All on the Line in Last Eight: #USOC2024 Quarterfinal Preview

American soccer’s oldest and most venerable competition moves into its Quarterfinal Round on July 9th and 10th – with three games (from a total of four) pitting teams from the Division I of MLS and the second-tier USL Championship in direct competition.
By: Jonah Fontela
Sacramento Republic celebrate after its Round of 16 match by spraying a coach with waterbottles on the field
Sacramento Republic celebrate after its Round of 16 match by spraying a coach with waterbottles on the field

From an original field of 96 teams in March, we’re now down to our lean and mean Last Eight. Five sides from Major League Soccer (Division I) and three from the USL Championship (Division II) will scrap it out on July 9th and 10th for the four places in our 2024 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Semifinals (August 27 and 28th).

Three of the Quarterfinals pit Cinderellas from the second division against top flight MLS sides – making the possibility of Cupsets and high drama very, very real. Join for a look ahead at our quartet of Elite Eight contests.

Atlanta United Host Hungry Indy

The curtain raiser of our Quarterfinal Round will take place at the intimate environs of Kennesaw State University, where 2019 Open Cup Champions Atlanta United host second-division Indianapolis-based Indy Eleven.

“We’ve got a good mix of players – experienced guys and newer ones injecting a little bit of energy,” said head coach of Indy Eleven, Sean McAuley, who’s guided the side into third place in the USL Championship’s eastern conference and farther than they’ve ever gone in the Open Cup with wins over league mates San Antonio FC and Detroit City. “We recognize how big these Cup games are for us.”

Indy Eleven players run in celebration on the field during an Open Cup match against Detroit City FC
Indy Eleven players run in celebration on the field during an Open Cup match against Detroit City FC
Indy Eleven have reached farther than ever before in this 2024 Open Cup – and they want more

It’s been an up-and-down season for Atlanta United in MLS league play. They currently sit on the cusp of the last playoff spot in ninth place (12 points behind Toronto FC in eighth) and the Open Cup could well represent the club’s best chance for silverware this year.

Led by interim coach Rob Valentino, who took over for the sacked Gonzalo Pineda last month, the Georgians used a heavily rotated side in the first two rounds of the Cup. A 3-0 win over third-division Charlotte Independence was followed by a tight and tense shootout squeaker on the road against Charleston Battery (Division II) in the Round of 16.

“You can think back to when D.C. United won the Open Cup in 2013 with a team that had, probably, the worst season in MLS history,” said Dax McCarty, the 37-year-old veteran midfielder who’s been a steadying influence in the otherwise young side’s Cup run this year. “Some people will look at that and say, well that’s a successful season.

“We want a trophy – and with the Open Cup we have a great chance to galvanize the team and go and do it,” McCarty added.

Sounders and Sacramento Hunt (More) History

The late game on Opening Day sees four-time champions the Seattle Sounders on the road against USL Championship powers and Open Cup giant-killers Sacramento Republic at Heart Health Park.

The Sounders – in ninth in MLS' western conference and clinging to dimming hopes of a postseason berth – are bidding to become the first side from the Modern Era of the Open Cup (1995 onward) to claim a fifth title. Performances so far – both at their early-round home-away-from-home of Starfire in Tukwila, Washington – have been tense affairs. The Round of 32 opener needed a penalty shootout after a 2-2 draw with USL Championship toppers Louisville City and the 2-1 Round of 16 victory against Phoenix Rising was decided only with a last-gasp winner from Kalani Kossa-Rienzi.

“The Open Cup is something we take very seriously here in Seattle,” said Andrew Thomas, the young goalkeeper who’s lit up the Cup this year and might well be the man in line to succeed club legend Stefan Frei when he finally hangs up his gloves. “We have pictures all over the place of the Cup successes of the past and we know that history is something we have to live up to here.”

It will be no easy matter as Sacramento Republic have their own recent Cup history to lean on. They’ll also have a packed house at the very stadium where they beat Sporting Kansas City in the 2022 Semifinal to become the first Division II team to reach an Open Cup Final since 2008.

A Seattle Sounders player shoots the ball into the head of a defender jumping from a wall during a free kick
A Seattle Sounders player shoots the ball into the head of a defender jumping from a wall during a free kick
Sounders head away from their homebase in Tukwila for the first time in the 2024 Open Cup

The Republic beat three MLS teams in total in that famous 2022, before losing out on the road to Orlando City in the Final. And they’re off to the races with a major upset already in this year's tournament. A 4-3 win over the San Jose Earthquakes set the table for potentially another glorious year in Cup play.

“You dream about playing in a Final and winning it [all]. The Open Cup’s just got that little extra bit of pressure and excitement.” said Kieran Phillips, who scored twice in the NorCal thriller with the Quakes in the last round. “You’re willing to push a little more and give a little more to make sure you win. Cup competitions are ruthless really…you have to just go for it 100 percent.”

LAFC Looking for a First

The final contest in the MLS-vs-USL trio of games pits LAFC against New Mexico United.

While the 2022 MLS Cup Champions will be the home side, playing at their BMO Stadium near Downtown LA, New Mexico United have chartered several planes so the club’s fans can bring the #SomosUnidos love from back home in Albuquerque.

It’s bound to be a pulsating encounter, with the two clubs in first place in their respective league’s western conferences and both sets of fans hungry to lift the Open Cup for a first time.

“The lower-division team always has to come in with more desire,” said midfielder Daniel Bruce, the only remaining player from New Mexico United’s inaugural year (2019) Open Cup run to the Quarterfinals. “MLS sides are always heavy favorites. The underdog is a title we’ll take. Mistakes are more magnified and the anxiety is higher.

“It’s win or go home,” added Bruce.

Aaron Long – the LAFC defender who won silver in the 2017 Open Cup with the New York Red Bulls – is eager to push it one step farther this year. “This is where things start ramping up – the Quarters and the Semis and there’s that Final up ahead,” said the 31-year-old former lynchpin of the USMNT rearguard.

“This is what we’re in this business for,” Long added. “To try to win trophies and we’re taking this very seriously.”

All-MLS Affair in Kansas

The early game on July 10th is the only one of the Quarterfinal Round between two teams from the same division – as Sporting Kansas City open Children’s Mercy Park to old foes FC Dallas (who they meet there two days earlier in MLS league play). FC Dallas won the Open Cup in 1997 (as the Dallas Burn) and 2016 while SKC – like the Seattle Sounders – are vying to become the first side in the MLS Era to win a fifth Open Cup crown.

“This is a trophy that is close to our hearts here in Dallas,” said Maarten Paes, recently named one of three MLS All-Stars for the goalkeeping position for 2024. “If we win this, we’ll get to host the Semi and it’s a chance for the club to write history.

“We’re embracing the challenge and we have a great opportunity before us,” the net-minder added.

On the other side is SKC boss Peter Vermes – a man looking to claim his fourth Open Cup at the helm of the club. “Any time you have a chance to win a trophy, that's a huge opportunity,” said the former USMNT star who, in the KC job since 2009, is the longest-serving coach in Major League Soccer. “It would be incredibly welcomed by everybody. It's a great, great opportunity for the club.”

Dallas currently sit fourth from bottom in the MLS western standings while SKC are mired second from bottom. So both are looking at the Open Cup as likely their most realistic method of salvaging the season.

So, with the promise of excitement, thrills and spills, we invite you to join us in enjoying all the knockout action. Be sure to watch EVERY GAME of the Quarterfinal Round LIVE and FREE of CHARGE on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV.

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