The Great Eight (Round Three): Scant Cupsets & a St Louis Return as MLS Enters in Mean Mood

The latest in our Great Eight Series, where we take a light-hearted Round-by-Round look at some of the quirkier moments and happenings of America’s favorite soccer tournament.
By: Jonah Fontela

Fans of the 110-year-old Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup (now in its 108th edition) live by its magic moments. And the Third Round of the 2023 competition tossed up a good few of those between April 25 and 26. Join for a look back at eight moments of note from the 24 games in which 75 goals were scored, (just) two Cupsets occurred and MLS’ entry spelled doom for so, so many. 

Old St Lou New Again

We were delivered somewhere back in the inky past. To a time of St Louis legends like Walter Bahr and Gino Pariani and Charlie ‘Gloves’ Colombo. To when the Ben Millers kicked things off and Stix Baer and Fuller, and their hero Billy Gonsalves, swashbuckled and elevated the game in America. This Gateway City’s won 12 Open Cups, shared among seven teams between the 66 years from 1920 to 1986. All that tradition, allied to the buzz of the new flash-bang MLS club St Louis City, conspired to make a party of the Third Rounder against last year’s lower-league darlings Union Omaha. There were over 20,000 fans in the stands at the CityPark when, three minutes into City’s debut in (and the city’s return to) the Open Cup, youngster AZ Jackson, hit the back of the net. The roar was like thunder and it clapped out a warning to the rest of the competition. St Lou hardly broke sweat in a 5-1 rout.

St Louis put five past Union Omaha in front of a massive CityPark crowd

The Numbers

We’re forced to confront, with heavy heart, certain realities. And while we’re happy to leave most statistics to the newcomers, knowing, as we do, the value of numbers is nothing compared to the lump in your throat as teams throw caution to the wind in a hunt of another tomorrow. But some you can’t ignore. Only two Cupsets tumbled from the Third Round. That’s three less than the same Round last year. And while the 2022 Open Cup’s Round of 32 featured no fewer than five third-tier teams, this year we have none. Easy come, easy go. Yes. But we’re sad for their going. On the brighter side, not a single goalless game darkened our Third Round through regular and extra-time. A full-throated 75 goals were scored – over three per game – and that's a number worth celebrating. And how’s this for a number. 22,423. That’s how many fans in St Louis roared on that city’s MLS debutants. It’s the biggest crowd for a U.S. Open Cup Third Round game since the start of the modern era in 1995. It’s the tenth largest of any round. And here comes the gut punch, folks: 21 USL Championship teams entered the Third Round – 13 of them went out. The big boys of MLS, humbled last year, have an ax to grind.


The Underdogs (Fewer but fierce)

We’ll not panic for our lack of lower-league teams in the Round of 32. We know, as do you, how narrow the margins are in the Open Cup. It’s the breadth of a hair that separates winning and losing. And with that said, we’ll applaud our lower-league raiders – our standard bearers for the cause of belief and right spirit. Monterey Bay F.C., new boys of the USL Championship, knocked out MLS founders San Jose Earthquakes and will host the LA Galaxy in the next round at their cozy Cardenale Stadium. And how about Memphis 901 – with former U.S. National Team man Bill Hamid in goal and his predecessor Tim Howard in the owners’ box. They fairly thundered past our 2019 champions Atlanta United. Naughte Pickering’s winner in extra-time was as graceful a volley as we’ve seen. In all, we’ll have eight second-division (USL Championship) underdogs in the Round of 32, including Sacramento Republic, last year’s sensations and runners-up. There’s also the 2008 Finalists Charleston Battery and Pittsburgh’s Riverhounds, under the old steady hand of Bob Lilley. We have new boys Loudoun United out of Virginia, trying to overhaul their reputation and, of course, our stylish 2019 Quarterfinalists New Mexico United and Birmingham’s plucky Legion.

Tukwila Cup Magic Conjured Again 

There’s just something about Starfire. It’s where the Seattle Sounders have chosen to play their early-round Open Cup games going back to 2008. It’s tight and confined and surrounded by dense Pacific Northwest forest. Lush is a word that springs to mind. Another is spooky. It was here that Clint Dempsey lost it and ripped up a ref’s notebook in a 2015 Cup game so littered with indiscretions that it was anointed, later, the Red Card Wedding. This year had much of that energy – but the indiscipline was replaced with a kind of goal-hunger and frenzy. San Diego Loyal – of the second division – pushed their four-time champion hosts all the way to the very edge of elimination. The game ended 5-4 to Seattle. There was too much long-range riflery to recount here – but efforts from Kyle Adams (Loyal) and Reed Baker-Whiting (Sounders) are worth your attention. Veteran U.S. National Team journeyman Joe Corona turned back the clock and was whipping in balls like it was the 2013 Gold Cup (he put the ball directly in the net twice for the Loyal too). In the end, the game gave up nine goals (a record for the Round). And both the equalizer that sent the game to extra-time, and the goal that eventually won in it, came in the madness of frantic stoppage-time…

