Throughout the first three seasons of their existence, New York City FC’s performance in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup has been marred by poor play and underachievement. In 2015, NYCFC matched up against the local rival and then-NASL crown jewels New York Cosmos. Things looked placid at first, with the Blues going up 2-0 by way of two goals from upcoming star Kwadwo Poku. Things quickly unraveled in the second half, however, as the Cosmos surged late to equalize the game, eventually winning by way of penalties.
The following year — 2016 — was the same result, albeit more maddening. Again drawing the Cosmos in their first round of eligible competition, NYCFC would lose 1-0 in regulation, sabotaging the New York future of Mix Diskerud, as well as the aforementioned Poku in the process.
2017 was supposed to be different. Having learned from the previous miscalculations by both himself and his predecessor Jason Kreis, manager Patrick Vieira dedicated himself to fielding a team that at least somewhat resembled the team you’d see in regular MLS play every other weekend as opposed to a band of misfits who were either in the Vieira Doghouse or lost deep down in the depth chart. But it wasn’t the Cosmos, or any other local lower-division underdog waiting at the other end. This time, it was a much more familiar foe: the New York Red Bulls.
The third time wasn’t the charm. NYCFC lost 1-0 in front of a scarce crowd at Red Bull Arena.
It is now 2018, and City has been matched with the Red Bulls for the second year in a row. The fallout from a fourth consecutive early exit from the US Open Cup would undeniably be catastrophic. We here at Hudson River Blue don’t want that to happen.
It’s easy for fans to request that NYCFC just field their best team for the competition. Unfortunately, constructing a squad isn’t as straightforward as one would think due to the team rules US Soccer has laid down regarding the contest. For instance, teams that compete in the Open Cup may not have more than five international players listed on their team sheets. Because City has been notorious for not starting their Americans thus far this season, that could potentially hinder their quest for the team’s first silverware this season. Also — and this goes without saying — New York City is also due for a huge showdown with Atlanta United this weekend, for which some players will need to be kept fresh or at least somewhat rested.
With all of that said, I have decided to put myself into the shoes of Patrick Vieira and do my best to predict how NYCFC will line up against the Red Bulls this Wednesday. I am not trying to sell some cure-all elixir or anything. This is just what I think an optimal Open Cup lineup should look like, all things considered.
As a side-note, all of the information about the roster below is lifted directly from NYCFC’s official website. If there are any inaccuracies, don’t blame me!
GK: Sean Johnson
I was tempted to throw in Brad Stuver for the sake of giving him minutes against a diminished Red Bulls squad that is missing some key players. And to be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if Vieira did just that. But as previously mentioned, NYCFC have yet to win a USOC match and because of that, I have decided to go with Sean Johnson, a proven commodity between the sticks. Also, considering the Georgia native plays goalkeeper — a position not as physically taxing as, say, being a winger — I have nothing but the utmost confidence that Johnson can play 3 games in 8 days.
RB: Saad Abdul-Salaam
Despite some quality performances in the early goings of the season, the former Sporting Kansas City fullback has been lost in the shuffle recently and has struggled to pick up minutes in the past month. Helped by the fact that he is American and doesn’t take up an international player spot, this could be a golden opportunity for the Abdul-Salaam to find his way back on the team sheet every other weekend. An added bonus is that regular right back Anton Tinnerholm is given some rest for the upcoming weekend.
CB: Maxime Chanot
The Luxembourg defender was kept on the bench this past Saturday against Orlando City, most likely due to the fact that he had just recently come back from injury. But Chanot is in need of some playing time to re-establish himself as one of the league’s top center backs. He also holds a green card, which means that he will not take up an international spot on the roster. Sebastien Ibeagha has been OK in place of Chanot, but I don’t think anyone is sold on him.
CB: Cedric Hountondji (international)
Though a bit of a stretch, I have decided to include Hountondji in my starting lineup. The French center half has not seen a single minute this season and needs an opportunity to show what he can do. This serves two purposes: he can prove what he is capable of and make a bid for more minutes, as well as start to justify the fact that he is being paid a poop-ton of money.
