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6 Key Storylines from the drama of the U.S. Open Cup’s Round of 16

By NICHOLAS MURRAY -, 05/23/24, 10:20AM EDT


Sacramento’s attacking depth comes to the fore, and Indy gets a tough road it might be able to handle

Sacramento Republic FC advanced to the Quarterfinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup on Tuesday night as its attacking depth made a major impact on the outcome against the San Jose Earthquakes. | Photo courtesy Sacramento Republic FC

For the first time since 2012, there are three USL Championship clubs in the Quarterfinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup with Indy Eleven, New Mexico United and Sacramento Republic FC all taking care of business over the past two nights of action.

With the draw now set for the second week in July, here are six storylines that stood out from the action, and what’s ahead for some of the clubs moving on and that bowed out at this stage.

1. The attacking depth Republic FC can call on is impressive

Talking with Mike Watts and Devon Kerr on this week’s edition of USL All Access, Sacramento Republic FC Head Coach Mark Briggs spoke about the attacking depth the side can call on this campaign.

In Tuesday night’s thrilling 4-3 victory against the San Jose Earthquakes it was on full display.

From Kieran Phillips’ first-half brace, Trevor Amann’s work in and around the penalty area and Sebastian Herrera coming off the bench to deliver a killer blow delivered by sixth (!) substitute and 2019 Championship Young Player of the Year Cristiano Parano, Republic FC had the horses to absorb shots from San Jose and fire back just as strongly.

“That's probably my most pleasing thing,” said Briggs postgame of the pressure Sacramento was able to sustain throughout the 120 minutes. “We kept going and we kept going forward and we kept putting San Jose under pressure, which is where we have to get to as a group. I'm proud of them in every aspect tonight, in every element, it's just a fantastic night for the club and fantastic night for the players themselves.”

We saw flashes of Sacramento at its best on Tuesday night, and it was a tremendous sight.

2. Indy Eleven has the hardest road, but might be equipped for it

Indy Eleven continued its rich vein of current form against Detroit City FC on Wednesday night in the lone all-USL Championship matchup of the right, making the most of its opportunities decisively.

Then it got handed maybe the toughest road to the Final of any of the eight remaining teams.

Away to former Open Cup title winner Atlanta United FC, which while not currently at its best is still a formidable opponent, and then away against one of Sporting Kansas City or FC Dallas – both of which have won the tournament in the past decade? That’s tough.

Here’s the thing, though – Indy might just have the tools to handle it.

They’ve got a veteran squad that’s played in high-pressure games before, and a young goalkeeper in Hunter Sulte aiming for his breakout moment on loan from the Portland Timbers.

They’ve also got a Head Coach in Sean McAuley that figured out plenty over the first three months of the season to position the Boys in Blue as a serious contender in the Eastern Conference.

Will it happen? The odds are against it, as they tend to be for USL Championship clubs when we reach this stage of the tournament. Could it? No question, Indy looks legit.

3. New Mexico United must be sharper in the Quarterfinals

New Mexico United dominated the second half against New York City FC II on Tuesday night to comfortably take a 3-0 victory at Belson Stadium.

If United is going to extend its stay in this year’s tournament, though, it’s going to have to be cleaner in possession against Los Angeles FC in July.

New York had the better of the chances before the break, and some of those came off the nine turnovers New Mexico committed in its defensive half – including five in the defensive third – that put United on its heels and scrambling to find cover.

Midfield turnovers are the bane of any coach, but in a single-elimination tournament they can be fatal. New Mexico must tighten up if it’s going to play the possession-dominant style that has brought it success this season – including against Real Salt Lake in the Round of 32 – and advance to the Semifinals for the first time.

4. The Tampa Bay Rowdies are going to make an Open Cup run one day

A year ago, when the Tampa Bay Rowdies were eliminated 1-0 in the Round of 32 of the Open Cup by eventual title-winner Houston Dynamo FC at Al Lang Stadium, then-Head Coach Neill Collins had this to say.

