Major Leaguers & Championship Reps Only: #USOC2023 Round of 32 Preview

The last eight Major League Soccer sides enter the 2023 U.S. Open Cup in this Round of 32 – where 24 sides from the top flight (MLS) and eight more from the second-tier (USL Championship) try to survive the 16 games of May 9 and 10.
By: Jonah Fontela

Major League Soccer – the country’s top flight – sent a resounding message in the previous Third Round, but there’s still the hope of Cupsets in the Round of 32 of the Lamar Hunt Open Cup.

There are 24 MLS teams in action on May 9th and 10th and eight more clubs from the second-division USL Championship. And it’s an exclusive party from here on out as all third-division pros (USL League One and NISA) and Open Division amateur sides tumbled out at the last hurdle.

Potential Cupsets & an All-USL Affair

There are six games between teams from Major League Soccer and the USL Championship, with only three teams from the second tier hosting inter-division games at their home stadiums.

Monterey Bay F.C. open the doors of their cozy Cardinale Stadium, on the grounds of California State University Monterey Bay, for the second straight round after a huge Cupset victory over MLS’ San Jose Earthquakes. They’ll face another California giant from the Golden State this time out in the form of an all-conquering Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC).

“It’s a 100 percent underdog story,” said Adrian Rebollar, the 23-year-old MBFC midfielder about the impending visit from the reigning MLS champions, CONCACAF Champions League Finalists and the team Philadelphia Union boss Jim Curtin recently called “probably the best” in MLS history. “We have nothing to lose and everything to win.”

Another side from the second tier that will host an MLS opponent are Sacramento Republic FC – seen by many in the USL Championship as an inspiration following their run to the Open Cup Final last year. This meeting with the Colorado Rapids at their Heart Health Park represents an opportunity to beat another MLS side after knocking out no fewer than three in 2022 (San Jose Earthquakes, LA Galaxy and Sporting Kansas City) when they went on to win silver.

St Louis City SC set a Third Round Open Cup attendance record at their rout of Union Omaha

Loudoun United, who because of their affiliation to MLS’ D.C. United haven’t been eligible to play in the Open Cup in previous years, are taking full advantage of their tournament debut. After routing Flower City Union of NISA (5-0) in the last round, they now welcome MLS’ Columbus Crew to their home ground of Segra Field in Leesburg, Virginia.

There’s only one contest this round between two teams from the second division. It comes in Alabama at Protective Stadium between local side Birmingham Legion and USL Championship mates and big-time rivals Memphis 901.

Both sides have aging former MLS and USMNT standouts leading the charge. The Legion boast former New England Revolution and New York Red Bulls striker Juan Agudelo (once a losing Open Cup Finalist) and Memphis is backstopped by Bill Hamid – who was named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year in 2014 (one year after he won the Open Cup with D.C. United).

“He’s a great person, and a great teammate,” said Legion coach and former Open Cup winner Tom Soehn about Agudelo. “He gives you whatever he’s got every game.” On the other side of the ledger, Hamid sees the massive opportunity of the Open Cup for his Memphis-based side: “When you see these games [against MLS clubs] lining up, you can feel it in the locker room – there’s a real excitement.”

Of the two teams, only Memphis have pulled off a Cupset so far in this 2023 edition. Their 2-1 extra-time win over 2019 Open Cup champions Atlanta United in the last round was one of only two wins by lower-level teams over MLS opponents from a schedule of 24 games.

Second-Division Road Dogs

We’ll have three games with USL Championship sides heading out on the road to take on MLS hosts.

The Charleston Battery – flying high in league and Cup play since the arrival of new coach Ben Pirmann – travel south to take on Inter Miami CF, who only just barely got past city mates Miami FC (USLC) in the previous round.

“Myself and the whole team are excited to play an MLS side,” said young Battery striker Nick Markanich, who arrived from MLS’ FC Cincinnati at the start of the season and has three goals in two Open Cup games. “A lot of guys in the team haven’t done this before and we’ll get to see the difference and measure ourselves against them [Inter Miami].”
Inter Miami had to battle with USLC side Miami FC in the last round – edging in in a shootout

The Pittsburgh Riverhounds (USLC) travel north to take on a supercharged New England Revolution sitting atop the MLS’ eastern conference standings. The Revs have the squad-depth to cause problems for their second-tier opponents, who’ve only played one Open Cup game so far this year (a 2-0 over NISA’s Maryland Bobcats) after a bye following the dissolution of Rochester NYFC.

New Mexico United of the USL Championship reached all the way to the Quarterfinals, knocking off two MLS sides along the way, in their Open Cup debut in 2019. Now they’re back with a chance to repeat the trick with a test away at Austin FC of MLS – who have still yet to win an Open Cup game in their history after falling last year to eventual USLC champions San Antonio FC. 

Even if there are no Cupsets this time out, we will have a USL Championship club in the Round of 16 as the winner of the Legion FC - Memphis 901 game will carry the banner.

All-MLS Business

There are nine games that feature MLS-on-MLS action.

One of the most exciting possibilities among those all-MLS affairs is four-time champions Chicago Fire hosting debutants St Louis City SC – who hammered third-division underdogs Union Omaha in the previous round. The meeting represents a new chapter in a city rivalry going back a century in the Open Cup – and it’s bound to produce fireworks. Reigning Open Cup champions Orlando City – who played all of their games at home last year – travel to take on Charlotte FC while last year’s Semifinalists (and 2017’s runners-up) the New York Red Bulls welcome D.C. United, who won the Open Cup in 2013 (the last time they won a non plate-shaped trophy).
SKC’s only win in 2023 league or Cup play came in the last round with a 3-0 result against amateurs Tulsa Athletic

St Paul will see a clash between two recent losing Finalists as home team Minnesota United (2019 runners-up) take on Philadelphia Union, who are serial (three-time) runners-up – most recently in 2018. FC Cincinnati, who reached a Semifinal in 2017 as a member of the USL Championship, are back with high hopes as an MLS side. The Ohioans open the doors of their TQL Stadium to New York City FC, who were crowned champions of MLS in 2021 but have yet to get much going in the Open Cup.

Over in Tennessee we have a game at GEODIS park between Nashville SC and 2016 champions FC Dallas. Two former champions are in action in Texas as Houston Dynamo, led by Open Cup-winning player and coach Ben Olsen, host four-time winners Sporting Kansas City (2004, 2012, 2015 and 2017) who are currently languishing at the bottom of MLS’s western conference.

The round closes with two West Coast contests: Twice champions LA Galaxy and four-time toppers Seattle Sounders in SoCal and the Portland Timbers at Providence Park for a second home Cup game in a row against Real Salt Lake.

You can WATCH all 16 games of the Round of 32 LIVE on the Bleacher Report App or B/R Football YouTube (8 games), CBS Sports Golazo Network (four games) and U.S. Soccer’s YouTube Channel (four games).

CLICK HERE to see which games are where.

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