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Upset Alert! Ranking the USL Championship clubs that have the biggest Open Cup tests this week

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 04/14/24, 7:30PM EDT


From home draws against amateurs to road trips to top League One clubs, here’s how nervous each of the 16 Championship clubs should feel

El Paso Locomotive FC heads to face USL League One's Union Omaha for a second consecutive year in the Lamar Hunt U.S Open Cup on Wednesday night. | Photo courtesy Ivan Pierre Aguirre / El Paso Locomotive FC

The first 16 clubs from the USL Championship enter the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup this week as Round Three plays out across Tuesday and Wednesday night’s action. It’s the round where Championship clubs are guaranteed to be the Goliath rather than the David as they look for their opportunity to start a run in the historic event.

Last season, Championship clubs went 20-4 when they faced lower division opponents in the Second Round before both Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC and Birmingham Legion FC advanced to the tournament’s Quarterfinals.

The odds should be in the Championship club’s favor. Thirteen of the 16 teams have been drawn at home in this round and have their experiences in the tournament and the professional game to draw on.

Upsets, though? They always happen. With that in mind, here’s our look at each team’s prospects, and which ones might have the most to deal with to get into the Fourth Round draw later this week.

1. El Paso Locomotive FC
Union Omaha

Analysis: Look, it’s never a great thing when you’re answering pregame questions about why your club has yet to win a game in its Open Cup history. The same applies when you’re going to visit a Union Omaha team that knocked you out last season and has won four of four across all competitions this season. Add in that you’re yet to win a game yet in the league this season, and here we are. No pressure.

2. Miami FC
South Georgia Tormenta FC

Analysis: Miami FC’s win on opening day feels like a long time ago. Now their USL Championship opponents have some tape on what to expect, the losses are starting to pile up, including giving up five goals to in-state rival the Tampa Bay Rowdies last Thursday. South Georgia Tormenta FC doesn’t have that sort of firepower, but it’s shown an ability to spring a surprise in the past and has won four of its last five in all competitions.

3. Memphis 901 FC
Miami United FC

Analysis: Memphis is having a rocky go of things right now. It’s lost four in a row in the league after Saturday’s setback against Loudoun United FC and has scored three goals in five games overall. Miami United FC might officially be amateurs, but anyone who’s seen this side play knows it is very capable. 901 FC is going to need to be careful.

4. Oakland Roots SC
El Farolito

Analysis: Oakland Roots SC got a morale-boosting victory on the road against El Paso Locomotive FC on Saturday night and in forward Johnny Rodriguez has an ace that can produce magic. El Farolito, however, has become the neutral’s favorite so far this tournament – if you don’t love the story of a team funded by the best Burritos in San Francisco, we probably can’t be friends – and has talent to back that narrative up. Oakland’s at home, but this is a test.

5. Rhode Island FC
Charlotte Independence

Analysis: On one hand, Rhode Island FC might be winless, but it has drawn four of its first five games in the league. On the other, it’s been held scoreless in consecutive outings and needs someone to step up alongside Albert Dikwa in the final third. Going on the road to a Charlotte Independence side that knocked Greenville Triumph SC from the ranks of the undefeated this weekend is a trickier task than most.

6. Loudoun United FC
Richmond Kickers

Analysis: Here’s what we think we know about Loudoun United FC: This side is better than it was a season ago and looks more resilient. It showed both traits in its win against Memphis 901 FC on Saturday, coming back to win a game on balance it should have 2-1. The trick is can United win consistently? We might find out on the road in a first meeting with the Richmond Kickers, which have their own positives and would love to get in-state bragging rights in the first official meeting between the sides.

7. FC Tulsa
Northern Colorado Hailstorm FC

Analysis: Based off history, this would be higher in the list. FC Tulsa hasn’t had a great go of it in the Open Cup historically – it got knocked out in its first outing last season by Tulsa Athletic, not the first time the side’s lost to an amateur opponent – and Northern Colorado Hailstorm FC has been great at springing Open Cup surprises in its first two seasons. This Tulsa team feels different, though, and while it will need to be wary, it can put its past behind it with NoCo winless in three league games to start the season.

