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March Madness: The First Round of the US Open Cup begins

Open Cup Digest #1: West Chester United vs Maryland Bobcats, Red Bulls II vs Hudson Valley Hammers, FC Motown vs NYCFC II. Also, the roster rule that allows MLS players to appear for MLS NEXT Pro teams.

The Hudson Valley Hammers will fave New York Red Bulls II in the first round of the US Open Cup | Courtesy Hudson Valley Hammers

Welcome to the first installment of the Open Cup Digest, a rundown of all things 2024 US Open Cup from resident expert Michael Battista. The Digest is sent to all Hudson River Blue members as a newsletter (our first!), and also posted to the site.

Note that the publication schedule is dictated by the Cup: We follow the needs and whims of the tournament's fixtures.

The First Round of the 2024 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup is upon us. After months of uncertainty and controversy, the lower divisions of US Soccer will begin the 109th edition of the country’s national championship.

Four teams in the New York and New Jersey metropolitan area will be facing off in the tournament’s opening round this week. Two games at Montclair State University will see amateur sides play the reserve teams of Major League Soccer clubs. A little farther out but still “local” in terms of the Tri-State Area, two pillar Pennsylvania sides will be welcoming independent professional teams from the Mid-Atlantic region.

Let’s go over each match-up and what fans can expect to see. If you can’t go to the games yourself, US Soccer announced on Friday that first and second-round matches will be broadcast live on the federation website, as well as on and

West Chester United SC (NPSL) vs Maryland Bobcats FC (NISA)
Tue, March 19, 7:30 pm ET at YSC Sports in Wayne, PA

Both West Chester United and Maryland Bobcats have something to prove on Tuesday night. This game pits two teams that emphasize young players, but that have different cultural roots. The former will be hunting for its first win versus a professional team, while the latter wants to show it can perform in the spotlight.

West Chester United SC is heading into the US Open Cup for a fifth time, though this will be the first time the nearly 50-year-old organization participates as a team from the National Premier Soccer League. The other times saw the Philadelphia-area side get in through the local qualifying tournament twice (2016, 2019) and as a USL League Two team (2022). The group also qualified for the 2020 tournament as an NPSL team, but that was canceled due to COVID.

Last year WCU had its best-ever season in the NPSL, reaching the national semifinals to clinch their spot in the 2024 Open Cup. The team went undefeated in the Keystone West Conference with seven wins and three draws before beating Hershey FC in the conference final. In the East Regionals, wins against Annapolis Blues FC and rivals FC Motown gave West Chester its first-ever regional championship.

Outside of the NPSL, West Chester has won two major titles in the last two years. In 2022, the organization won the Werner Fricker Amateur Open Cup, a tournament run by the US Adult Soccer Association. The following year WCU earned the title “US National Amateur Champions” when it won the 2023 Hank Steinbrecher Cup.

The scary-good thing about WCU is when you look at their stats. Last season, the team scored 21 goals in 10 games, tied for sixth most in the East Region. They also only allowed seven goals in the regular season, tied for the least in the region. But no single West Chester player made the region’s Top 10 stats for goals or assists. That’s because West Chester doesn’t rely on a core group of players. As a year-round youth soccer organization, West Chester has both top college talent and in-house players who can all perform.

For the best example of West Chester’s depth, just look at the team list for the upcoming NPSL season. The organization will once again play in the Keystone West Conference while also fielding an Under-23 team, WC Predators, in the Keystone East for the first time.

Director and head coach Blaise Santangelo has a style of play that is best described as high-pressure defense and hunting in packs. Tuesday’s match will see his roster feature a few notable names such as 2015 Premier Developmental League (current day USL League Two) champion Ridge Robinson. A likely starter is forward Josh Luchini who graduated from the University of Pittsburgh last year, even starting for the Panthers in the College Cup semifinals against Indiana. Finally, defender and former San Jose Earthquakes academy player John-Austin Ricks will be available as well.

On the other side of the field is Maryland Bobcats FC, a team from the third division National Independent Soccer Association. After starting life as an amateur team, including playing under the phenomenal name World Class Premier Elite FC, the team gained prominence in early 2020 when it won the United Premier Soccer League (UPSL) national title just before the pandemic.

Even after becoming a professional team in 2021, the club have remained steadfast in their mission to be an inclusive organization. With an ownership group that is comprised of people of color, the Bobcats try to recruit players from marginalized groups. That’s how a majority of its roster, both professionally and with its amateur reserve teams, have immigrant or minority heritages.

Also, year after year the team has some of the best kits in the country. Bar none.

