Troy Lesesne and the U.S. Open Cup have history.
The recently appointed head coach of the New York Red Bulls, a self described second-division guy, has seen his career intertwine with the 110-year-old tournament time and again.
As a player, he battled a Major League Soccer team to the brink. Then, as an assistant coach, he led an expansion USL Championship side deep into the tournament, before doing the same as a head coach. Now at the helm of a first-division club, and eager to revitalize their season, Lesesne knows how important the competition can be.
“I understand what it means to every club that competes in [the U.S. Open Cup], from a different standpoint,” he said of the tournament during his first press conference, a day before pulling off a 1-0 Round-of-32 win against D.C. United. “It’s a special competition.”
An MLS Cup playoff rematch from last season now awaits against FC Cincinnati in the Round of 16 – as the Red Bulls aim to get past the Semifinal stage they reached last year.
Lesesne’s early years were centered in the Carolinas
He didn’t leave his home state to attend the College of Charleston, where he won a Southern Conference men's championship in 2004 as a player and joined the local professional outfit, the Charleston Battery, after graduating.
Of his four assists in a pro playing career that lasted only two seasons, two were in the 2006 Open Cup with the Battery. One came in the tournament’s Second Round against the Sonoma County Sol and one more against an MLS side.
The Third Round match against FC Dallas went to extra-time tied (2-2) in South Carolina. In the 114th minute, Lesesne controlled a long cross-field ball and sent it, like a dagger, back to the opposite post, where Luc Harrington put in the go-ahead goal.
Dallas found an equalizer with seconds to play and Charleston eventually fell in a shootout (with Lesesne converting his third-round shot).
At 23 years-old, Lesesne knew he’d reached his ceiling as a pro player. And while he enjoyed and relished those seasons in the United Soccer League, the idea of coaching always beckoned.
“I think the satisfaction of making it to the professional level and having experience is great,” he said. “But also [I had [the self-awareness to say], ‘okay, good experience, but now it's time to go into a different career path.’”
In late 2006, Troy returned to the College of Charleston as assistant coach for ten years under his former head coach Ralph Lundy. In 2014, he went back to the Battery as an assistant and a liaison. The team had an affiliation with MLS’ Vancouver Whitecaps FC, and Lesesne was selected to work with the younger players that looked ready to be called up to the first team.
A year later, Lesense headed north to serve as a coach with the Charlotte Independence as they entered the USL, where he stayed for three more seasons. That first year, the team reached the Round of 16 of the Open Cup by beating the New England Revolution (1-0) and winning prize money.
It’s hard to believe that it only took one phone call to see the Carolina stalwart on a plane out west.
Cup Fever in New Mexico
When Peter Trevisani launched New Mexico United in 2018 he had no previous experience in professional sports. But he believed in the state and the authenticity of the people that called it home.
Despite being very far along with another candidate for head coach, Trevisani learned about Lesesne by chance.“When I called Troy, I expected a quick call. I think I started off by saying, ‘Hey, it's Pete and we're really far along with our coaching search, so it’s very likely this isn't gonna’ go anywhere, but I felt like I needed to call you’,” Trevisani said. “Two hours later we’re booking a flight for him to come out to Albuquerque.”
Lesesne’s first head coaching position with the USL Championship side got off to a fantastic start and he stayed there for three seasons. His first year the team led the league in attendance while also reaching the playoffs. And his U.S. Open Cup connection deepened as NMU went on a Cinderella run to the Quarterfinals of the 2019 tournament.
They played five straight road games and beat two Major League Soccer teams (including some 2006 revenge against FC Dallas).
But outside of the pitch is where Lesesne really shined. He established a deep bond to the so-called Land of Enchantment – launching both the team’s youth academy and Diversity Fellowship program to help bridge gaps in the state for prospective players.
In one of his first try-out sessions, filled with over 150 hopefuls, mostly from New Mexico, he spent days meticulously watching and evaluating each and every prospect.
Face to Face
“They lined up, and it probably took a couple hours to get through the whole line as the night came in and it got colder,” said Trevisani about Lesesne’s face-to-face methodology. “Not everyone loved what they heard.
“A few were invited back, but almost all of them were No[s]. He could have done that in email. He could have done that in a more [private] setting. But everybody who came, and put the work in, Troy looked him in the eye and told them what he thought of their play and shook their hand.“That's everything you need to know about Troy Lesesne,” Trevisani added.
In 2020, with the world gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic, Lesesne continued to develop with NMU. In his second season, the team returned to the playoffs despite playing every game on the road due to New Mexico’s health restrictions.
That feat earned him USL Championship Coach of the Year honors.
Those seasons with United hold a special place for Lesesne. Working with young players, developing a bond with the community, and getting his first head coaching role are all things he holds dear. “This opportunity [in New York] doesn't happen without my involvement with Peter and New Mexico United,” he stated simply.
Talk of the Town
Lesesne departed to join the New York Red Bulls as an assistant coach in 2021. In his 2022 season under head coach Gerhard Struber, New York had middling success – reaching the playoffs for a 13th straight season. But, again, the team’s best moments came in the Open Cup as they reached last year’s Semifinals.
Prior to NYRB’s first Open Cup game of the current 2023 edition, the organization and Struber mutually agreed to part ways, introducing Lesesne as head coach for the remainder of the season on Monday, May 8.
Lesesne is still been trying to wrap his head around it all.
The “crazy” span has seen New York win their Open Cup opener against Atlantic Cup rival D.C. United and the Hudson River Derby against New York City FC in league play (only NYRB’s second MLS win of the season in 12 games played).
“I've said this a number of times, but [it's] not exactly the way that I would want to have an opportunity like this,” he admitted. “But it’s still an opportunity that I feel I'm prepared for. Now I just wanna go and make the most of it.”
Lesesne’s call-up to become the NYRB head coach is a point of pride for Trevisani and all of New Mexico United.
“It’s like [the movie] ‘Goodfellas’,” he joked. “When one of us gets made, we all do.”
When presented with that information, Lesesne jokingly asked if that was an indictment or prediction of his MLS coaching future. He admits he hopes his fate is better than Joe Pesci’s character from the aforementioned film.
Lesesne’s climb to the top rung is no surprise to those he’s helped along the way
If you ask almost any person who’s worked with the man on the field through the years, they all feel they’re better because of it. At the college level, in the lower divisions, or even in Major League Soccer. Even those trialists who stayed out on a long night just to be the 100th person he told no to in an open tryout.
“I can only say that I'm passionate, I'm passionate about people first. I think the relationship is the core component,” said the man facing a home test in his beloved Open Cup with the Quarterfinals teasing beyond.
“Establishing a genuine, reciprocal relationship is a core component of my coaching philosophy,” he said. “Using soccer, using this game as a vehicle to help people achieve what they set out to achieve and see them have success.
“I'm a conduit to that,” he nodded. “And that's what a coach is meant to do.”
Michael Battista is an award-winning journalist and regular contributor to TheCup.us, Hudson River Blue, & New York Sports Nation. Follow him at @MichaelBattista on Twitter.