Amateur Trio Stands Tall as USL Championship Enters: #USOC2024 Third Round Preview

American soccer’s oldest and most venerable competition moves into its Third Round on April 16th and 17th – with Div. II pro clubs of the USL Championship debuting against Div. III challengers and amateur survivors from the two previous stages.
By: Jonah Fontela

Here we go, U.S. Open Cup fans. We’re about our business again.

Buckle your seatbelts for what promises to be a thrilling Third Round, with the three amigos of the all-amateur Open Division (Lubbock Matadors, Miami United FC and El Farolito) still alive and kicking – and facing off with opponents from the heights of the USL Championship. The Div. II professional league makes its debut in the 2024 Open Cup at this stage, with 16 of its clubs lining up against hungry teams who are battle-tested and twice winners from the previous two rounds.

The Third Round consists of 32 teams in direct knockout competition (as always in our Cup). The eventual 16 winners move on to the Round of 32, where the remaining eight USL Championship sides, including defending league champs Phoenix Rising, enter the fray along with the eight participating Major League Soccer (Div. 1) sides, led by our defending Open Cup champion (2023) Houston Dynamo.

Day One (Tuesday, April 16th) – Five-Alarm Fun

The Third Round starts with five games on Tuesday – and a pinch of extra spice as a debutant club kicks off. Rhode Island FC – the new USL Championship side led by former league top scorer Albert Dikwa and representing the smallest state in the union – travel to take on veteran coach Mike Jeffries’ Charlotte Independence of the USL League One in hopes of bagging a first-ever Cup win in club history.

“The Open Cup is a competition I really value,” said Bermuda-born Rhode Island FC head coach Khano Smith – a former winner of the tournament during his playing seasons with the New England Revolution (2007). “We want to win every game we play and that’s no different here – it’s an opportunity for us.”

Two of Tuesday’s contests will see amateur underdogs hunting further glory. Both the Lubbock Matadors out of West Texas and San Francisco’s historic El Farolito hit the road to take on USL Championship big boys. The Matadors of NPSL face off with 2019 Quarterfinalists New Mexico United and El Farolito square up to near neighbors Oakland Roots in Hayward, California.

In addition to further bragging rights, there’s the small matter of $25,000 on the line for the Open Division side that climbs highest in this year’s competition (Lubbock Matadors, El Farolito and Miami United FC). It’s a race within a race worth keeping your eye on. 

Two-time USL Championship toppers Louisville City FC, led by former Open Cup Runner-up Danny Cruz, open their account against Greenville Triumph SC of the USL League One, while Greater Detroit prepares for a likely testy clash in Hamtramck. Home side Detroit City FC (USL Championship), bossed by new man Danny Dichio, take on NISA’s Michigan Stars – who featured former Open Cup winner Justin Meram in last round’s win over MNUFC2.

The third-division Stars’ chief operating officer Chris McInally has hinted there might be more big-name signings in this round too. “We might have another surprise or two up our sleeve,” he teased.

The two clubs (DCFC and the Stars) met in the Second Round of the 2022 Open Cup in a game that finished 3-0 at Keyworth Stadium in favor of DCFC and poured more gasoline on the simmering fire that started as the two shared NPSL and NISA fields for nearly a decade before parting ways for the Championship and NISA respectively.

In this case, proximity really does breed contempt so expect some fireworks.

Day Two (Tuesday, April 17th) – Eleven Heaven

The second and final day of Third Round action opens with the 1995 Cup champion Richmond Kickers hosting a third Open Cup game in a row at their 102-year-old City Stadium – up against Loudoun United FC in one of eight USL Championship-v-USL League One tilts of the round.

“The pre-season games we play against each other always feel like league games,” said Kickers midfielder creator Nil Vinyals of the near neighbors and rivals who occupy a rung higher in the divisional ladder. “They [Loudoun] are the favorites on paper, but we know what we’re capable of and there’s no reason we can’t take advantage.”

Among the five other USL Championship-v-USL League One contests on Day Two is Miami FC hosting South Georgia Tormenta in Florida, with the Statesboro-based side looking to go on another run in the competition like they did in 2022 with a pair of wins over Championship opposition. Birmingham Legion (USLC), who reached the Quarterfinals of last year’s Open Cup, welcome the Chattanooga Red Wolves, who barely snuck past amateurs Apotheos FC in the Second Round thanks to a lone goal from Serbia-born veteran Stefan Lukic.