LB: Ben Sweat
With both his American citizenship and the absence of Ronald Matarrita being taken into an account, this is a no-brainer. Sweat has been in a kind of transitional period recently due to Vieira experimenting with a 3-4-3 (or 3-5-2) formation in recent weeks. But the guy is good, and deserves a spot on this lineup.
CM: James Sands
If there was ever a chance to let the 17-year-old Homegrown Player get a chance to stretch his legs and show his potential, this is the game to do it. James Sands has yet to feature for NYCFC in 2018, but the fact that he was signed at the tender age of 16 last summer is an obvious testament to the club seeing him as a potential star in the making. Sands had a rough go of it during the preseason, but a few months off the grid could go a long way to rebuilding that grit and determination we have seen in the past.
CM: Ebenezer Ofori (international)
The Stuttgart loan hasn’t exactly been a game changer during his temporary stay in the five boroughs, but he’s also been far from bad. Though originally thought of as a pure defensive midfielder, Ofori has emerged as a serviceable box-to-box midfielder akin to teammate Yangel Herrera and is able to cover tons of ground in both the attacking and defensive thirds. It is very possible that he gets called upon to play against Atlanta this weekend, so take this selection with a grain of salt. But our choices are limited and considering that we as fans almost always put winning first, Ofori is my choice.
CM: Tommy McNamara
There was a time where Tommy McNamara could do no wrong. His high football IQ and flair for the dramatic — especially when it comes to his shot from distance — endeared him to fans throughout City’s formative years. But recent signings as well as spotty performances have knocked T-Mac down the depth chart, allowing the stars of Maxi Moralez and Yangel Herrera to emerge. But as an experienced American player, I see the USOC as the ultimate proving ground for the man from West Nyack. Also, it doesn’t hurt to give the always utilized Maxi Moralez a break this time around.
RW: Jonathan Lewis
The 2017 first-round pick has been MIA for most of the season. But to the fans’ delight, Jonathan Lewis finally saw some playing time in the final minutes against Orlando and made his presence very known. Not only did the former Akron star dazzle spectators with the skills that pay the bills, he also set the table for NYCFC’s third and final goal of the evening after brilliantly and methodically splitting two defenders before playing the ball centrally. Lewis doesn’t only deserve this start in the USOC, he needs it.
ST: David Villa (international)
David Villa came off the bench against OCSC, which leads me to believe that Vieira did that intentionally to have him available for this game. Despite the fact that he’s 36, El Guaje has always shown himself to be an absolute animal not only when it comes to his clinical goal-scoring, but his conditioning as well. This week’s schedule may be stacked, but I believe NYCFC’s captain has more than enough in the tank to pull it off. It’s also valuable to note that El Capitan is probably still pissed about being benched on Saturday, and trust me when I say that we will need that energy and ferociousness against the Jersey Boys.
LW: Jesus Medina (international)
This was perhaps the hardest position for me to determine who should start. I really wanted to go with Ismael Tajouri-Shradi for the sake of having another goal-scoring threat other than Villa, but I feel the Libyan’s talents are best saved for Saturday. With that said, I decided to give Young DP Jesus Medina the nod for Wednesday. The Paraguayan has hit a wall recently when it comes to his form, but he could just as easily regain that ruthlessness we saw early on this season. This may mean that he gets rested this weekend. But if winning is on NYCFC’s agenda tomorrow, then maybe Medina is the best option available.
Brad Stuver, Kwame Awuah, Sebastien Ibeagha, Joe Scally, Jeff Caldwell, Maxi Moralez (international), Alex Ring
Yup, you read that right. Believe it or not, NYCFC only has 10 American players on their team of 25 total players, and three of them are goalkeepers. Other players who have a US green card and wouldn’t count towards the international players cap are Ronald Matarrita and Rodney Wallace, both of whom are away with the Costa Rica national team for the 2018 World Cup. (h/t @brendampc)
What are your predictions for the US Open Cup match against the Red Bulls? Let us know in the comments!