It has been almost one year since FC Cincinnati was accepted into Major League Soccer’s grandest stage. There have been perks from the call to the expanded field—scintillating match-ups against deeper talent, travel to bigger cities, the meaty prospects of a “Hell Is Real” Derby rematch twice a year—but a major downgrade is the fact that the Orange & Blue are no longer the underdogs. That also means we’ll have to wait before we see a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup match that matters.
Fans in the Queen City owe a lot to the tournament that shined a light on the underdogs the brightest. FCC’s miracle run in 2017 was amplified even more by teams such as Miami FC blazing through Orlando and Atlanta, Sacramento Republic crushing Real Salt Lake, and local-qualifier darlings Christos FC rattling D.C. United. While there still hasn’t been a non-MLS team in the finals since 2008, each year another lower-tier team makes us believe.
For now, those “underdog” days are over for FC Cincinnati. The Orange & Blue now join the competition in the fourth round with 20 other MLS teams. However, we cannot forget that the Open Cup lifted our profile even higher than before, and that’s why we should be following the 106th edition of the Cup from the first round (which is still easy to do with the games all on ESPN+). We owe a lot to those phantasmic games in 2017.
But which teams could make a similar run for the Cup this year? This article will cover the lower leagues involved and the teams that could make the deepest invasion in the open competition.
Local Qualifiers – NTX Rayados
Since 2014, there has been at least one amateur team that had survived qualification rounds and climbed all the way to the fourth round to face an MLS squad. While a “local qualifier” has not managed to get further than this, last year’s highest-advancing amateur club, NTX Rayados from Dallas, TX, could likely repeat the run.
The glut of MLS, USL, and NPSL squads means that only 8 local amateur teams make the competition this year (compared to 13 last year). However, the Rayados have been a powerhouse in the United States Adult Soccer Association and have qualified the last eight years. Granted, they have only gotten out of the first round twice, but last year’s squad scored three times in added extra time against Oklahoma City Energy FC for the second-round upset.
While the team was hammered 5-0 by eventual champions Houston Dynamo, the team has pulled in help from a national junior-college champion team to keep the squad young and talented. It took two long penalty-kick wins to make it this far this year, including one that went eleven rounds, but NTX could easily find themselves in a rematch against OKC if they can get past Little Rock in the first round.
USL League Two – Des Moines Menace
Remember when FC Cincinnati had a mini Ohio derby against AFC Cleveland in 2017? If Cleveland didn’t get past the first round, FCC would have had to travel to face the Menace in the second round. While Des Moines missed qualifying last year, their 13-1-0 record in 2018 gets them back into the tournament for the 11th time in 18 years.
Although the Menace failed to make it past the quarterfinals in the USL PDL tournament last year, the team returns a great deal of talent. The team has brought in Mark McKeever to helm the team this year, who led the Mississippi Brilla to the third round in the Open Cup last year. The Menace also bring back 2018 USL PDL MVP Ryosuke Kinoshita—the University of Louisville forward scored 17 goals for the Menace last year. He could be key in helping the team reach heights they haven’t seen since 2005, back when they beat USL1 teams Pittsburgh, Charleston, and Atlanta to get to the fourth round.
The run might not be easy though—a win means the Menace would have to host St. Louis FC in the second round. Considering they lost to St. Louis back in 2015, perhaps there’s an opportunity for an upset.
USL League One – Richmond Kickers?
Is there really a team in the USL’s brand-new Division III league that could go far in the Open Cup? Only six of the ten teams are unaffiliated and can compete, so the pickings are slim in the first place. Much of the meat in the league would have to face the top teams in the USL (Nashville SC, Charleston Battery, Indy Eleven), and Forward Madison would have to send an untested team 1,400 miles to face El Paso.
We threw a dart at a map of the U.S., and it landed nearest to Richmond. Why not roll with the team that won it all way back in 1995 and reached the semifinals in 2011? Granted, they have a steep challenge ahead of them in drawing NCFC if they get to the second round, but young striker Joe Gallardo has done well to start the season with 3 goals in his first six games with the Kickers. Maybe lighting strikes a few times in a row?
