MLS Put to the Test: #USOC2023 Third Round Preview

The first tranche of Major League Soccer (MLS) sides enter the 2023 U.S. Open Cup in the Third Round – which will see 48 teams in action through 24 games over two days (April 25 and 26).
By: Jonah Fontela

Smell that?

There’s danger in the air for the first batch of 18 MLS teams to enter the 2023 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. At this same stage last year we witnessed five Cupsets and three of those saw Major League Soccer’s elite sides drop out against lower-league opposition.

We’ll have a little bit of everything during our 2023 Third Round – which will be played on April 25 (8 games) and 26 (16 games) and will see the potential for 22 Cupsets as contests between the divisions dominate the schedule.

Ultimate Davids on a Goliath Hunt

Tulsa Athletic and Chicago House AC are the two biggest underdogs still kicking in the tournament. And they’ll both have the chance to take on an MLS team in this Third Round.

Tulsa Athletic
(NPSL) pulled off a huge Cupset against crosstown USL Championship pros FC Tulsa in the Second Round at their humble home of Hicks Park. It earned them the right to take on four-time Open Cup champions (and one-time MLS topper) Sporting Kansas City at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas – the stadium that hosted the Final last time SKC lifted our trophy in 2017.
Tulsa Athletic are one of the amateur darlings of the 2023 Open Cup

“Everyone loves a good underdog story,” said fourth-year Athletic forward and Tulsa native Aaron Ugbah. “We’ve always dreamed about how cool it would be to play an MLS team.” His mate Titus Grant agreed: “We don’t like to back down to anyone and so we’ll go there to show them who we are.”

It’s something Chicago House would like to do too. They’ve drawn their own hometown's top team in the form of the Chicago Fire. That just so happens to be House founder and president Peter Wilt’s old club (where the fabled fan-friendly executive won an MLS crown and four Open Cups).

“We’ve got to love it and to embrace it,” said House’s 28-year-old captain and South Side native AR Smith, who scored twice in a huge come-from-behind win (2-3) over USL League One pros Forward Madison in the Second Round. “There’s no quit in our team [House] and we’ve got nothing to lose.”

All the Possibilities

While none of the other 22 games span the entirety of the American soccer pyramid, there are plenty of opportunities for Cupsets. There’s 20 of them in fact. 

All eight of the games on Tuesday April 25 have Cupset potential, starting with the aforementioned Tulsa Athletic’s trip to SKC – who, it should be mentioned, have made a miserable start to the current MLS campaign and sit bottom of the Eastern Standings with no wins from eight games.

Detroit City FC (USL Championship) play host to an MLS side at their Keyworth Stadium for the Second Year running when 2019 runners-up Minnesota United travel to Hamtramck. DCFC’s star man Maxi Rodriguez will be keen to pull off a similar performance to last year’s when he and his second-tier pros knocked off the Columbus Crew.

Monterey Bay F.C.
– also of the second-tier USL Championship – open their doors to the San Jose Earthquakes. They’re one of MLS’ founding fathers, but they went out last year to underdogs and eventual Finalists Sacramento Republic.
Chattanooga FC are one of three NISA teams who survived to the Third Round

St Louis City SC make their Open Cup debut as an MLS team against Union Omaha – who just so happen to be the third-tier darlings who made a run to last year’s Quarterfinals with wins over two MLS sides (Chicago Fire and Minnesota United). So if the new Major League Soccer high-flyers (who sit first in the Western Conference) are keen to bring a 13th Open Cup home to the city, they better get it right in this first test.

Four of Tuesday’s games see Major League Soccer sides hosting lower-league opponents. Among them, The New England Revolution, who won the Open Cup back in 2007, welcome Hartford Athletic of the USL Championship. Charlotte FC – playing in their second tournament – take on USL League one side South Georgia Tormenta, who went on an impressive run early in last year’s tournament.

