US Open Cup: Round of 32 Preview
The Cup heats up
The Birmingham Legion has advanced to the Round of 32 in the US Open Cup for the first time. Admittedly it’s only the team’s third attempt. The Three Sparks lost in the third round on both previous occasions, 0-1 to Louisville in 2019 and 0-2 to Tormenta last year. The team also avoided a matchup with an MLS squad for this round, which may or may not be a good thing. Instead they get Memphis 901 coming to town tomorrow night (7:00pm).
So for the first time ever, the Southern Harm derby will have some serious implications. Not least of which is the fact that the last remaining lower league team gets a $25,000 payout. Not huge earnings, granted, but there’s no such thing as bad money. There are 8 USL Championship teams still alive, but the other 6 all play against MLS opposition. The USL is therefore guaranteed at least one team in the Round of 16. The Legion needs to ensure that is the good guys.
Obviously, the Legion comes into this game after a horrendous week. Part of that can be attributed to outrageously poor refereeing, another part to squad rotation, and yet another to bad luck down in Miami (Trevor Spangenberg was more or less blinded on the first goal and Alex Crognale’s own goal was a howler of the first order). But there is an issue that is troubling. IN both games the Three Sparks were up against a 3-man back line and seriously struggled to penetrate. Against Oakland the team was thoroughly dominating up until the red card (and to an extent even afterwards) but singularly failed to convert. Similar problems were evident down in South Florida too.
The good news is that Phanuel Kavita’s red card (which needs to be appealed anyway) does not affect his status for the Open Cup, so he will be available. With Neco Brett and Tyler Pasher both getting minutes on Saturday, the team is effectively at full strength for the first time in what feels like forever. Anticipate a seriously heavy starting XI in this one.
As for Area Code FC, they got to this point with two extra time games, the first a 2-1 win at USL League One expansion team One Knoxville and then a shock 2-1 win at Atlanta United, who rather underestimated their opponent. United scored in the third minute and controlled the game even with a mixed MLS/MLSNP squad until giving up a PK 6 minutes into second half stoppage time. By that time most of the regular starters were out and Memphis clinched it 10 minutes into extra time. Since then they drew 1-1 with Louisville City and won 2-0 at Hartford Athletic. Their only other league win to date was a 3-0 affair at Rio Grande Valley immediately before the last US Open Cup match.
So right now they are playing fairly well. The only odd thing about the team is that Phillip Goodrum (who scored the PK against Atlanta) has yet to record a goal in league play this season. The team’s top scorers are Laurent Kissiedou, Bruno Lapa and Luiz Fernando, who have a lowly 2 each. Kissiedou (an Ivorian) and Fernando (a Brazilian) coincidentally both found their way to Memphis via Atlanta United. Neither has really lit up the scoreboard that much over their careers. Lapa you all know of course, and as it happens tomorrow is his birthday, so he is going to be highly motivated.
At the back will likely be Bill Hamid, another past his prime US national team goalkeeper, so embarrassment should be on the cards again. Apart from anything else, Hamid is looking, well, a tad chunky these days. In front of him will likely be a 4-man back line, anchored by Carson vom Steeg and Graham Smith along with fullbacks Rece Buckmaster – who is definitely not to be ignored – and Akeem Ward, another former Legionary.
Overall, this is a pretty solid Memphis team. They also have some firepower on the bench in the form of 18-year-old Nighte Pickering, who scored the game-winner against Atlanta. He came up through the FC Dallas system, and like so many others, they got him from the Magic City.
One last thing: if you can’t make it to the game (and shame on you if so) it will be streamed n the US Soccer YouTube channel.
Prediction: This one is win or go home, so I can’t predict a draw, although frankly I would like to. I honestly have no idea who will win this one, so I will be a complete homer and say the Three Sparks will eke out a victory tomorrow night.
The Rest of the USL
The other 6 USL teams in the tournament play either tonight or tomorrow. Unlike previous rounds, all 16 games will be streamed on various platforms. The full schedule can be viewed here. Four of them play tonight and the other 2 Wednesday. Three of the games tonight have potential for cupsets. First up is Inter Miami v. Charleston Battery (6:00pm). Depending on who Inter (who are les than impressive 10th in the MLS Eastern Conference) decide to play, the Battery have a decent chance of advancing. They are after all tied for the league lead on points. The team they are tied with is Sacramento Republic, who of course went all the way last year. SacRep have a home match against the Colorado Rapids (9:30pm). Like Inter the Rapids are 10th in their conference and have been underperformers in MLS for a number of years now.
But the biggest chance of the night could well belong to Monterey Bay. They host LAFC (9:30pm). LAFC are of course the reigning MLS Cup champions, but they have faced a very busy schedule lately and almost certainly have their eyes not on the US Open Cup but on the CONCACAF Champions League coming up later this month (against Leon of Mexico). Word out of LA is that most of the starters will not make the trip.
That leaves the Pittsburgh Riverhounds on tonight’s schedule. They travel to Foxboro to play the New England Revolution (6:30pm). The Revs are leading all of MLS right now, so the Hounds’ chances are pretty thin.
That leaves Loudoun United and New Mexico United. Loudoun play at the same time as the Legion and face the Columbus Crew. The Crew are a decent club (6th in the East) and should see Loudoun off. New Mexico head to Austin FC (8:00pm). Austin are 12th in the West, but New Mexico haven’t exactly been racking up the results either. Call it a tossup.