NPSL – Miami FC
While USL League Two (then PDL) has been considered the developmental half of Division IV soccer, the NPSL has to be considered the more regionally competitive half of the tier. The league has the most semi-pro representation in the U.S. Open Cup this year (14 teams), and it’s likely that the former NASL giants Miami FC could progress the furthest in the tournament this year.
Miami FC took major steps back last year in more ways than one. Forced to flee to NPSL when the NASL collapsed, the semi-pro squad was unable to get out of the USOC second round last year. However, the team still rode the hot feet of midfielder Dylan Mares and striker Ariel Martinez to win the 2018 NPSL Title, and the team’s only gotten better by signing ex-Red Bulls pro Lloyd Sam and former Toronto goalkeeper Mark Pais.
Can Miami FC repeat the success that got them past Orlando and Atlanta in 2017? That might be a bit of a harder challenge, but Miami FC’s 10-0 win over division rivals Storm FC this past week ought to strike fear in the USL Championship and League One teams. Miami FC should be able to trounce local-qualifiers Florida Soccer Soldiers on their way to facing a shaky Charlotte Independence squad next week. The step beyond that, however, could lead to a clash of ex-NASL giants…
USL Championship – Tampa Bay Rowdies
Part of me says that I shouldn’t play my chips this way. Tampa Bay has had that rock-star persona over the past few years with big names like Joe Cole and Marcel Schäfer gracing the pitch. However, this incarnation of the Rowdies has not gotten far in Open Cup play. Their biggest win was a third-round upset of Seattle in 2013, but they’ve never gotten past the fourth round since starting in 2010.
Why should this year be any different? First of all, it feels like the facelift to personnel has finally made the team younger and hungrier. 2018 felt like a sendoff to multiple players heading into retirement (Cole, Schäfer, Michael Nanchoff, Georgi Hristov), so it became the right time for new coach Neill Collins to stockpile talent. MLS discards such as midfielder Andrew Tinari and goalkeeper John McCarthy have fit in well, while forward Sebastián Guenzatti is leaving his mark as the new strike force. Talented USL standouts such as Zach Steinberger and Antoine Hoppenot have filled out the rest of the roster.
With that complete roster, Tampa Bay has started the season as one of two USL teams still undefeated. Considering they have the weekend off before their second-round matchup against local USL League Two talent, as well as a home stretch after that, Tampa Bay could go far in the Open Cup. If the luck of the draw means they don’t have to travel great distances, I could see them upsetting an Orlando City or Atlanta United squad down the line.
USL Championship – Las Vegas Lights FC
The immense explosion in USL expansion has created scenarios where USL Championship squads will likely face each other or a USL League One squad in the second round, so predicting an easy route to the third round isn’t so simple this year. Six teams in the Western Conference for the USL Championship will have to slug it out against each other, leaving some room for the untested teams.
The most intriguing of those teams appears to be Las Vegas. Their inaugural 2018 season was more circus than soccer with pre-game llamas, money-drop promotions, and a head coach who smoked in the stands during a preseason tilt against Vancouver. However, the hiring of MLS stalwart Eric Wynalda suggested that the team was ready to be taken seriously. Midfielder Irvin Parra has come back to the USL revitalized, scoring five goals in the last five games, while goalkeeper Thomas Olsen has started the season with four clean sheets.
Las Vegas will take on a relative lightweight in either FC Mulhouse (NPSL) or Cal FC (UPSL), and either team will have to travel far to get there. If Las Vegas win and get paired against Reno 1868 FC in the third round, the in-state rivalry could spark a streak.
Are the Lights ready for MLS competition? Perhaps. The 5-1 victory over Toronto in the preseason might be a measuring stick for such matters. If Vegas can make it to the fourth round and avoid matchups against the Los Angeles teams, I see an upset in the cards.
What teams in this year’s competition will go the furthest? What giant-killing opportunities lurk on the horizon? The only way we’ll find out is by letting it all play out to completion.