season.
FC Cincinnati is a club literally built from USOC success. The reason why they are in MLS in the first place is due to their fans’ belief in the competition. In the previous round, Cincy narrowly beat their opposition NYCFC 1-0, spoiling a Hudson River Derby cup tie. City and Cincy’s squads both posted a good amount of starters, and were only separated by a corner kick header from Brandon Vazquez.
They are a squad which I’ve got my money on for beating NYRB. However I’m looking for the Red Bulls to bring a good bit of disruption to Cincy’s game. A sotra cautious boxing match type of contest.
May 23: LA Galaxy @ LAFC
Probably the biggest ticket in the round of 16, El Trafico brings another edition of their young rivalry into the USOC. To call Galaxy’s season tumultuous would not bring justice to the word. Front office and supporter struggles paired with uninspired play on the field has been the story of the season so far. Most people were expecting them to flop against the Sounders in the previous round, however, a 13th-placed Galaxy raked first place Seattle at home 3-1. If they were to beat LAFC at BMO Field, the USOC glory would be one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dim and depressing season, and it could be the spark the team needs to turn things around.
LAFC squeaked by a potential cupset against Monterey Bay, who just the week prior beat fellow MLS side San Jose. Starting six players from the second team, and not traveling their main starters, it’s no surprise that it wasn’t a comfortable game for LAFC. But a 2-2 draw with a narrow PK win was probably not a part of their plan. Monterey Bay really made it a fun game, matching the regular time score in the 90th minute, and gaining the lead in extra time. However it just wasn’t their day in the end.
With the CONCACAF Champions League final around the corner, it wouldn’t be surprising if LAFC once again rested a handful of their main XI come next Tuesday, which could provide an opening for Galaxy to emerge victorious. These two teams tend to rise to the occasion when squaring off, and both the fans and players share a sense of venomous hate towards their opposition. Expect a great atmosphere.
May 24: Columbus Crew @ Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC
This is the match I’m most looking forward to in the round of 16. Columbus have often looked fragile against USL opponents, losing against a then-USL FC Cincinnati in 2017, Detroit City last year, and almost having a scare against Detroit again in this year’s third round. They absolutely destroyed Loudoun United 5-1 in the round of 32, but that doesn’t convince me that they aren’t still capable of falling to a USL foe. This match against Pittsburgh ought to be the final test against their recent past cup results.
Pittsburgh is coming into the round of 16 with nothing to lose, coming off of a 1-0 victory over the high flying New England Revolution in Foxborough. Possession was mostly in favor of New England in that match, however, that hides the fact that other than for a few chances and close calls, the Riverhounds victory was relatively comfortable. They always matched up to any New England advances, and played a solid defensive game.
MLS teams playing away at USL stadiums is one of my favorite scenes in the sport. And with the skyline playing a backdrop to what should be the biggest match in Riverhound history, I’m itching to see a cupset here. Especially with the proximity between the two cities. This matchup has rad written all over it.
May 24: Charlotte FC @ Birmingham Legion FC
The second match of MLS clubs visiting USL sides this round sees the Queen City in the Magic City. Charlotte defeated reigning cup champs Orlando City in a tame 1-0 win at home in the round of 32, holding Orlando’s attack to a woeful halt, practically walking into the round of 16.
Birmingham swept aside fellow USL club Memphis 901 3-0 at home in a convincing win. Having never played an MLS club in a competitive fixture, there’s really nothing historically to say how they may compete. However they are currently third in the USL Championship, and have found themselves in the conference quarterfinals each of their first four years. They even made the conference semifinals in 2021. If there’s any club in the second division which may make something of a run, it might as well be the Legion.
Orlando will find themselves on the road at Birmingham, in what is the young club’s largest match to date. It’s unknown what the attendance will be, but no matter what support is shown off the pitch, the players on it will definitely take this opportunity to surprise Charlotte. However I don’t see them knocking the MLS opponent off due to the talent gap, and Birmingham’s lack of first tier game experience. But the USOC is all about surprises, so safe to say I will assume nothing in relation to a final score.
Best Stadiums of the Tournament
Here’s a little detour, and a road trip via .PNGs. The USOC is a showcase of what makes American soccer so interesting at every level, with its stadiums proving that point. These are some personal favorites.
Highmark Stadium (Pittsburgh)
Notable Features: River view, skyline view, shitty bleachers, passing trains behind fence.
Keyworth Stadium (Detroit)
Notable Features: In the middle of a mid-century neighborhood, opened by FDR in 1936, good supporter scene, shipping container suites, also has freight trains that pass nearby. Somehow more soccer hipster vibes than Portland Timbers.
Cardinale Stadium (Monterey Bay)
Notable Features: Sea breeze, sunsets, beautiful trees, Steinbeck’s ghost probably haunts the stands.
MSU Soccer Park (NYRB)
Notable Features: You can watch the game from the parking garage, cool buildings and trees surrounding the field, scenic and small, yet kind of sad that NYRB use it instead of their own stadium.
Kits of the Tournament
Lastly, it wouldn’t be an Urban Pitch U.S. Open Cup story if we didn’t look at some of the best kits we’ve seen in the competition this year.
Tampa Bay Rowdies