The most wonderful time of the year is back.
There’s nothing like that awesome feeling of knocking an opponent out of the U.S. Open Cup. The high experienced in 2017 from David slaying Goliath still hasn’t worn off, even though FC Cincinnati now walks amongst the MLS titans.
It’s been three full years since the USOC last kicked into gear, and while that year featured a satisfying win over a non-league rival—a 2-1 extra-time win over Lou City—it still ended in disappointment from a last-second heartbreaker. Time heals all wounds, and the Orange and Blue have had plenty of it—the USOC had been on hiatus for the 2020 and 2021 seasons.
Nevertheless, with the USL still brimming from three tiers of competitive soccer, the NISA and NPSL keeping their undercurrents active, and even MLS Next Pro providing two independent teams, this year’s USOC is bigger than ever. 103 teams will participate in this year’s tournament, and that doesn’t include the 80 local qualifiers who have already been eliminated in qualifying rounds.
Who are we expecting FC Cincinnati to encounter when the Orange and Blue enter in the third round? We have a few good ideas, so let’s suggest some games of interest in the first and second rounds…
First-round (and potential second-round) matchups of interest
[Winner to face Union Omaha (USL-1) on Tuesday, April 5th]
While FC Cincinnati has not faced any of these representatives from the lower levels, all have been strong presences in their own leagues.
The first-round matchup pits regional rivals who suddenly find themselves in the same USL League Two (USL-2) division. Des Moines has certainly been a “Menace” in the USL’s lower tiers since their founding in 1994. The Menace have been a model of consistency in the USL PDL and USL-2, winning their division six times in the last eight years. They claimed the USL-2 Championship in 2021 and are preparing for their USL Championship (USL-C) debut in 2024. Their best finish in the U.S. Open Cup was way back in 2005 when the team edged Pittsburgh, Charleston, and the old Atlanta Silverbacks before getting mauled by Kansas City in the fourth round.
Not to be outdone, Minneapolis City SC has their own brand of notoriety. If Des Moines is considered the “cream” of lower-league American soccer, Minneapolis City—“The Crows” to the locals—could serve as the “culture”. The squad has won their NPSL division each season since 2018, but was not able to advance further than their regional final. While their primary colors are black and white, their logo and brand were launched by Matthew Wolff, who also was responsible for the likes of LAFC and NYCFC.
While MCSC do not exactly have success in the USOC, their one legitimate appearance was in 2017, when they were disqualified before the tournament began. The Crows changed leagues in the 2016-17 offseason, a no-no to U.S. Soccer back then. However, MCSC declared their newest transition to USL-2 in September 2021, circumventing the issue this time. That means that Des Moines and Minneapolis will face each other in the first round, even though they are in the same USL-2 division this season.
Union Omaha await the winner of this matchup and are no pushover themselves. While “The Owls” have never played in the USOC due to COVID cancellations, Omaha has been a force in USL League One (USL-1). The team made it to the USL-1 Cup final in 2020, only for the league to cancel the championship. However, Omaha returned to the final in 2021 and went a step further to defeat Greenville Triumph 3-0 for their first title.
[Winner to face Forward Madison FC (USL-1) on Wednesday, April 6th]
A potential matchup with the winner of the first-round match between Cleveland and Chicago is obviously the more visible of the possibilities due to proximity, but neither team has actually faced the Orange and Blue.
Before you point out that FC Cincinnati defeated a Cleveland NPSL team on the way to the 2017 USOC semifinals, that team was AFC Cleveland. That NPSL team from Cleveland won the 2016 NPSL championship and pushed that legendary FCC squad to extra time before Djiby scored late to preserve a 1-0 win. This team from Cleveland rose from the ashes of the defunct AFC Cleveland squad after the 2017 season and has managed to perform just as well, going to the NPSL national semifinals two straight seasons.
Chicago FC United is more of an undercurrent in the USL PDL and USL-2 ranks, managing to penetrate the playoffs the past three seasons. The organization filled the void left by the departing Chicago Fire academy in 2017, serving as a main pathway to professional soccer in Chicago the same way that Kings Hammer operates for Cinicinnati. Their only USOC appearance was a 2017 mini-run where the team upset Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, only to fall to Christos FC in the third round.
