MLS & USL Championship Square Up in the Cup: #USOC2024 Round of 16 Preview

American soccer’s oldest and most venerable competition moves into its Round of 16 on May 21st and 22nd – with six games (from a total of eight) pitting teams from the Division I of MLS and the second-tier USL Championship in direct competition.
By: Jonah Fontela
Two Atlanta United players running on the pitch during a 2024 Open Cup match
Two Atlanta United players running on the pitch during a 2024 Open Cup match

The Round of 16 is upon us and the eight-game menu for May 21st and 22nd is dominated by games between teams from Major League Soccer (MLS), the top division in the land, and the USL Championship – the second-division pros with chips on their shoulders and points to prove.

Strap in for what will be two days of the kinds of thrills and spills only our beloved Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup can offer. In action are gritty underdog heroes Detroit City FC, a pair of four-time Champions in Sporting Kansas City and Seattle Sounders (MLS). And let’s not forget the top two teams from the Division II USL Championship – as high-flying Sacramento Republic take on San Jose Earthquakes (MLS) and hard-hitting Charleston Battery welcome 2019 Open Cup Champions Atlanta United (MLS).

Day One (May 21st) – Battery & Republic Ready

The Charleston Battery and Sacramento Republic are the two best teams in the USL Championship at the moment – both in roaring form and topping their respective conferences. The pair also have a history of upsetting their so-called betters and reaching our tournament’s Final.

Sacramento Republic made the 2022 Decider, beating three MLS teams along the way. Players from that team, like ‘RoRo’ Lopez, Luis Felipe and Daniel Vitiello (and coach Mark Briggs), are still in the team and take heart from that historic run. The Northern Californians will be at home against MLS’ San Jose Earthquakes, who happen to be the team they beat at this stage in 2022 to start their charge to the Final.

“Getting to play in this tournament every year and compete against the best at every level is amazing,” said Sacramento’s star schemer and veteran leader Lopez. “And when you add in the adrenaline of it all – you win or you’re out. There’s more pressure, and that’s what makes it so exciting no matter who you’re playing for or who you’re up against.”

The Charleston Battery reached our Open Cup’s Final back in 2008. They were led then by a young Oswaldo ‘Ozzie’ Alonso – who would later go on to win four Open Cups with the Seattle Sounders. He’ll be in attendance at Patriots Point on May 22nd as honorary captain when Ben Pirmann’s current Battery host Atlanta United of MLS – the 2019 Open Cup Champions who boast World Cup winner Thiago Almada and striker Georgios Giakoumakis.

“We’re flying high and the chemistry is there,” said Matt ‘MD’ Myers about his strike-partnership with Nick Markanich that’s seen the Battery climb atop the USL Championship standings by a large margin in this early part of the season. Markanich couldn’t agree more: “I think we’re always pushing each other.”

In all, Markanich has 12 goals in 12 games so far in 2024. And Myers isn’t far behind with nine (including a hat-trick in the last round of the Open Cup against Cinderellas South Georgia Tormenta).

Two Sporting Kansas City players embrace on the pitch after a 2024 Open Cup match
Two Sporting Kansas City players embrace on the pitch after a 2024 Open Cup match
SKC’s designated player Alan Pulido saw off Union Omaha late in the Round of 32

Peter Vermes’ Sporting Kansas City needed a last-second goal from star striker Alan Pulido to knock off third-division darlings Union Omaha on the road in the last round. Now, back home at their Children's Mercy Park in Kansas (where they won the Final of the 2017 Open Cup) SKC will hope for a more convincing performance against visitors FC Tulsa of the USL Championship.

The Division II Oklahomans are bidding for a place in the Quarterfinals for the first time in club history.

Open Cup Tests East and West

Way out West is a contest between LAFC – the MLS superclub who won that league’s top honor in 2022 – against visiting USL Championship strugglers Loudoun United FC. This is the first time for Loudoun to reach as far as the Round of 16, having only debuted in the Open Cup last year, but the Leesburg, Virginia-based men are eager to keep the party going.

Kamara fights for the ball with a Las Vegas Lights player
Kamara fights for the ball with a Las Vegas Lights player
Kei Kamara (left) in Open Cup Round of 32 action for LAFC in Las Vegas

“We’re feeling the Magic of the Cup,” said Wesley Leggett, Loudoun’s two-goal hero from their Round of 32 win (out on the road in Southern California then too, against Orange County SC). “We’re always underestimated and that’s kind of a special weapon we have.”

LAFC will be ready with their own weapons. They have a veteran presence and proven scorer in Kei Kamara – who bagged the opener in the last round’s 3-1 win on the road against Las Vegas Lights.

“Open Cup games can always be weird,” said Kamara, who, at 39 is the oldest active player in MLS and an Open Cup winner from 2012 with SKC. “It’s up to us to make sure we’re focussed and not one of those teams from the top division that gets knocked off – because you see that happen all the time in the Cup.

The only game of Day One that’s not a direct tilt between teams from MLS and the USL Championship takes place in Queens, NY. Belson Stadium is the venue as New York City FC II (the lone remaining Division III combatant of MLS NEXT Pro) host USL Championship side New Mexico United.

The Albuquerque-based club that reached the Open Cup Quarterfinals in 2019 – and they look up for challenge again this year. Their 4-2 win over a Diego Luna-led Real Salt Lake in the Round of 32 is an apt indication of where their heads are.

“Open Cup games can be tricky,” said Zico Bailey, who scored twice in the upset over RSL. “We’re not the underdogs this time and the main thing is to have the mentality right. They (NYCFC II) will be younger, but you have to respect your opponent no matter what or else they can surprise you.”

Day Two (May 22nd) – Three-Game Slate

Indy Eleven host Detroit City FC in the only all-USL Championship contest of the Round. Both sides have already exceeded their best-ever previous Open Cup runs by reaching this year’s Round of 16 – and now they stand on the cusp of the rare air of a place in the Quarterfinal.

DCFC are fresh off a huge road win against MLS powers and reigning Open Cup Champions Houston Dynamo while Indy Eleven bested USL Championship mates San Antonio FC to reach this stage.

The two other games on the Round of 16’s Opening Day marquee feature USL Championship sides looking to pull off major upsets against opponents from the top-tier of MLS.

Al Lang Stadium will be the venue for the Tampa Bay Rowdies as they host 2016 Open Cup Champions FC Dallas – led by USMNT striker Jesus Ferreira and former Real Madrid man Asier Illarramendi. The converted baseball stadium, just steps from the Bay, was the site of one of the Round of 32’s most enthralling (and just plain nuts) games. The Rowdies blew a 4-0 lead in the last ten minutes of regular time but eventually won out over Birmingham Legion 6-4 thanks to a Manuel Arteaga bicycle kick in OT.

“Playing against an MLS team is a good chance for us to demonstrate our quality, but we have to stay calm and work hard to keep sight of the things we want to do,” outlined Arteaga – a sentiment shared by the Rowdies’ outstanding goalkeeper Jordan Farr: “We’ll want to impose ourselves right away and I think they’ll [FC Dallas] be impressed with the kind of game they get from us.”

Wrapping up Day One is a test out West for the four-time Open Cup-champion Seattle Sounders, who needed a dramatic penalty shootout against Division II powers Louisville City in the last round to book a place in this Round of Sixteen. Now, at their home-away-from-home up in Tukwila, Washington, the Sounders will host last year’s USL Championship toppers Phoenix Rising, who’ll be hungry to claim a first-ever place in the Open Cup Quarterfinals.

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 Round of 16 LIVE on (US Soccer), (MLS) or (USL).

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