The Lamar Hunt US Open Cup is already well underway, with a first round full of semi-professional and amateur teams (including several from the DMV) kicking off last week. We covered the basics heading into those games, but now it’s time to tackle a thornier question: who, exactly, is D.C. United going to play?
At the time this piece is being written, one team - the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the USL - has advanced to the third round. The rest of the second round takes place tonight, weather permitting (the weather gods usually do their best to put a halt to at least one USOC game per round, though, and in the first round forced a two-day postponement and a venue change between the PDL’s Chicago FC United and the NPSL’s Grand Rapids FC).
After the first round was completed, US Soccer - with the second round pairings already set before the tournament kicked off - announced third round match-ups. Since the third round only features winners from the second round, it effectively reduced the tournament into sets of four. The last team standing in each set will advance to the fourth round, when MLS’s 19 American clubs join the fray.
Geography is usually a major factor in who ends up playing a given MLS team. I say “usually” instead of “always” because there’s often one pairing that is simply two leftover teams from crowded regions. Remember that long cycle of seeing the LA Galaxy and/or Chivas USA having to fly cross-country to play the Carolina Railhawks? Or that in the last two years, United has been paired with third round games involving teams from Florida?
Nonetheless, the most likely group of four is whoever is left standing between the Richmond Kickers (USL), Christos FC (amateur team from Maryland, and an interesting story to boot), the Riverhounds (USL), and Chicago FC United (PDL). Richmond hosts Christos tonight, while Pittsburgh is in Illinois for their game against the poorly-named FC United. If Richmond wins, they’ll host their third round game no matter the opponent, while Pittsburgh would host Christos if the team from the Baltimore suburbs pulls the upset. If both USL clubs get knocked off, the host between Christos and Chicago is still to be determined.
In any case, the Kickers have been United’s most common Open Cup foe by a pretty wide margin over the years, and we’ve already mentioned D.C.’s trip up to Pittsburgh from 2015. Chicago upsetting the Riverhounds might reduce the chances of United drawing this set, but realistically it’s still the most likely outcome.
Next on the list is probably the quartet that includes North Carolina FC (NASL), the Carolina Dynamo (PDL), the Charlotte Eagles (PDL), and the Charlotte Independence (USL). In years past, North Carolina seemed to be a problem for US Soccer, because it has several teams, but the nearest MLS clubs (United and Orlando City) both had plenty of other options nearby.
The landscape has changed a lot, though, with Atlanta United starting up this year and a boom in Florida clubs at all levels. There is an all-Florida quartet in the tournament, as well as one that is 50% Florida, 25% Georgia, and 25% South Carolina, which means Orlando and Atlanta are probably locked in as the MLS team paired with them.
Throw in the glut of MLS teams in the mid-Atlantic and northeast, and you could make a sound argument that pairing United with the informal champions of NC makes the most sense in terms of the entire tournament’s geography. However, United hasn’t been paired with a side from North Carolina since a 1-0 win over the Wilmington Hammerheads back in 2003. For whatever reason, Soccer House sends DCU north whenever possible.
That’s a good segue into the third most likely option. While US Soccer almost certainly wants to force the New York Cosmos (NASL) to face either NYCFC or the Red Bulls, the other three teams in their quartet - Reading United AC (PDL), Ocean City Nor’easters (PDL), and the Harrisburg City Islanders (USL) - would suit the old “DCU goes north” pattern US Soccer has held for a long time. Of course, they make even more sense as teams for the Philadelphia Union to play, so it would be kind of odd if United ended up with this set. Spare a thought for the prospect of a mid-week trip to Ocean City, NJ, though, because the Nor’easters play at a venue overlooked by a ferris wheel and basically a stone’s throw from the ocean.
After that, there’s a loose group of other possibilities. The Rochester Rhinos (USL)/FC Motown (amateurs from New Jersey), Boston City FC (NPSL), and GPS Omens (amateurs from Massachusetts) makes more sense for the New England Revolution, or whichever of NYRB/NYCFC doesn’t end up with the group that includes the Cosmos. The Columbus Crew seem like a sure pairing for the FC Cincinnati (USL)/AFC Cleveland (NPSL)/Louisville City FC (USL)/Tartan Devils FC Oak Avalon (amateur club from outside Pittsburgh) group, but United and arguably the Chicago Fire could also be the fallback plan in case US Soccer does something odd with the Crew.
I mentioned the Florida-heavy groups before, and if Orlando or Atlanta is paired off elsewhere - unlikely given that there are no teams involved from Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, or Kentucky, and there’s only one quartet involving Texas clubs - United could theoretically end up facing the winner of either the Jacksonville Armada (NASL)/Miami United FC (NPSL)/Atlanta Silverbacks (NPSL)/Charleston Battery (USL) group, or the Miami FC (NASL)/South Florida Surf (PDL)/Tampa Bay Rowdies (USL) group.
There’s a final twist in this tale, though. I mentioned that there are 19 MLS teams involved in the fourth round. However, to produce a viable knockout tournament, you can’t give each of them a partner from the third round. 13 teams will be left when the third round ends, which means three fourth round games are going to be all-MLS affairs. With seven MLS clubs located along the Atlantic coast, and Columbus not all that far away, it seems highly likely that at least one pairing will involve Eastern Conference foes rather than the more familiar MLS vs. lower-level club set-up.
Given that we’ve already seen the likelihood that Orlando and Atlanta are playing clubs from their neck of the woods, and that Columbus, New England, and Philadelphia all have some fairly obvious potential quartets to match with, the Red Bulls or NYCFC become a distinct possibility, as does having to win five straight against MLS opposition to lift the trophy.