The winner of this matchup will have to run through Forward Madison, one of the more colorful representatives of USL-1. The “Flamingos” are still trying for another run after narrowly making the 2019 USL-1 postseason and flaming out in the third round of the 2019 USOC against St. Louis FC. Surprisingly, Madison has a former midfielder of that fabled 2017 FC Cincinnati squad—Mélé Temguia just signed this month after three seasons with Alan Koch’s FC Edmonton.
[Winner to face Rochester New York FC (MLS Next Pro) on Thursday, April 7th]
With the relaunch of the U.S. Open Cup comes the ghosts of its past.
Starting in 1913, much of the early USOC tournaments were held in the northeastern U.S. states. Teams from New York won many of those early tournaments (26 of the 106 championships to date), but a team from New York has not won the championship since 1999. (More on that to come.)
Ocean City is not the pretty name when it comes to recognition as a lower-tier team, but they have surprisingly made a lot of waves in the USOC. The Nor’easters have been a steadfast presence in the lower USL leagues and have participated in ten USOC tournaments since their opener in 1997. Their biggest year came in 2013 when they upset Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC in the second round and almost beat Philadelphia Union, losing 2-1 at the death.
While it is a long shot for a local qualifier, Lansdowne Yonkers FC have already some gold going into this tournament. The “Bhoys” from the Eastern Premier Soccer League won the 2021 National Amateur Cup to get an automatic bid this year. They may not go far, but Lansdowne did stir up press when they marched into the second round in 2016 and beat Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC (a common theme, apparently) 2-0. The team Lansdowne lost to in the next round would be the team they could be facing if they were to win over Ocean City.
See, it’s been a while since we’ve spoken about the rhinoceros in the room. Rochester New York FC is actually the refurbished shell of the Rochester Rhinos, that once proud monolith of the USL. When people talk about the lower-tier teams that could upset and dethrone MLS talent, Rochester did it best. After getting by regional teams in the lower rounds, Rochester marched past Chicago, Dallas, Columbus, and Colorado to claim the 1999 U.S. Open Cup. No team outside of the MLS has won the tournament since that fateful day.
While Rochester would dominate the USL in the mid-2010s, claiming the 2015 regular-season and playoff USL crowns with a strangling defense, the team had a history of poor financial situations. After going on hiatus in 2017, the team was finally restructured under new ownership (including Leicester forward Jamie Vardy) and prepared for MLS Next Pro competition this season. Rochester New York FC will be the only independent non-MLS team to participate in the developmental league.
Second-round matchups of interest
Remember when Detroit City FC gave FC Cincinnati a serious challenge in the second round of the 2018 U.S. Open Cup? That 4-1 win at Gettler Stadium that took 120 minutes instead of the regulation 90?
While Detroit City took the first lead against FC Cincinnati in 2018, the Orange and Blue rode a hat trick from Emery Welshman to defeat Le Rouge in added extra time. There’s no doubt that DCFC and their vociferous fans remember that sting.
However, this is hardly the same Detroit City team from 2018. After winning half-season titles in NISA in 2020 and 2021, Detroit City, once the darlings of the NPSL, have made the step to USL Championship (USL-C) soccer. This means that the team is built for more matches, fuller March-to-October competition, and higher bounty.
So far, Detroit City’s new challenge in 2022 resulted in mixed reviews with an opening loss at San Antonio. However, a familiar name is captaining Le Rouge, as ex-FCC midfielder Antoine Hoppenot opened his account with Detroit City, scoring the game winner in a 1-0 home victory against Charleston.
Detroit City is likely tired of having to face teams from Michigan, having previously bested the Michigan (not Flint City) Bucks in 2016 and 2018. While this is the Michigan Stars’ first foray into the U.S. Open Cup, they are no stranger to Detroit, having played them in the NISA the past two years, handing Le Rouge a rare defeat in 2020. A win by either team could legitimately pit them against their first MLS-caliber competition in the tournament.