Maryland’s roster includes midfielder Darwin Espinal, a Honduras international who played across the lower divisions, and New Jersey native Travis Ward. Forward Abdou Mbacke Thiam, whose resume includes stops with Louisville City FC and Forward Madison FC, is also back for a second season in Montgomery County.

Last year in the US Open Cup, Maryland survived a scare from amateur side Ocean City Nor'easters in the Second Round. After a stoppage time goal forced extra time, the Bobcats’ Phillip Brown scored in stoppage time of the second ET half to win, 3-2.

Prediction: Considering the amount of depth West Chester has and Maryland’s history of playing down to competition, this match is cupset-worthy. West Chester has enough talent to go a full 90 minutes and beyond. I expect a 2-1 win for the amateurs.

New York Red Bulls II (MLSNP) vs Hudson Valley Hammers (USL2)
Wednesday, March 20, 7:30 pm EDT at MSU Soccer Park at Pittser Field, Montclair, NJ

Tickets available here.

On Wednesday, New York Red Bulls II will face a team founded by their former captain. United States men’s national team midfielder Tyler Adams might be with Premier League side AFC Bournemouth right now, but his Hudson Valley Hammers are going into their first-ever US Open Cup with ambition.

The Baby Bulls are coming into this match with a lot of momentum. After reaching the playoffs in their first MLS NEXT Pro season, head coach Ibrahim Sekagya’s squad has a large contingent of players returning. Midfielder Ibrahim Kasule, who finished tied for fifth most goals in the league (15), is back. So is goalkeeper AJ Marcucci, who earned six clean sheets last season before injuries sidelined him.

They’re joined by Ecuadorian defender Jair Collahuazo and Malian midfielder Malick Dembele on loans from abroad. Ugandan international midfielder Steven Sserwadda returned to the team after being released by the MLS first team in 2023. Over the weekend, the team also signed former FC Tulsa goalkeeper Dallas Odle

The team’s preseason started slow with a draw to CF Montréal’s academy and a crushing loss to Hartford Athletic. Jullian Hall, someone who despite being signed to the first team regularly plays in Montclair with the reserves, helped right the ship with a hat-trick during a rainy win, 6-1, over FC Motown. The team closed the preseason with a 5-0 win over Garden State amateurs Unisamba FC.

Coincidentally, Tyler Adams was on the field for NYRB II’s first Open Cup game back in 2015. The year before US Soccer barred reserve teams from the competition, the Wappingers Falls, NY expat played against amateurs Jersey Express SC in a 2-1 second-round loss.

Note that MLS NEXT Pro reserve teams are allowed to accept loans from their parent Major League Soccer teams with conditions.* The list of players the Red Bulls could loan down to the third-division side isn’t officially known. But looking over the requirements a few major names include the following:

  • Corey Burke (FW)
  • Wiki Carmona (MF)
  • Dennis Gjengaar (FW)
  • Ryan Meara (GK)

In March Madness terms, Hudson Valley Hammers are in the US Open Cup as an At-Large bid. The New York State side had a good 2023 season, making the playoffs for the first time and winning their first-ever postseason match. But the team didn’t win the USL League Two Metropolitan Division and the league gives priority to conference champions when awarding Open Cup bids.

Instead, the Hammers were ranked 22nd in priority based on regular season Points-Per-Game, and League Two was only allocated 11 team berths into the tournament. That means Hudson Valley is only here because several teams ahead of them declined to take part. (More on that later)

Officially, the Hammers have not revealed any members of the roster competing in the Open Cup. One player Hudson River Blue can confirm will be on the team is forward Israel Neto, a consistent goal scorer for the team over the last few seasons.

Two Hammer players ended 2023 on USL League Two’s Goal Leaders list: Ben Zakowski (9 goals) and Nicholas Zielonka (8). But it is going to be difficult to gauge this week’s game based on last year’s roster. Since USL League Two acts as a “pre-professional” summer league, many of their players are in college. The start of the US Open Cup falls within the “spring season” calendar, meaning college players need special permission from their teams to compete in the tournament or risk losing their college eligibility.

Some players, such as Zielonka, are in their senior years of college. Unless these players return as graduate students for a fifth season, he and others like him could jump onto the roster.

Another issue is that young players, especially the good ones, may now have other opportunities. Many USL League Two players are drafted yearly in the MLS SuperDraft or sign contracts with lower-division professional teams. For example, Zakowski just signed a professional contract with Greenville Triumph SC of USL League One.

This is one of the reasons teams from amateur leagues, especially USL League Two, decline to participate.