The image tells only a piece of the Miami Clasico’s story – that Inter are moving on

The Late Late Show(s)

Eliminate the option of a draw – and a tomorrow – and you’ve gone and courted chaos. It’s what makes the dying moments of Open games so dramatic. It’s next-goal-win times – schoolyard stuff – and it’s drenched in panic and plunder and thunder. MLS’ Inter Miami were seconds from being sent out by their second-division neighbors, Miami FC, at FIU. DeAndre Yedlin – an Open Cup winner many moons ago in his hometown of Seattle – put the ball in his own goal with five minutes left in extra-time. That made it 1-2 to the neighbors. It looked like lights-out and a sure Cupset. But not so. There was another goal at the other end and Yedlin, in a scramble for redemption, slammed the ball off the crossbar before penalties decided it for Inter. This Third Round was awash in last-minute joy (and, by law, devastation). There were seven winners or equalizers scored in the dying minutes of regular or extra-time. The New England Revolution, FC Cincinnati, Memphis 901, Inter Miami, the Columbus Crew, New Mexico United and the Sounders all went through after tight scrapes with doom.

Ethan Bryant in his first-team debut for SKC

Young and Old Combine

MLS teams often use these early rounds to blood young horses. It’s a time for the homegrown to shine. Short-term contracts are signed and teams are forged, pieced together with youth and experience both. The Sounders put out old warhorse Fredy Montero, 35, alongside babies like Baker-Whiting. And the potion worked. As it did for the New England Revolution over in Foxborough. Five homegrown players were involved in Bruce Arena's 2-1 win over Hartford Athletic which was settled by an old MLS campaigner, Dave Romney, in the 75th minute. Perhaps none of the kids shone brighter than Ethan Bryant, who made his debut in Sporting Kansas City’s first team. He’s 21– on the old side of young – and has bounced around since making a raucous pro debut in this very Cup as a 16-year-old for San Antonio FC in 2018. He was in Belgium briefly and with the Richmond Kickers last season. But on April 9th of this year, his big day came. And the wispy midfielder was singled out for special praise by his coach Peter Vermes. “He was probably our best player on the night," said the straight-talking legend.

Chicago (Fire and House) battle in front of a huge Peter Wilt-themed tifo

The Peter Wilt Effect

This man’s fingerprints are everywhere. All over some of the best things in American soccer. And while many of the teams he’s worked with, and helped forge, are now out of the 2023 Open Cup  (Indy Eleven, Forward Madison and Chicago House), the Chicago Fire – the club where he was President/GM and won four Open Cups and one MLS title  – still survive. Awkwardly, they beat Wilt’s most recent project – the amateurs of Chicago House AC – and sent them out. But the symmetry of the event is worthy of note. It came in the very same stadium he helped build, out in Bridgeview. It’s where he watched the Fire – just months after being let go by the club in 2006 – win their last Open Cup. Goalkeeper Matt Pickens presented his old boss with his winner’s medal that day in a moment that stands out above all others in Wilt’s memory. And this year, near that very spot in the stands behind one of the goals, the fans unfurled a huge tifo with Wilt’s face on it – accompanied by the words The First Fan. It’s likely, though we can’t confirm it, that the open-hearted executive shed fresh tears over all of it coming together in such a way.

A Fond Farewell

This part’s hardest. It’s the truth. AR Smith and Chicago House left us. They reached the same distance as Tulsa Athletic, the brave amateurs from Oklahoma and the NPSL who had Sporting Kansas City rattled early – before eventually losing out. But there were no losers in this round. It sounds trite, but it’s right. Some won’t carry on, and we’ll remember them well as they join our parade of contributors going back through a century and more. South Georgia Tormenta, Union Omaha and NoCol Hailstorm, you’ll not climb as high as last year, but you were here again and soon to return. Louisville City and San Antonio FC, we’ll see you next year too – as we will you wild ones of Detroit city.

And we’ll see you all again, and with renewed spirit, for our Round of 32 between May 9-10 when you’ll be able to WATCH all 16 Games LIVE. Details to follow…

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