The big question—would Gettler Stadium be too small for a possible rematch?
The pandemic has kept families and friends apart from each other for far too long. Perhaps a reunion is in order, even with the cousins that nobody wants to talk about.
Some would suggest that the less spoken about Louisville City’s successes in the USL-C would be for the better. During FC Cincinnati’s six years in existence, the Boys in Purple downstream have always seemed to have the last laugh. Two USL Cup titles on the resume would do that. The last laugh has been with Louisville City, who took a 3-0 preseason victory in 2021, one that was notoriously ignored by FCC and glorified by Lou City.
Lou City has enjoyed at least one win in the USOC since their debut in 2015, with their best finish happening in 2018. The eventual USL Cup winners managed four straight home wins, including a 3-2 shocker against New England Revolution, before bowing out against Chicago Fire in the quarterfinals. They have yet to defeat FC Cincinnati in their U.S. Cup matchups, losing both matchups at Nippert Stadium in 2017 and 2019.
While Lou City has been known to collect former FC Cincinnati players (quick—name all nine!), the only familiar names to FCC fans in this 2022 squad are midfielders Tyler Gibson and Corben Bone. Both have been instrumental in Lou City’s two home wins to start the season. A good portion from the 2017 and 2018 championship teams is still within the roster, including forward Cameron Lancaster and (infamous “bite-victim”) midfielder Niall McCabe.
While Chattanooga doesn’t necessarily share that same overlap and rivalry with FCC, the Red Wolves have gotten progressively better in the USL-1 trenches. Their third-place finish and semifinal appearance in 2021 were both team-high achievements. Their lone appearance in the USOC was a 2019 loss to South Georgia Tormenta’s reserve team in the second round.
A good deal of that successful 2021 team decided to stick around, including the team’s leading goal scorer, forward Juan Galindrez (10 goals in 27 games). The only name people might recognize is midfielder Rey Ortiz, the second of 2020 FC Cincinnati’s draft picks who was released at the end of the season. He signed in midseason in 2021, scoring a goal and two assists in 16 games.
It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for Chattanooga to pull an upset against the royalty of the USL-C. However, if Lou City completes its first order of business, as it usually has every Open Cup, the waters of the dormant “Dirty River” may flow once again this year.
Not to put a blemish on either team’s name or history, but consider this matchup to be the perfect overlap of FC Cincinnati’s past, present, and future. The Orange & Blue started their first USOC quest with a 2-1 win against Indy Eleven’s NPSL academy team in 2016. However, FCC’s last Open Cup match was a 1-0 defeat at Saint Louis FC in 2019.
While FC Cincinnati fans may gravitate to Indy Eleven as the lesser of the local USL evils, Indy is hardly the team they were when FCC left in 2019. The squad has gone through managerial changes and moved back to the smaller Michael Carroll Stadium they first inhabited in 2014. Indy has failed to make the playoffs since 2019 and has not beaten an MLS team in the USOC yet.
Famed FCC alumni such as Kenney Walker, Manu Ledesma, and Evan Newton no longer play for the squad, but there are still some faint connections to FCC. Goalkeeper Bobby Edwards retired in the offseason, but stayed on as an assistant goalkeeper coach, while ex-FCC forward Jonas Fjeldberg signed with the team in February. So far, the Eleven have lost their first two matches to start the USL-C season.
While St. Louis City SC will join MLS in 2023, their “2” team has already started operations in the upcoming MLS Next Pro league. Interestingly enough, the only overlap with FCC’s past is their head coach—former Louisville City head coach John Hackworth is the director of coaching for the future MLS team and will helm the “2” squad for half the 2022 season.
St. Louis has announced a decent “2” team, already claiming ex-Philadelphia defender Josh Yaro for the 2023 MLS season. If STLSC2 can get by Indy, Yaro might lead his team into battle against Pat Noonan, his former assistant coach.
Any way you slice it, a match against either team would be a good opportunity to reignite rivalries in the Midwest.
What team would you like to see FC Cincinnati face in this year’s tournament? How far can the Orange and Blue advance?