The Lamar Hunt US Open Cup is one of the very best things in American soccer. Despite the fact that US Soccer does next to nothing to promote the tournament - which is itself a boost over the actual nothing of past years - it chugs along, providing diehard soccer nerds like yours truly plenty to talk about even during early-round games between obscure teams. There's nothing quite like watching an amateur club's game being streamed over someone's phone, or following the madness as a PDL club upsets a fully professional team (which may cause you to impulse buy a shirt).
It doesn't hurt that D.C. United has deep roots in this competition, winning it three times (1996, 2008, and 2013) and going on deep runs several other times. Even when things haven't gone that well, there are events that come up in Lot 8 for years thanks to the magic of the Cup. The first thing United fans think of when they hear the name Cuauhtemoc Blanco is of the night he punched Clyde Simms and headbutted a DCU staffer. We still talk about "Brankostock" on this site, and Branko Boskovic becoming "Bodkin" happened in a cup match as well. And who could forget the least successful team in United history still managing to win the 2013 tournament?
This year, the path to the Open Cup (and the CONCACAF Champions League place that comes with it) starts with a game against the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the NASL. It's not the easiest draw in the field, to be sure. While United takes on a Strikers side that could theoretically have won the spring NASL championship with a high-scoring win on Sunday, teams like LA and Seattle will host amateur teams. The Strikers, meanwhile, were on a six-game unbeaten streak in what is nominally US Soccer's 2nd division before losing 2-1 at FC Edmonton on Sunday.
Head coach Caio Zanardi's squad finished the NASL's spring slate of games with a 4-3-3 record, and the team's strength has been mostly based around a stingy defense. In eleven competitive games in 2016, they've held their opponent to either zero or one goal on nine different occasions (an early season 3-0 loss to Minnesota United and Sunday's 2-1 defeat in Edmonton being the outliers). The Strikers may not score often - twelve goals in ten NASL matches, plus a 1-1 draw with the Richmond Kickers in the previous USOC round that was settled on penalty kicks - but they've managed to only give up 13 goals in those 11 total games.
Zanardi's team is listed as playing a 4231 in most of what I've read, but from observing them actually play, I'd say they are in something more similar to a 4411 or 442 (quite similar to how United started the season with Luciano Acosta floating underneath Fabian Espindola). It should look something like this:
In goal, former United trialist and Virginia Cavalier Diego Restrepo appears to have won the starting job mid-season over Brazilian veteran Bruno. However, Restrepo has never quite convinced me, and he looked very shaky in Sunday's loss to FC Edmonton (including a bad error on what turned out to be the game-winning goal). Restrepo will probably start, but he did require treatment after a hard landing on Edmonton's turf playing surface. If he does, United will want to test him with some crosses, because his decision-making and execution seem to suffer when the ball is in the air.
Right back is also a question mark, and it also involves some names that you'll probably recognize. Nana Attakora has 7 starts for the Strikers as a right back, but since being subbed at halftime on May 27th, he has been left out of the 18 in two straight games. If he's injured, look for Brazilian veteran (get used to that phrase, as this team is loaded with them) Gabriel or former DCU center back Julius James to get the call. As DC fans likely remember, James is a pure center back, but Fort Lauderdale has tried to use him on the right more than once this season. Gabriel - who has one cap for Brazil - started against Edmonton, but the 35 year old has just 84 total minutes played this season. He is a natural right back, but he'll be vulnerable to quicker players.
Gale Agbossoumonde was once touted as a potential USMNT starter, but things did not go according to plan. Still, the former TFC defender is the anchor of this back four, and their defensive record indicates that he's finding himself in Florida. The 24 year old is the organizer for the Strikers, and he'll bring a physical, feisty edge to the game.
Agbossoumonde's partner is less of a sure thing. James was preferred earlier in the season, but Dalton - yet another Brazilian - started each game of Fort Lauderdale's six-game unbeaten run only to sit the bench during Sunday's loss. United fans know enough about James: He's as brave as they come, and he's got decent speed as well as good leaping ability, but he's not comfortable with the ball and can make rash decisions.
