While the top-tier teams of Major League Soccer (MLS) dominate the bracket, there’s still a pair of second-division USL Championship sides alive and kicking in the eight games that make up the Round of 16 of the 2023 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
There are 14 MLS teams in action on May 23 and 24 including major rivalries between Real Salt Lake and Colorado Rapids (the Rocky Mountain Derby) and a crosstown affair in the City of Angels where defending MLS champions LAFC host two-time Open Cup winners LA Galaxy (El Trafico).
But all eyes will be on Pittsburgh and Birmingham, where respective home teams the Riverhounds and the Legion both host big boys from MLS with hopes of booking passage to the Quarterfinals.
The Birmingham Legion (a second-division USL Championship club founded in 2017) have loads of Open Cup experience in the locker room and front office to lean on. It can only help in the run-up to their contest with MLS’ Charlotte FC, who edged defending champions Orlando City (1-0) in the last round.
Legion club president Jay Heaps lifted the trophy in 2007 with the New England Revolution before hiring Tom Soehn – a five-time Open Cup winner – as his head coach in Birmingham.
- READ: Birmingham Boss Soehn - “First Time as the Underdog”
- READ: Legion’s Agudelo ‘at Home’ after Meteoric Rise & Stall
“I have a lot of experience with the Open Cup,” said Soehn, a former defender with the Dallas Burn (now FC Dallas) and the Chicago Fire. “But this is my first chance at being the underdog.”
Out on the field, Soehn and Heaps will rely on the hold-up play of Juan Agudelo. Now 30, the former USMNT striker made his pro debut as a teen in the Open Cup with the New York Red Bulls and scored a pair of goals in a losing effort with the New England Revolution in the 2016 Open Cup Final.
In Enzo Martinez, the 32-year-old 2022 club MVP, Soehn has a born leader and a player in hot form (he joined Agudelo on the scoresheet in the 3-0 win over USL rivals Memphis 901). And while he’s never put an Open Cup medal around his neck, he still has Landon Donovan’s jersey from when, as a youngster a decade ago, he helped pull off a shock Cupset over the LA Galaxy with the Carolina RailHawks.
Pittsburgh’s Riverhounds return to Open Cup play against MLS’ Columbus Crew after a stunning upset in the last round on the road against the MLS-leading New England Revolution.
“It’s going to be a sellout [crowd] and the players are buzzing,” said Lilley ahead of the contest at the picturesque Highmark Stadium on the banks of the Monongahela River. “It’s a chance to showcase what we’re about in front of our fans and be competitive again against an MLS team.”
Danny Griffin, scorer of the Riverhounds’ lone goal in the win over the Revolution, has his head in the game. “We’re happy to have this game here at home,” said the 24-year-old, who was drafted (and quickly released) by the Crew after his college career. “We’ll do all we can to try to get a win for the fans.”
All-MLS Derbies & Grudge Matches
Six of the eight games of the Round of 16 will be all-MLS affairs. And a few of those are likely to have a little extra spice.
The much-anticipated El Trafico derby in Los Angeles sees defending MLS champions and CONCACAF Champions League hopefuls LAFC at home against their fierce rivals LA Galaxy, who’re struggling mightily in league play.
It’s the second-straight year that the Open Cup’s Round of 16 pits these two LA teams in direct conflict.
Last year’s contest ended in favor of the Galaxy, with Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez scoring the winner in a 3-1 result that sent the side through to the Quarterfinals (where they lost at home to second-tier club and eventual runners-up Sacramento Republic).
The meeting in Commerce City between the Colorado Rapids and Real Salt Lake, neither of whom have ever won an Open Cup, is only the third edition of the Rocky Mountain Derby to take place in our 110-year-old tournament.
Both teams have been in scoring mood in the Cup this year, each bagging four in goal-littered Round of 32 contests.
There’s a derby of a different kind down in Texas, (CLICK HERE if you don’t know the story of everyman-turned-accidental-Open-Cup-hero Dylan Wolpers). Houston Dynamo, the 2018 Open Cup champions led by 2013 Open Cup champion-coach (with D.C. United) Ben Olsen, take on 2019 runners-up Minnesota United at Shell Energy Stadium.
Fire Double-Winners Reunited
It’s a clash of two coaches who won the Open Cup together as players when four-time champions Chicago Fire travel to take on Austin FC. Frank Klopas, who took over from Ezra Hendrickson as Fire head coach ahead of the Round of 32, scored a famous golden-goal winner for then-MLS expansion side the Fire back in the 1998 Final (the same year they won a first MLS Cup)
Also out on the Soldier Field turf that day was a young Josh Wolff – who just so happens to be coaching Austin’s MLS team these days.
In other small-world news, the New York Red Bulls and FC Cincinnati meet in a replay of the 2017 Open Cup Semifinal that will still make fans from the Ohio club cringe. Back then, as part of the second-tier USL Championship, FC Cincinnati were 2-0 up on a Jesse Marsch and Sacha Kljestan-led Red Bull outfit with 15 minutes to go and a place in the Final beckoning.
Needless to say, it all went wrong for the home fans at Nippert Stadium as Bradley Wright-Phillips swooped to crush the home side’s hopes. But now, with USMNT striker Brandon Vazquez in fine form and the club established in MLS, the Cincinnati men have the chance to settle an old score.
Rounding out the slate of Sweet Sixteen games is Inter Miami – who beat second-division high-flyers Charleston Battery in the last round – hosting Nashville SC. The Tennesseans had Fafa Picault and Alex Muyl to thank for their impressive 2-0 win over 2016 Open Cup Champs FC Dallas that now sees them on the cusp of a second-straight Open Cup Quarterfinal.
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.