We will see if AFC Bournemouth loan Tyler Adams to help fill up numbers (Spoiler: They won’t). However, one interesting note emerged last week. Adams’s former teammate and current MLS Season Pass personality Sacha Kljestan announced on social media that he had signed with a team for the Open Cup. Considering the MLS studios are in New York and he has team ties, it could mean something. (UPDATE: Kljestan will be playing with the Des Moines Menace, a different USL League Two team.)

Prediction: USL League Two teams in the Open Cup are like a box of chocolates: You never know what you’re gonna get. A roster that will most likely be made up of players out of college, alumni, and possibly high schoolers isn’t appealing on paper. New York Red Bulls II has depth to spare and just won its season opener on Sunday over Columbus Crew 2, 2-0. I expect this to be a multiple-goal win for the Baby Bulls, 3-0.

FC Motown (NPSL) vs New York City FC II (MLSNP)
Thu, March 21, 7:30 pm EDT at MSU Soccer Park at Pittser Field - Montclair, NJ

Tickets available here.

Usually when a match-up features experience versus youth, the more seasoned team is considered the easy favorite. Instead, the one-time amateur national champions FC Motown are probably not the betting man’s first choice against New York City FC II.

FC Motown have the edge in Open Cup experience, both on the field and as an organization. With seven consecutive tournament qualifications (including one for the canceled 2020 tournament) the Morristown, NJ side holds the active record for consecutive appearances.

Since their founding in 2012, the club has expanded from dominating state-level leagues to winning the National Premier Soccer League in 2022. Last season the side won its conference for a fifth straight season, though it fell in the East Region Final to West Chester United SC.

The team’s continued success has been, in part, due to Motown’s continued ability to bring in experienced players from the tri-state area. 

On the field, Motown’s roster has a solid mix of young players and experienced veterans. For Thursday, that group will include the following:

  • Mike da Fonte (DF) - Colorado Rapids, Phoenix Rising FC, New York Red Bulls II
  • Joe Fala (FW) - New York Red Bulls II
  • Maudwindo Germain (MF) - Haiti national under-17 football team, Violette AC (Haiti) - (Signed to play against Austin FC in 2023 Champions League upset)
  • David Greczek (GK) - Swope Park Rangers, Greenville Triumph SC
  • Chris Lema (MF) - New York Red Bulls II, San Antonio FC

That experience also includes former MLS midfielder Dilly Duka, who will be on the sideline as Motown’s new head coach.

Motown are not at full strength, however, as injuries will keep two key pieces off the field. Samuel Nii Armah Ashitey, formerly of Hartford Athletic in the USL Championship, tore his ACL in a preseason friendly last month. The Haitian midfielder has consistently been a playmaker for Motown, including in last year’s first-round loss in the Open Cup.

Midfielder and Union City, NJ native Christopher Bermudez, whose resume includes playing for Greenville Triumph SC and Chattanooga FC, will also be unavailable after undergoing surgery earlier this month.

In the preseason, Motown fell to Rutgers University, 2-1, before being decimated by New York Red Bulls II, 6-1, after taking the lead early. The side closed out their preparations with a 2-2 draw against New Jersey Institute of Technology.

On the other side, New York City FC II are a bit of an enigma. Matt Pilkington’s squad did slightly improve on its record in its sophomore MLS NEXT Pro season, though still finished one place under the playoff line for a second straight year.

Going into Wednesday, two of the team’s best players from 2023 are no longer available. The Baby Blues sent the defending co-Golden Boot winner MD Myers to USL Championship side Charleston Battery in the offseason. John Denis, the team’s leading scorer from 2022, was recently diagnosed with cancer and left the team to undergo treatment.

His family is running a GoFundMe to help cover treatment and interested fans can donate HERE.

Last month, the club signed 14 year-old-midfielder Peter Molinari to an MLS NEXT Pro contract through 2026. One piece that intrigues is homegrown forward Zidane Yañez. He was signed back in December and spent half of the preseason with NYCFC II. So it’s highly likely he’ll be on Thursday’s roster, potentially as one of those “first team loans.”

The team’s first game of the regular season was on Sunday night on the road against Inter Miami CF II. While that’s only four days separated from the US Open Cup, it’s still early in the season.

Looking at preseason, NYCFC II has impressed with wins against North Texas SC (MLSNP) and CF Montreal’s academy team. There have also been friendlies against Austin FC II (MLSNP) and the Yale University men’s team.

