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Meet the 10 USL Championship teams who seem the strongest candidates for an Open Cup run

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 04/06/23, 1:10PM EDT


After Sacramento Republic FC’s trip to last year’s final, we rank the candidates to emulate them this season

The 20 remaining teams from the USL Championship in the 2023 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Third Round draw will all have designs on emulating Sacramento Republic FC's run to last year's final this summer. | Photo courtesy Sacramento Republic FC

You can hardly forget the scenes last August at Heart Health Park.

The shrug by Maalique Foster. Rodrigo Lopez and Danny Vitiello being mobbed by their Sacramento Republic FC teammates after Lopez’s winning finish against Sporting Kansas City in the Semifinals of the 2022 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

It’s why everyone who is a soccer fan in the United States should love this tournament.

With the Third Round draw set for tonight, we’re now faced with a question.

Who’s next?

Here are our picks for the 10 USL Championship clubs most likely to make an Open Cup run this year. There are others we fancy as dark horses as well – looking in your direction, Las Vegas Lights FC, Orange County SC and New Mexico United – but here are some reasons why there’s reason to believe in Open Cup magic arriving again this year.

1. San Diego Loyal SC

San Diego Loyal SC is off to a good start to the season and has the combination of experience and attacking speed that can make Head Coach Nate Miller's side dangerous. | Photo courtesy San Diego Loyal SC

Yes, you were probably expecting to see the team that reached the Final last year here – we’ll get to them in a minute – but SD Loyal fits the makeup of a team that can make a run. It’s got a deep, experienced squad that has looked solid defensively so far. It’s got a potential game-breaker or two in attack with Ronaldo Damus and Nick Moon, and it’s in the right region of the draw out West, where Los Angeles FC and Seattle Sounders FC are both major obstacles, but other draws offer the potential for upsets.

If San Diego can get the luck of the home draw regularly, there’s opportunity for Head Coach Nate Miller’s squad.

2. Birmingham Legion FC

There’s been a lot to like about the way Birmingham Legion FC has started this season, in particular the attacking poise the side has shown to deliver results. Neco Brett, Tyler Pasher, Enzo Martinez and Juan Agudelo – who once had a brace in an Open Cup Final for the New England Revolution – are a formidable group. The experience of center backs Alex Crognale and Phanuel Kavita is an excellent foundation, while FC Dallas loanee Collin Smith’s versatility has been a very welcome addition on the right flank.

Legion FC could have to go through defending Open Cup holders Orlando City SC and Atlanta United FC, but it has the pieces to spring a surprise.

3. Sacramento Republic FC

As we found out on Wednesday night, after last year’s run Sacramento Republic FC is a team that everyone it faces is going to want to knock off. After getting past Crossfire Redmond in dramatic fashion, the challenges are only going to get bigger from teams like the San Jose Earthquakes or LA Galaxy who would love to take revenge for last year’s defeats.

At the same time, Republic FC has brought back everything that produced last year’s magic, and has shown quality and resiliency early this season. It’s also added a new attacking centerpiece in Russell Cicerone who is off and running in fine style for his new club. There’s the potential for another run here, with the burden of being a groundbreaking club – and the target that comes with it – a challenge Sacramento’s veterans will likely embrace.

4. Tampa Bay Rowdies

We’re going to throw the formbook out a little bit here, because while the Tampa Bay Rowdies haven’t lit up the Championship so far this season, we also know how quickly they can turn things on. Head Coach Neill Collins’ side gave eventual title winner Orlando City SC a run for its money in last year’s Third Round, and it can do the things that help you succeed in single-elimination games, with set piece attacking and defending at the top of the list.

Tampa Bay will likely be hoping for a little better luck with the draw this year to play in front of their fans at Al Lang Stadium. If it gets that in its favor, who knows what might happen?

