Cupset Dreams & MLS Showdowns: #USOC2023 Quarterfinal Preview

MLS dominates the bracket (with four teams) but all eyes will be on the potential Cupsets as USL Championship darlings Pittsburgh Riverhounds and Birmingham Legion take aim at the Semis.
By: Jonah Fontela

We’re down to our Last Eight.

And while teams from the top flight of Major League Soccer (MLS) dominate the bracket, a pair of second-tier sides from the USL Championship are still out there kicking for a place in the 2023 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Semifinals.

Four MLS sides are joined by two from the second-division USL Championship

Join us for a look ahead at the four games of the Quarterfinal Round (June 6-7) when Real Salt Lake and LA Galaxy square off out West and former champions Chicago Fire and Houston Dynamo tangle in the Windy City.

And for those of you concerned with the business of potential Cupsets, we have the Pittsburgh Riverhounds traveling to MLS eastern-conference high-flyers FC Cincinnati and Cinderellas Birmingham Legion hosting for a second-straight round against top-tier strugglers Inter Miami.

Riverhounds Away (and Underdogs) Again

Tuesday’s pair of games begin with the underdog Pittsburgh Riverhounds traveling to TQL Stadium to take on an outstanding FC Cincinnati (MLS).

USMNT starlet Brandon Vazquez is back to full fitness and, on recent form, his Ohio side – who reached the Open Cup Semis as part of the USL Championship in 2017 – are hands-down favorites to be crowned champions among the final eight participants.

Led by Pat Noonan, three times an Open Cup winner in his playing days with the New England Revolution and Seattle Sounders, Cincy are on a streak of ten games in all competitions without a loss.

All that said, however, Bob Lilley’s Riverhounds have captured the imagination with their giant-killing antics. They followed up a Round-of-32 win on the road against the New England Revolution (1-0) with an electric home victory (another 1-0 result) against the Columbus Crew in the Round of 16. The Hounds, who last reached a Quarterfinal back in 2001, are riding a wave in this year’s Cup.

“Players get up for the Cup,” said Lilley – into his third decade of coaching and who’ll likely be without 2022 USL top-scorer Albert Dikwa, who nabbed the winner in the last round before leaving the field injured. “The players from our league always want to measure themselves and show what they can do.”

One of those is Danny Griffin. The 24-year-old midfield menace is in the mood for more: “We’ve got confidence [from the two wins over MLS opponents] and we just need to keep building.”

Houston Dynamo boss Ben Olsen won the Open Cup at D.C. United (as a player and a coach)

The second game of the opening Quarterfinal day pits the Chicago Fire at home (in Bridgeview, Illinois) against Houston Dynamo. Both clubs have proud traditions in the Open Cup and MLS – but it’s no secret that their fans haven’t had much to shout about in recent years.

The Dynamo lifted the Open Cup in 2018 (the club’s first trophy since a pair of MLS titles in 2006 and 2007) and coach Ben Olsen sees this year as a chance to add another trinket to the Texas club’s cabinet.

“When you get into these later rounds, you can smell the opportunity to hoist a Cup – and as a player you only get so many chances at that,” said Olsen, the man who led D.C. United to an unlikely Open Cup crown in 2013. “It’s what we do this for and we have another great chance against Chicago.”

Cinderella Hosts in Alabama

Wednesday, June 7 opens with a potential thriller in the Deep South.

Birmingham Legion pulled off a sensation in the previous round at their Protective Stadium with a 1-0 win over ten-man Charlotte FC (MLS). Now they’re back home against a troubled Inter Miami and expecting a crowd even bigger than the record-setter (13k+) they had out last time.

This time head coach and five-time Open Cup winner Tom Soehn’s men are up against a team propping up MLS’ eastern conference and, who just days ago, dispensed with the services of their coach Phil Neville after an extended run of poor form.
Enzo Martinez has been outstanding for division-two underdogs Birmingham Legion

“We need to stay on the same page and pull in the same direction,” said Legion midfield general Enzo Martinez, who was sensational against Charlotte FC. “All the [Inter] players will be hungry and eager to send their coach a message and we’ll have to be ready for a very difficult game.”

The curtain goes down on the Quarterfinals with another potential cracker in Utah, where LA Galaxy – tied for last place in MLS’ west and desperate for some silverware – will throw everything they have against the hometown Real Salt Lake.

The two only just met in MLS league play on the last day of May. And if that 3-2 result from America First Stadium (in favor of LA) is anything to go by, we could be in for some fireworks in the Cup.

Former FC Barcelona starlet Riqui Puig was in imperious form for the Galaxy in the Round-of-16 win over city rivals LAFC – and RSL’s young Andres Gomez scored one of the goals of the tournament in the Round of 32 in Portland.

“For some clubs it's their one chance to win a trophy so they put their heart and soil into this,” said LA Galaxy’s Memo Rodriguez, who lifted the Open Cup with Houston Dynamo back in 2018.  “MLS teams have to play well because you never know what can happen in this Cup.”

Neither club has lifted a trophy since 2009 (RSL, MLS Cup) and 2014 (Galaxy, MLS Cup) respectively – thus making this year’s Open Cup a distinct priority for both.

You can WATCH all four Quarterfinal games LIVE on the Bleacher Report App or B/R Football YouTube (two games) and the CBS Sports Golazo Network (two games).

CLICK HERE to see which games are where.

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