US Open Cup Quarterfinals Preview

Another biggest game ever

So, we are down to the Elite Eight in the 2023 edition of the US Open Cup. 6 MLS teams, 2 USL Championship teams. Your very own Birmingham Legion is of course one of those two, and of the other 23 USLC squads, did the other one really have to be the Pittsburgh Riverhounds?

That does set up the possibility of a rematch, and it would be the fourth scheduled knockout game between the two teams and the third to be played if we get to that point. Do we want that or no?

One big question about these games is the upcoming international break. Both FC Cincinnati and Inter Miami have had players called up (not sure about the other teams). It’s unclear whether those players will be available over the next two days or not. If not, that could have a major impact.

But there are games to be played before we can even consider that. In scheduling order, here they are:

FC Cincinnati v. Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Tuesday 6:00pm

The Hounds have, if anything the toughest task in the quarterfinals. FC Cincinnati are burning it up in MLS. Currently on 39 points, they are already 8 points clear of the next best team, Nashville SC. They are on a 6-game league win streak and 8 games in all competitions. They last dropped points April 29th in a 1-1 draw at New England and have lost just 1 game all year.

That being said, Pittsburgh are on a 4-game league win streak of their own, and throw in the win over the Columbus Crew in the Round of 16. Not too shabby. Unlike the Legion, though, they are going to have to do this on the road, and Cincy is not a welcoming location for visiting teams. It never has been even back in the city’s USL days.

Prediction: Cincinnati win. Easy call.

Chicago Fire v. Houston Dynamo, Tuesday 7:30pm

On paper this is the most even matchup of the four games. Chicago currently sits in 26th in the Supporters’ Shield standings and Houston in 21st. That’s out of 29 teams, in case you didn’t know, so neither team is exactly covering itself in glory this year.

Most importantly here, Jonny Dean is recovering from a groin injury and isn’t expected back until the middle of this month, so is almost certainly not going to play in this game.

The Fire have not won in their last 5 league games, most recently losing 0-1 to Cincinnati, as it happens, this past Saturday. They got to the quarterfinals by beating Austin FC 2-0 in Texas, but Austin aren’t overly impressive this year either. The Dynamo are faring a bit better in league play. Their last win was a 2-1 result over the same Austin team just 4 days after Chicago knocked them out of the Cup. But before that you have to go all the way back April 23rd, when they won 1-0 over…Inter Miami. Their path to the quarterfinals was a 4-0 thumping of Minnesota United, but that started with a red card and PK in the 33rd minute, so is not especially indicative of quality. This won’t be the least interesting game of the round, but pretty close.

Prediction: Houston win, but possibly on PKs.

Birmingham Legion v. Inter Miami, Wednesday 7:00pm

The one we all care about, naturally.

The home team needs no introduction, other than to say that its 5-game league losing streak is worrisome. It also is unlikely that Neco Brett will have recovered from his reinjured hamstring by tomorrow. But the rest of the team is pretty much healthy and has had the luxury of a long break since the game in Detroit May 27th. Much needed after a long stretch of double-game weeks. Moreover, the team will not play again after this until the June 17th home game against Indy Eleven. Now, Inter Miami, on the other hand…

…have played 12 games since April 22nd. That’s 1 every 3.6 days. They also have to play this Saturday at New England before finally getting a 2-week breather (the international break). Even worse, the last game was played with 10 men for 83 minutes after a red card to centerback Kamal Miller. They are, to put it mildly, tired. When I asked Tommy Soehn about that in last Thursday’s press conference (which was originally intended to be a joint conference with Miami), he said he had “zero sympathy”. No kidding.

Miami almost certainly backed out of that conference because a couple of hours later they fired head coach Phil Neville and assistant coach Jason Kreis. That had to be a tough decision, because Neville has a great coaching record overall and is a close friend and former teammate of David Beckham. But Miami’s performance this season made it an absolute necessity. In the league their record is 5-11-0 and they sit in 27th in Supporters’ Shield standings as well as rock bottom in the Eastern Conference. In those 11 losses they have been shut out 6 times. They are currently on a 5-game league losing streak (surprisingly, they did score when a man down against Wayne Rooney’s DC United but still lost 1-2). They did break up that streak with the 2-1 Open Cup win over Nashville, but it’s still ugly.

Interim head coach is Javier Morales, the long-time Real Salt Lake player and former teammate of Phanuel Kavita (they were  both there 2015-16). Since his only game in charge was played with 10 men, it’s difficult to judge how he is going to manage the team. He played a 4-2-3-1 initially, but prior to that the team has also played a 4-4-2, a 3-5-2 and a 3-4-3. If they go with a 3-man back line that could present some problems for the Legion, which has struggled against that setup big time. However, there has been very limited rotation in the starting lineups.

Whichever way they line up, it is clear that the defense, which plays with USMNT regular DeAndre Yedlin either at right back or at right wingback, is a very weak link. Fortunately for them, the team has an excellent goalkeeper in Drake Callender, who is probably their best player. He was called up to the USMNT squad for the upcoming CONCACAF Nations League games and would be expected not to be in Birmingham tomorrow. However, the club’s Twitter account shows him headed here, so who knows. The team is also very vulnerable to the counterattack and the long ball, which works to the Legion’s strengths.

Up top when playing with 2 strikers it is Josef Martinez, who needs no introduction, and Ecuadorian Leonardo Campana. Campana is only 22 but is very definitely a scoring threat. He was the only regular starter rested against DC, but ended playing the entire second half. And that may not matter anyway, because like Callender he has been called up by his national team. Miami could be missing key players at both ends. Josef has also been called up by Venezuela, but they play 2 games in the US on the 15th and 18th so he may well still be with the team.

Both strikers have scored 3 goals this season (Josef scored 2 of his against Atlanta United to become the fastest player in MLS history to reach 100 league goals). No one else has scored more than once and the team has just 15 goals in 16 games. It is also becoming increasingly evident that Josef has never really rebounded from that ACL injury. No wonder they want Messi.

Prediction: Legion win. Yeah, that’s putting it out there, but this was the best matchup the Three Sparks could get and they should make full use of the opportunity.

Real Salt Lake v. LA Galaxy, Wednesday 8:30pm

RSL are 19th in MLS, the Galaxy are dead last. The storied Gals have been atrocious this season and fired President and former player Chris Klein last week after extended fan protests. They got to this point by beating LAFC 2-0. That sounds shocking but LAFC were playing basically an academy team, intentionally resting players ahead of the CONCACAF Champions League final against Club Leon (it didn’t do them much good). They did just break a 3-game losing streak last Thursday, though, with a 3-2 road win over, of all teams, RSL.

So the two get to play back-to-back games in Salt Lake. Well, LA does; RSL played in Austin over the weekend while the Galaxy rested. They won that game 2-1. RSL have been rather erratic this season, but other than Cincinnati are theoretically the 2nd best team remaining. Which isn’t saying much for the 17 teams above them who are no longer in the competition.

Prediction: RSL win. I think. This could be another close one.

Finally, the Cincinnati and RSL games are Bleacher Report and its YouTube channel, the Houston and Birmingham games are on CBS Sports Golazo. But don’t you dare not be in attendance tomorrow evening.

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