8. Las Vegas Lights FC
Spokane Velocity FC

Analysis: This could be the most interesting game of the Third Round. An expansion side in League One’s Spokane Velocity FC that has gotten off to a good start against a Las Vegas Lights FC that has changed basically everything this offseason. Las Vegas hit a bump in the road in Monterey Bay on Saturday, but the Lights are at home and have a chance to advance to the Fourth Round for the first time in club history. Stay up for this one.

9. Birmingham Legion FC
Chattanooga Red Wolves SC

Analysis: Birmingham Legion FC carried the USL Championship’s flag into the Quarterfinals last season before being eliminated and seemed to have figured things out defensively in its last two outings compared to the season’s early weeks. If there’s a drop-off in that defensive structure, though, Chattanooga Red Wolves SC could take advantage. Ropapa Mensah can be a menace in attack – he bagged a hat trick in Saturday’s 4-2 win at Central Valley FC and willed the 10-player Red Wolves through their First Round victory against Brockton FC United – and will be someone Legion can’t let get on track.

10. Indy Eleven
Chicago Fire FC II

Analysis: The Boys in Blue are in a bit of a defensive funk right now after conceding nine goals in the past two games to two sides expected to be at the top of the Eastern Conference at the end of the season in Louisville City FC and the Charleston Battery. They’ve got the fact they defeated Chicago Fire FC II by a 2-0 scoreline in preseason in their pocket but may need to watch out for Fire II’s Omari Glasgow. The 20-year-old Guyana international could be trouble.

11. Louisville City FC
Greenville Triumph SC

Analysis: Louisville City FC looks every bit the title contender we expect it to be each season, last Tuesday’s loss to the Charleston Battery notwithstanding, but this home game against Greenville Triumph SC is maybe the best matchup of the round. Greenville Triumph SC losing its undefeated record on Friday night was a shame, but it still sits on top of USL League One and has some talented players including veterans Evan Lee, Chapa Herrera, Nate Schultz, and Sebastian Velasquez and leading goalscorer Lyam MacKinnon. This should be good.

12. Detroit City FC
Michigan Stars FC

Analysis: We’re going to do this again, huh? After the last meeting between Detroit City FC and Michigan Stars FC was enveloped in a fog of “smoke, darkness and smell” – from which Le Rouge emerged from with a 3-0 victory – there continues to be no love lost between these clubs. DCFC’s 4-0-0 start to the season has it flying high, but this is an important game for a club that takes Open Cup success seriously.

13. Monterey Bay F.C.
Irvine Zeta FC

Analysis: Monterey Bay F.C. has lost only once this season and is coming off back-to-back victories, including stopping Las Vegas Lights FC’s momentum on Saturday night at Cardinale Stadium. Things feel different for Head Coach Frank Yallop’s side, and while they’ll need to be careful of an Irvine Zeta FC side that comprehensively beat the LA Galax … I mean Ventura County FC in the last round, MBFC feels pointed in the right direction.  

14. North Carolina FC
Carolina Core

Analysis: North Carolina FC has grown into itself upon its return to the USL Championship. It has begun to look like the playoff contender we expected its mix of returning standouts and veteran arrivals to become over the last couple of weeks. It can’t take Carolina Core for granted – the Foxes haven’t won yet in their inaugural season in MLS NEXT Pro and had to rally against League Two side Vermont Green FC in the Second Round – but this should be a game NCFC takes to advance.

15. Hartford Athletic
New York City FC II

Analysis: True story: Hartford Athletic’ first win in club history came in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in 2019, while the side was mired in an eight-game losing streak to start its league history. This year’s side has made a much better start to the campaign with three wins out of four games and an attack that has speed and depth. New York City FC II won its first game in MLS NEXT Pro on Sunday night but has allowed seven goals in four games. Hartford is in the driver’s seat.

16. New Mexico United
Lubbock Matadors

Analysis: New Mexico had a weekend off after defeating both of its biggest rivals, is getting prodigious talent Cristian Nava back into its gameday squad for the first time in more than a year to provide a big mental boost and is facing a Lubbock Matadors side that probably had the easiest path to this point of the three amateur clubs still standing. An Open Cup run always matters to New Mexico, and the club would be aghast if it slips up here at home.

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