US Open Cup Preview: Second Round

Midweek madness

Between today and next Tuesday, all 12 USL League One teams and 23 USL Championship teams will start their 2023 US Open Cup campaigns, joining the surviving 4 USL League Two teams and a number of other qualifiers from the first round. One Championship team will not be playing – the Pittsburgh Riverhounds were scheduled to play Rochester New York, the only independent club in MLS Next Pro (and therefore the only Cup-eligible team in that league), but Rochester folded after submitting its application to play in the Cup and being drawn against the Hounds. Pittsburgh therefore gets a forfeit and sits out this round.

That was pretty much a disgrace, as Rochester probably knew they weren’t going to be able to play this season. Another disgrace is that for the second and third rounds at least, there is now no comprehensive TV broadcaster. Previously, all USOC games were streamed on ESPN+. No longer. US Soccer early last month announced that only featured games from the first three rounds will be aired by Bleacher Report. All other games were therefore at the discretion of the hosting teams to provide a stream. 8 of the 29 games will as a result have no streaming provider. The Chattanooga Red Wolves-Birmingham Legion will be one of those 8, as the Red Wolves inform me they were unable to find a partner in time. 12 other clubs did just fine. That being said, the other 7 games not being streamed are all being hosted by Championship clubs. Hmm.

It should also be noted that there is no announced broadcaster for the later rounds. The fourth round (or Round of 32) is when the 8 seeded MLS teams enter the competition, so they need to get something organized. And quickly. Judging by Apple’s not-so-great experience with MLS so far, that might be a problem.

Anyway, if you want to watch any of the available games, you can find all the links here. With a few exceptions, the games are all local matchups, as the competition in its early stages is set up for geographic proximity as far as possible to reduce travel costs for lower league teams. Probably the biggest exception Greenville Triumph having to head all the way west to Phoenix. That game kicks off at 9:30pm tomorrow and does have a stream, so if you want to see the Legion’s upcoming weekend opponent, this would be a good chance. Greenville have only played one game so far this season (a 0-1 home loss to Richmond Kickers) but are not to be counted out.

The Legion game is at 6:30pm tomorrow and you’ll likely have to rely on Twitter for coverage.

Anyway, the Chattanooga Red Wolves have something of a notorious history already. First off, they aren’t even in Chattanooga but rather East Ridge, Tennessee, which is sandwiched between Chattanooga and the Georgia state line. They have been playing in League One since 2019, having been awarded the USL franchise the previous year. Chattanooga already had a semi-professional team, Chattanooga FC1CFC is one the teams that have to travel this week, going to Des Moines, IA tomorrow., which had plans to go fully professional (it is now and plays in NISA), and basically got beaten to the punch. It also didn’t help that the Red Wolves tried to get the lease at Finley Stadium, FC’s home, and also take over its academy program. They did take over the city’s ladies team, which now plays in the W League. A year later, they were sent a cease and desist letter by Arkansas State University, which also goes by the name Red Wolves. They still use the name so I guess that ended up going nowhere.

Most recently, the team parted ways with its second head coach in late 2022 after allegations of abusive behavior towards his players were made. The club’s own investigation was deemed inadequate by the USLPA and things got messy. The current head coach is Jeff Korytoski, who goes by Ziggy.

The Red Wolves failed to make the playoffs in their first two seasons, but have been improved since, losing in the semi-final in 2021 and in the final last year (to Legion nemesis Tormenta). This season they have had quite a lot of roster turnover though. They have played twice so far, both at home. drawing 0-0 with the Northern Colorado Hailstorm and losing 0-1 to Central Valley Fuego. No goals at home is not a good look, and they have even struggled to get shots on target, just 5 to date. They have a mere 15 shots total despite a heavy possession advantage in both games. They also have only 5 shots inside the 18, none of which were on target. Admittedly, two games is a small sample, but it looks like they are having trouble penetrating the box and tend to get stuck in their own end.

On the other hand, they’ve only allowed 1 goal from 10 shots on target. They’ve done that with a pretty solid centerback pairing in Travis Nicklaw and Mekeil Williams. Williams may be a familiar name: until this season he was with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. Behind them two different goalkeepers have been in net: Carlos Avilez and Ricardo Jerez, both of whom look pretty good. No idea which will be playing tomorrow, although I believe Jerez is the putative starter. The Red Wolves also play a very physical game (especially the aforementioned Williams), and have picked up 6 yellow cards already (yes, more cards than shots on goal).

Prediction: As the Legion well knows, League One teams are not to be dismissed lightly. They are in general pretty close to Championship teams in terms of talent and possibly also depth. As such, this game needs to be approached with some caution. Nevertheless, this is a match the Three Sparks absolutely should win. I’m calling a 2-0 victory.

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