You may be looking at the image above and wondering what happened at left back, where it just shows "PC." This is not a comment on my computer choice. Victor Pagliari Giro prefers to be known as PC - you guessed it, another Brazilian - and he will captain the Strikers. PC is an energetic, solidly built player who can also play further up the field (both on the left and as a holding midfielder). If the 22 year old has a flaw, it is the occasional tendency to lose focus with the ball at his feet.
On the right flank, there's another Brazilian. Geison has spent most of this decade playing for the various iterations of Minnesota's top pro club, but joined Fort Lauderdale this winter. During the game against Edmonton, he and Gabriel were swapped at halftime in an odd but intriguing tactical move. Geison is more of a pure winger who plays a very north-south sort of game; if Gabriel is used further upfield, look for him to be more narrow and focus more on possession.
The situation in central midfield is quite a bit like the one at center back, where one player is a clear starter and his partner has been an ongoing battle between two options. Let's start with the sure thing: Luis Felipe is an American-born Brazilian, and despite being just 20 years old he has started 9 of 10 games this season for the Strikers. He's not a flashy sort of midfielder, but he does keep the ball moving smartly and is a big part of Fort Lauderdale's attempts at controlling the pace of play.
Both Manny Gonzalez and former RSL midfielder Jean Alexandre have 5 starts in NASL play for the Strikers, with Gonzalez having 37 more minutes played over the course of the season. Both players will fill more of a ball-winning role (not that Luis Felipe is weak in the tackle), with Gonzalez relying more on sheer effort while Alexandre uses his burly physique to get the job done. The deciding factor here is probably the fact that Alexandre was with Haiti during their run in Copa America. While Gonzalez played 76 minutes on turf Sunday afternoon, Alexandre has played 123 minutes spread across three games played in Seattle, Orlando, and northern New Jersey in the past 10 days.
On the left side, Jose Angulo - a veteran of several clubs scattered across the northern Atlantic coast - will provide a bustling, physical presence. Angulo is more of a natural forward, and at 6' tall United will want to be cautious about dealing with him at the back post when crosses come in from the right flank. Angulo being a striker is a double-edged sword, though, and he can struggle when a bit more thought or creativity are required in the midfield.
Former FC Dallas attacker Ramon Nuñez is who the Strikers have built their attack around. Nuñez, after playing for 10 clubs in 5 countries over the past 7+ years, is set up in a free role between the midfield and front line with Fort Lauderdale. He frankly does not look to be in the sort of physical shape you associate with pro soccer players, but his skill and creativity are not in question. United needs to doggedly close down space between the lines, as Nuñez possesses both the quick feet to break into the box on the dribble and an accurate shot from long range.
Speaking of shooting from long range, Brazilian veteran and former United striker Maicon Santos should lead the line for Fort Lauderdale. He played just 59 minutes in Edmonton, so it seems safe to expect him to get the start again (particularly with the NASL going on a month-long break that started on Monday). United fans know Santos well: He's tall, he's physical in the air, and he has a cannon of a left foot. However, he can also tend to fade out of games that don't start off well - we call this version of him "Mike Sanders" - and the Black-and-Red need to make sure that it's Sanders rather than Santos tomorrow night.
Off the bench, Zanardi has a few players he tends to look to with regularity. Striker Giuseppe Gentile (a former Chicago Fire draft pick) has 8 appearances but 0 starts. He is a hard-working target man, but the Strikers have also been willing to play him on the wing when trailing. Speaking of the Fire, former Chicago academy product Victor Pineda has 6 appearances as a sub this season. If he plays, it'll most likely be on the right side of midfield.
Fort Lauderdale's most likely game-changer is Matheus Carvalho. The Brazilian - told you to get used to it - spent half a season on loan with AS Monaco in France's top flight, and he made 8 appearances for a side that finished that season in 3rd place. However, Monaco opted not to purchase his playing rights, and after his contract with Fluminense ended he came over to the Strikers as a free agent. It's odd that a player of his ability isn't starting, but he is likely to sub in on one wing or the other.