“The longer a game stays goalless, the more the underdog can have hope of a Cupset,” said Lukic, who knows about such things as part of the Northern Colorado Hailstorm side that beat MLS’ Real Salt Lake in the 2022 edition. “That experience [of beating RSL] taught me many lessons and it only takes one mistake, or one moment of brilliance, to make a Cupset.”

Championship favorites FC Tulsa play host to Lukic’s former club, that NoCol Hailstorm, in Oklahoma while a re-tooled Las Vegas Lights aim for a deep run in this year’s tournament. To do so, the Vegas men will need to avoid the banana skin of first-year Spokane Velocity, who’ll rely on the experience and nous of former Open Cup winner Luis Gil (with Houston Dynamo, 2018) to again provide the heroics.

The final USL Championship-v-USL League One clash pits 2022 shock Quarterfinalists Union Omaha, playing for the first time this year at their home of Werner Park, against El Paso Locomotive in a replay of last year’s Second Round contest. That one was won by the underdog Nebraskans.

“The pressure is definitely on us,” admitted Lucas Stauffer, about Los Locos’ unwanted record of never having won an Open Cup game. 

“I’m a huge fan of the Open Cup,” said Omaha’s Pedro Dolabella, who scored the first in the 3-1 Second Round win over a Sacha Kljestan-led Des Moines Menace. “Our goal is, you know, to take care of business – to survive and advance and keep up the momentum.”

“We’re happy to be the underdog in this case,” added Brazil-born Dolabella, who knows that might only be the case on paper as El Paso have yet to win in their first five games of the USL Championship season and his Owls of Omaha are flying high with an undefeated start to their USL League One campaign.

The only game of Day Two that features an amateur side sees Miami United FC head to Tennessee to take on the USL Championship’s Memphis 901. The South Florida part-timers, led by the goals of Colombian Jhon Pajoy, have hopes of pulling off another upset like they did in the First Round against pros Chattanooga FC – and last time out against fellow Floridians Club de Lyon of NISA.

“I love a knockout competition,” said Robertino Insua, Argentina-born veteran of these SoFla darlings and top-scorer of the grueling Open Division Qualifying Rounds. “You have to get everything right and stay alert waiting for exactly the right moment. It’s kill or be killed, and we thrive on it.”

The three surviving teams from MLS NEXT Pro, the Major League Soccer developmental league participating in the Open Cup for the first time, will have their hands full. New York City FC II have their work cut out on the road in Connecticut against a Hartford Athletic side rebuilt from recent failures and off to a hot start in league play.

Chicago Fire II – impressive in both of their games so far and well supported by the club’s fans – are again at home in Bridgeview against Indy Eleven.

The last of MLS NEXT Pro’s sides in action is Carolina Core – the independent club from High Point, North Carolina with a raft of early-era MLS All-Stars pulling the strings behind the scenes. They’ll take on fellow Tar Heel Staters North Carolina FC, who finished top of USL League One last year before jumping up a division and into the Championship.

“The Open Cup is a big deal for an MLS NEXT Pro club,” said former MLS Cup winner and head coach Roy Lassiter, who was hand-picked to lead the first-year team by Carolina Core Sporting Director Eddie Pope – a former Open Cup winner, MLS All-Star and USMNT standout. “Of course we want to win every game and we go in with that mindset.”

MLS NEXT Pro side Carolina Core after the Second Round win in Burlington, VT

The action wraps up out west with Monterey Bay FC hosting Irvine Zeta FC of NISA at their Cardinale Stadium. It was the stage of a major upset last year, when Frank Yallop’s USL Championship side beat the San Jose Earthquakes of MLS and only just lost out to a youthful LAFC (also of Major League Soccer) via shootout on a debut run to the Round of 32.

So, with the promise of excitement, thrills and spills, we invite you to join us in enjoying all the action. Be sure to watch EVERY GAME of the Third Round LIVE on (US Soccer), (MLS) or (USL).

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