Tuesday also sees 2008 runners-up Charleston Battery (USL Championship) at their historic Patriots Point Stadium. They’re up against third-tier side Charlotte Independence, who are trying to get on a rare run in the Cup and currently flying high near the top of USL’s League One.
Charlotte Independence of USL League are looking for a rare run

In a Division Two v Division Three match-up, The Pittsburgh Riverhounds enter the tournament after a bye through the Second Round thanks to Rochester NY FC ceasing operations. The USL Championship side will host third-tier NISA club Maryland Bobcats at their Highmark Stadium in Pennsylvania.

Marathon Wednesday Awaits

There will be a voluminous amount of soccer on Wednesday April 26 – 16 games in all and some humdingers among them. The Chicago Derby (between amateurs House and the top-tier Fire) is surely one to watch, but there are many more to savor.

Three MLS sides go on the road looking to scratch out points in hostile environs.

Inter Miami CF
has the least amount of travel to do among that trio as they face a SoFla Derby. “It’s just down the road,” as their veteran USMNT right-back DeAndre Yedlin said. Inter take on USL Championship side Miami FC, who reached the 2017 Open Cup Quarterfinals when they were still a part of the now-defunct NASL.
Chicago House have played five 2023 Open Cup games so far (including amateur Qualifying)

The 2018 Open Cup-champion Houston Dynamo – led by Ben Olsen, who famously won an Open Cup with an otherwise struggling D.C. United team in 2013 – will be eager to avoid a Cupset on the road at Tampa Bay Rowdies’ (USL Championship) Al Lang Stadium. The same can be said for Real Salt Lake as they try to keep from being Third-Round Cupset for the second straight year when they travel to Cashman Field to play the Lights of Las Vegas (USL Championship).

The shoe’s on the other foot in nine games as MLS clubs host teams from the lower leagues.

The Portland Timbers (MLS) welcome USL Championship side Orange County SC to the main Providence Park while their Pacific Northwest rivals Seattle Sounders head to Tukwila (the club’s traditional early-round home at Starfire) to host Landon Donovan’s San Diego Loyal (USL Championship).

The Colorado Rapids
are home again at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park when the Northern Colorado Hailstorm (USL League One) of Fort Collins come to town with a reputation as giant-killers earned in last year’s road win over Real Salt Lake. Nashville SC (MLS) will be favorites against San Antonio FC, reigning kings of the USL Championship, but that one’s got the looks of an honest-to-goodness cracker.
Flower City Union of Rochester have High Hopes

Columbus Crew will want to move past the Third Round for the first time since 2019 when they open Field to USL Championship outfit Indy Eleven, who’ve never managed to put together a deep Cup run since their founding back in 2013. DC United are three-time Open Cup winners and four-time MLS champs, but they haven’t won a trophy of any kind in a decade. They’ll go up against 1995 champions the Richmond Kickers of third-tier USL League One hoping to avoid a flop.

Atlanta United
were crowned champions in 2019. And if they want a chance to do it again they’ll need to get past USL Championship side Memphis 901. Former USMNT man Bill Hamid keeps goal for the second-tier pro side part-owned by another famous USA goalkeeper: Tim Howard. 

MLS’ FC Cincinnati – who reached the 2017 Open Cup Semifinal in their USL Championship days – welcome their former lower-league rivals and serial USL powers Louisville City in one of the round’s most interesting matchups.

Birmingham Legion will use Alabama Soccer Stadium on the campus of the University of Alabama to welcome NISA’s Chattanooga FC, who were hot in the last round with a lopsided road win over the Des Moines Menace. And last but not least among these inter-division matchups, USL Championship side Loudoun United – out of Leesburg, Virginia – host a Third Rounder in their debut tournament against third-tier NISA side Flower City Union of Rochester.

There are two all-USL Championship games on the Wednesday docket.

Old rivals New Mexico United and Phoenix Rising square off in Albuquerque while last year’s Cinderella Finalists Sacramento Republic take on Oakland Roots, who earned their first Open Cup victory in the previous round.

The 24 Third Round winners will move through to the Round of 32 (May 9 and 10), where the remaining eight Major League Soccer sides will enter the fray and have their say. The Draw to decide the Round of 32 matchups will be held on Thursday April 27 (broadcast and time details to follow). 

Fontela is editor-in-chief of Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.