“We did pretty much everything but put the ball in the net. We need to take care of that part. That’s the biggest frustration tonight,” Collins said. “Tonight, I go away very, very positive, but also frustrated, because that is not a performance we should not be coming off a loss from.”

Sound familiar?

By all the main attacking numbers – a 30-7 advantage in shots overall, a 10-5 advantage in shots on target, and a 2.64 to 0.69 Expected Goals advantage – the Rowdies could have won against FC Dallas on Wednesday night. A career night by Dallas goalkeeper Marteen Paes with eight saves and three shots off the woodwork put paid to that as Dallas’ two sharply-taken goals gave the visitors a 2-1 win.

“I thought we were absolutely outstanding,” said Rowdies Head Coach Robbie Nielson. “I thought we totally dominated the game, it’s basically the best we’ve played since I've been here. We ended up with 30 shots, which is the most we’ve had this season, we just didn’t seem to convert those chances.”

But there should be reason for optimism for the Rowdies, both for this season and Open Cups to come. At a certain point, they’re going to be rewarded for the performances they put in against MLS opposition, and it could result in the deepest Open Cup run the club has ever achieved.

5. The Charleston Battery’s biggest nemesis right now might be penalty shootouts

The Charleston Battery had almost everything you need to go right when facing an opponent from a higher tier go right against Atlanta United FC on Tuesday night.

It dodged the attacking chances Atlanta was able to created and never felt overmatched, although it had to withstand more pressure than usual in the second half than it’s become accustomed to in its undefeated start to the league season.

But the Battery weren’t able to find the net. Two big opportunities – one in the first half and one late in extra time – went astray for MD Myers as the hosts put only four of their 20 shots on target.

And so it went to a shootout, where the Battery cracked again.

In some senses Tuesday night’s loss might be even tougher than the one that denied them a USL Championship title last November against Phoenix Rising FC. Back then, they didn’t have a shot to win, just a two-goal advantage through the opening two rounds.

The moment Atlanta’s Josh Cohen denied Charleston’s Diego Gutierrez to extend the shootout to a sixth round, it felt inevitable what was coming next. United scored, the Battery didn’t, and that was that.

“We pride ourselves on the attitude and the effort, that was 10 out of 10 tonight,” said Battery Head Coach Ben Pirmann. “I just feel for the boys, it takes courage to step up and take penalties. Right now, everybody's feeling so negative and sad. That's normal. Sad is a good emotion to feel after not getting our way. We can't control the result. We represented the Black and Yellow with class tonight.”

All of that’s true, and it’s part of what makes Pirmann such a good manager.

If their season comes down to a shootout this November, though, the Battery are going to have some demons to exorcise.

6. If you’re going to get knocked out, go out like Loudoun United

On the face of it, Los Angeles FC’s 3-0 victory against Loudoun United FC was your standard high-level MLS side defeating a current fringe contender for the USL Championship Playoffs contest.

Look a little closer, though, and we came aware full of admiration for how Loudoun’s players and Head Coach Ryan Martin stuck to their guns in terms of playing style, aiming to build through LAFC’s pressure and put itself in positions to succeed.

As he has for most of this season, Florian Valot stood out in midfield, as did Tommy McCabe, whose whistling shot past the left post in the 14th minute almost provided a response to LAFC’s early goal by United States international Timothy Tillman.

If there was a sequence that defined the contest, though, it came seven minutes into the second half. Valot’s pressure won possession on the right and he quickly shifted a pass to Zach Ryan at the top of the penalty area where United’s captain created space and was denied on a low shot to the right post by Abraham Romero. As LAFC cleared up the flank, Denis Bouanga split a pair of defenders and broke free to set up Cristian Olivera’s goal on the counterattack to double the lead for the hosts.

It was a tough moment for Loudoun, but the side should be proud of the way it performed on the West coast.

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