The Dream Lives On: #USOC2024 Second Round Preview

American soccer’s oldest and most venerable competition moves into its Second Round on 2-3 April – with Div. III pro clubs and amateur sides both in action and on the cusp of booking dates with the 16 USL Championship (Div. II) contenders entering in the Third Round.
By: Jonah Fontela

Brace yourselves, Open Cup fans. It’s go-time. Again.

The 32 survivors from the First Round – including eight underdogs from the all-amateur Open Division – return for a mouth-watering Second Round. There will be a slate of 16 knockout games over the course of two days (six on Tuesday, April 2nd and ten more on Wednesday, April 3rd) across the country.

Nine of the Second Round games feature two third-division pro sides squaring off while six games pit amateurs and Div. III pros in direct competition. One contest – deep in the heart of Texas – sees a pair of amateur underdogs (Lubbock Matadors and FORO SC) fighting directly for a place in the Third Round.

All 16 eventual winners from the Second Round will face off with Div. II professional sides from the USL Championship, who enter in the Third Round (April 16-17)

Day One Fun

An all-amateur affair is rare in an Open Cup Second Round. But that’s what we’ll get when the Lubbock Matadors of the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) take on FORO SC – the Dallas-based United Premier Soccer League (UPSL) amateurs who slogged through four games in the Open Division Qualifying Rounds last fall to reach the Tournament Proper. Once there, they knocked off an MLS NEXT Pro side. 

“We went in with heart; we believed we could win,” was what FORO captain Ivan Bengono had to say about his side’s shock victory, on the road and reduced to ten men, against MLS NEXT Pro side Austin FC II in the First Round. “[Now] we're not going into our next game thinking, oh it’s another amateur club like us. We're going in thinking it's another tough opponent.”

They will indeed be tough. The Matadors showed their quality and then some when they knocked off pros Arizona Monsoon of the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA) at home in front of a boisterous 2000-plus crowd last week. Fresh memories of the scenes that greeted Toufik Najem’s last-gasp winner will have the Matadors – playing at home once again – dreaming of further glories.

There will be two amateur-vs-pro contests on the Opening Day of the Second Round.

First up, South Carolina United Heat – the UPSL part-timers out of Columbia, SC who knocked off MLS NEXT Pros Crown Legacy FC in the First Round via a late penalty, travel to the other Carolina to take on Charlotte Independence of USL League One.

“The Open Cup is a massive opportunity for us,” said SCU Heat’s  haiti-born midfielder Wilterlynd Inalien, who had stints in Finland and Rochester – and who kept his cool to score from the spot and send the Crown Legacy pros out. “For a bunch of guys playing in the UPSL, they know there are scouts and coaches all looking at you when you make a run in the Cup.”

The other amateur-vs-pro game of Second Round Opening Day comes out in Northern California, where the Central Valley Fuego – coached by former USMNT midfielder Jermaine Jones – meet the challenge of San Francisco’s old-school amateurs El Farolito. With the all-pro USL League One Fuego not having things all their own way in the First Round against debutants FC Folsom, they’ll need to make sure they’re ready for El Faro, who, in case you didn’t know, won the Open Cup in 1993 under their then-name CD Mexico.

The three remaining games of Day One boast a Young Hudson River Derby, when NYCFC II and New York Red Bulls II clash for Big Apple bragging rights at Belson Stadium in Queens. Both sides were impressive in the First Round with high-scoring routs of amateur opposition.

There’s an inter-league (Div. III) contest between Minnesota United’s MLS NEXT Pros MNUFC2 and the Michigan Stars of NISA. And let’s not forget about the day’s first game, which sees the Richmond Kickers 1995 Open Cup Champions – hosting a second straight game at City Stadium. This one’s against NISA’s Maryland Bobcats, who rode a pair of Darwin Espinal goals to victory in the First Round over former USASA National Amateur Cup Champs West Chester United SC.

“The Open Cup is massive for any team – especially teams like us,” said the Honduran-born Espinal, one of American pro soccer’s true gems of the lower leagues. “We, as players, know what a great opportunity it is for guys to get to the next level but mostly just to make some noise as a club.”

While the MNUFC2 youngsters were imperious in their win over Chicago House AC in the First Round – getting a hat-trick out of the outstanding Jordan Adebayo-Smith – they’ll be wise not to underestimate the Stars. The Michiganders won their first Open Cup game in history last week against amateurs Steel City FC. And despite the only goal of that game coming in the 83rd minute with the Stars’ only shot on target,  it might just provide the NISA side with the kind of momentum they’ve been craving.

“The Open Cup is probably one of the coolest tournaments, because anyone can be beat on any given day,” said Colin Stripling, the Stars’ defender. “That’s the whole spirit of what this Open Cup is.”