5. Louisville City FC

Louisville City FC hasn't been at its best consistently yet this season, but its combination of experience and talent is one that's brought Open Cup success in the past. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC

You can say a lot of the same things about Louisville City FC as we just addressed with the Rowdies. Yes, they’re in a dip in form right now, but those don’t tend to last. When you look at some of the wins the side has been able to produce in prior Open Cups – including 2018’s run to the Quarterfinals – then you know they’ll be keyed up for whoever they face.

The opposition might prove the biggest challenge, though. A trio of teams LouCity could draw in the Midwest region – FC Cincinnati, Columbus Crew SC, and Nashville SC – are all currently in the top five in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference. That potential gauntlet is why LouCity isn’t higher up the list.

6. San Antonio FC

San Antonio FC has a lot in its favor. It’s the defending USL Championship title holder. It’s also undefeated in its last 16 games across all competitions following Tuesday night’s incredible performance by its Academy players. We also remember last year’s brilliant home victory against Austin FC in the Third Round.

At full strength, SAFC can contend. The big question right now is whether they will be healthy enough to take on the better opposition they’ll come up against in the next rounds. FC Dallas, Austin FC and Houston Dynamo FC all see the Open Cup as a means to silverware. That’s a tough path to get through, as SAFC found out at the hands of the Dynamo last year.

7. Indy Eleven

When it comes to starting lineups, Indy Eleven looks on paper to have one of the best in the Championship. The undefeated start the side has made to the new season has seen some of that come together. You would expect that progress to continue in the next few weeks ahead of the Third Round as players like Douglas Martinez Jr. – a finalist last year with Sacramento – get acquainted with veterans Sebastian Guenzatti, Aodhan Quinn and Solomon Asante.

But Indy hasn’t had a great history in the Open Cup. Its furthest run was the Fourth Round twice previously in its history, most recently in 2016, and it needed extra time to find the necessary goals to get through to the Third Round. They’ll be hoping the attacking chemistry arrives in time for this squad to be the one to write a new story.

8. Charleston Battery

The Charleston Battery have made a strong start to the 2023 season and could have a surprise or two in them in this year's Open Cup after sweeping into the Third Round on Tuesday night. | Photo courtesy Charleston Battery

The Open Cup has always been a big deal for the Charleston Battery. Beyond the club’s run to the 2008 Final there have also been numerous memorable victories against top-flight opposition over the years. With the start to the season new Head Coach Ben Pirmann’s squad has put together – including a 4-1 romp on Tuesday night against Savannah Clovers FC to kick off this year’s tournament – the potential for a run seems at hand.

The trait Charleston might need to lean on most? It can go at opponents at speed. With forward Augustine Williams flanked by starlet Fidel Barajas Jr. and other options at hand like Arturo Rodriguez, Tristan Trager and Nick Markanich, the Battery could be a threat.

9. Phoenix Rising FC

There’s no question that Phoenix Rising FC is still a work in progress in Head Coach Juan Guerra’s first full season at the helm. With the squad Guerra has at his disposal, though, it feels like there’s a team that could give top-flight opponents more than a scare, especially on their home turf.

With Manuel Arteaga getting off the mark this past weekend and players like Carlos Harvey – who bagged his first goal on Wednesday for the winner against Greenville Triumph SC – and Renzo Zambrano getting settled in midfield, there looks to be a strong spine to Guerra’s best lineup. If the side gets the luck of a home draw in Round Three to continue to build its momentum, a first victory in official competition against a Major League Soccer club might be there for the taking.

10. Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC

If we were going by Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC’s history in the Open Cup, the Hounds probably wouldn’t be on this list. They’ve only defeated an MLS team once, and that was the Colorado Rapids in the 2001 edition of the tournament, a full generation ago.

But this is a Pittsburgh team that looks to have the positive traits that Head Coach Bob Lilley’s sides have been known for. It has a quality goalkeeper in Jamaican international Jahmali Waite, players who can both win possession and distribute in Robbie Mertz and Kenardo Forbes, and a forward who is coming into his own in Albert Dikwa. Highmark Stadium has seen some big nights in recent years, and a visit from a top-flight club in front of the Steel Army would provide the setting where an upset can occur. 

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