Day Two, Woohoo 

We’ll start with the Des Moines Menace of USL League Two, whose win in the First Round against NISA’s Capo FC made them the winningest amateur team in the Modern Era of the Open Cup. It was achieved with the help of one Sacha Kljestan, the former Olympian, USMNT midfielder, Champions League participant and Open Cup runner-up who came out of retirement to help a Menace side hurting for numbers but still hungry as ever for glory.

Now, in the Second Round, Kljestan’s old LA Galaxy pal A.J. DeLaGarza, who retired in 2022 and won the Open Cup in 2018 with the Houston Dynamo, has turned up on the Menace’s squad sheet too. There’s something happening in Des Moines, folks – and they’ll need all the help they can get when they travel to Nebraska to take on a Union Omaha side (from ULS League One) who manhandled the Western Mass Pioneers in Ludlow, Massachusetts thanks to a Joe Gallardo hat-trick last time out – and caused a major sensation back in 2022 when they reached the Quarterfinals after beating two MLS teams.

There will be three other amateur-vs-pro matchups on Day Two. First up, Miami United FC take on NISA pros Club de Lyon in the only Second Round game from the Sunshine State. The Miamians have been regulars in our Open Cup since their 2015 debut and their 1-0 win on the road over Chattanooga FC should have the Lyon players concerned.

Jhon Pajoy’s 30-yard screamer for Miami United was one of the best goals of the First Round.

“We know we are underdogs against Club de Lyon, but it was the same against Chattanooga,” said Robertino Insua, top-scorer in the Open Division Qualifying Rounds last fall with ten goals in four games. “We trust in our preparations and our hard work – and anything can happen in knockout play.” 

Let us not forget Vermont Green FC. They gave us all goosebumps with their 4-3 win over pro side Lexington Sporting Club (USL League One). The result – and the crowd of over 3,000 who came out for the Green Mountain State’s first-ever Open Cup game – is now certified USOC Lore.

Now the Green get another go-around, the second Open Cup game in a row from their Virtue Field in Burlington. The USL League Two amateurs meet a second straight pro side in the form of Carolina Core of MLS NEXT Pro – who beat amateurs NoVa FC in a topsy-turvy First Rounder of their own.

“We had 3000 fans there [in the First Round] but it felt like 30,000,” said Zach Barrett, who scored the first Open Cup goal in Vermont history just five minutes into the First Round win. “We’re so happy to be back here; these fans really raise the stakes for a visiting side – and provide a huge boost for us.”

NSPL’s Apotheos FC were the first amateurs through to this Second Round – but their progress came as a result of a disappointing forfeit by the Georgia Lions of NISA. Now the Georgia-based amateurs have the chance to show what they’ve got where it counts – out on the field – when they host Chattanooga Red Wolves. The USL League One pros out of Tennessee didn’t have things all their own way in their First Round win over Brockton FC United, a game which needed extra-time before finishing 4-2.

The rest of the Second Round games pit Div. III pro sides in direct competition.

South Georgia Tormenta (USL League One) host a second consecutive game when Savannah Clovers of NISA come to Statesboro hoping to keep their dream alive. Greenville Triumph SC travel to Tennessee to take on One Knoxville in the Round’s only all-USL League One affair.

Chicago Fire FC II of MLS NEXT Pro were burning hot in the First Round with a 6-0 rout of Chicago City SC. Their reward is a second-straight home game in Bridgeview against the visiting Flamingos of Forward Madison (USL League One) – who were impressive in their win over amateurs Duluth FC.

No. Colorado Hailstorm knocked off 2023 amateur darlings Tulsa Athletic in the First Round

“Every game is an opportunity and you can’t take it lightly,” said Forward Madison’s outstanding Christian Chaney, who scored both goals against Duluth. “When you start to come up on the later parts of your career you know more than ever that you have to leave everything out on the field.”

Out on the West Coast, Ventura County FC host NISA pros Irvine Zeta FC – a familiar foe for the side formerly known as LA Galaxy II (VCFC) as they beat IZFC’s second team in the First Round.

Water is the watchword when a rushing Colorado Rapids 2 host Northern Colorado Hailstorm of USL League One at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City. Elsewhere, up in the rain-soaked Pacific Northwest, Spokane Velocity finish off our Second Round riding the high of a last-second win over National USL League Two champs Ballard FC. The Spokaners will hope for more of the same when they make an Open Cup home debut against LA Force of NISA at ONE Spokane Stadium.

Be sure to watch EVERY GAME of the Second Round LIVE on (US Soccer), (MLS) or (USL).

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