Unofficial list of players New York City FC could loan for the match:

  • Luis Barraza (GK)
  • Tayvon Gray (DF)
  • Justin Haak (MF)
  • Jovan Mijatovic (FW)
  • Maximiliano Moralez (MF)
  • Agustín Ojeda (MF)
  • Tomás Líam Romero (GK)
  • Talles Magno (FW)
  • Strahinja Tanasijević (DF)

Prediction: I’m biased in favor of my New Jersey roots. But the injuries and struggles in the preseason haven’t left me much blind optimism for Motown. The amateur team’s experience will give them the edge early. New York City has the stamina and scoring power to go a full 90 minutes. While the Baby Blues are coming off a loss to Inter Miami CF II on Sunday, the visitors will leave Montclair with their first US Open Cup win, 2-1.

Vereinigung Erzgebirge (USLPA) vs Charlotte Independence (USL1)
Thu, March 21, 7:30 pm EDT at Cairn University Soccer Field, Langhorne, PA

The last game of the locals might be the most out-of-left-field pairing this entire tournament. A professional team that made its league final last year is traveling to the Philadelphia metro area to play a near-century-old German social club.

Located in Bucks County, PA, Vereinigung Erzgebirge (commonly known as VE Club) was founded by immigrants from the Erzgebirge region of eastern Germany in 1931. The team name literally translates to “Erzgebirge Association” in English. Since then the organization has regularly fielded a soccer team in local leagues, including the highly competitive United Soccer League of Pennsylvania (no relation to the higher division USL). The program’s expansion over the years to both youth and female teams, one of the first in the Philly area to do the latter, has allowed it to remain a strong pillar in the eastern Pennsylvania soccer scene.

For VE, this will be their third time ever competing in the US Open Cup on record, with previous appearances in 1991 and 2002. Originally the team qualified for the 2020 Open Cup which was eventually canceled due to COVID-19.

To get into the tournament VE had to win three qualifying games, including two via penalty kick shootout. Christopher Baker led his team with two goals during qualifying. Head coach Rob Oldfield has been with the organization for over three decades, including the team’s last trip to the tournament in 2002.

While VE is hosting, it isn’t necessarily a “home game”. The team’s usual stomping grounds at the Vereinigung Erzgebirge Clubhouse in Warminster, PA did not meet the minimum standards for the competition proper. Though VE will be hopeful the same crowd of hundred-plus people can make their way to Caim University for this game.

If VE were looking for a cupset-ready opponent they couldn’t have found a better opponent. Since 2018, Charlotte Independence have lost to a lower-division side three times. Three straight tournaments saw losses to Ocean City Nor'easters (locals from South Jersey), Florida Soccer Soldiers, and North Carolina Fusion U23. The streak was only broken last year when the team defeated Appalachian FC, 2-0, in the Second Round.

The defending USL League One finalists kept a large chunk of players from their impressive playoff run season in 2023. The squad, despite finishing fourth in the table and ten-plus points below the Top 3, reached the organization's first-ever championship game.

Journeyman midfielder Miguel Ibarra (Seattle Sounder FC, Minnesota United FC) is back for 2024 after wearing the captain's armband last year. Last season’s Goalkeeper of the Year Austin Pack, who made a league-record 116 saves, will be between the posts once again. They’re joined by forward and Grenada national team player Kharlton Belmar, who joined the team last week.

Prediction: Charlotte is coming off a home opener loss against One Knoxville SC, 2-1, on Saturday. I don’t think the third-division side will walk out of Cairn University after 90 minutes with a win. Instead, the game will be tied, 1-1, and force extra time. VE Club will lose, 2-1, or in unlucky penalty kicks, but will put up a valiant effort for the home crowd. I really hope I am wrong on this one.

* MLS NEXT Pro reserve teams are allowed to accept loans from their parent Major League Soccer teams with conditions.

“Players on contracts with MLS first teams may play for their club’s MLS NEXT Pro team only in the following circumstances:

  • The loan (of at least 90 days) must be confirmed to US Open Cup staff and announced by the team and/or league no later than 1 pm ET the day before the match.
  • (Note: there is no provision against recalling and ending that loan early at any point)
  • The player must not make a salary above the MLS first-team league maximum salary budget charge (unadjusted for allocation money, designated player status, or any other roster mechanism).
  • Player must not be averaging more than 15.0 minutes per game in MLS first-team league matches up through the Match Day immediately preceding an Open Cup match.
  • No more than seven (7) players on loan from an MLS First Team to an MLS NEXT Pro team can be included in an 18-player game-day roster for an MLS NEXT Pro team. In the event of hardship, MLS NEXT Pro teams may apply to the Commissioner to include more than seven (7) players.”

You can read the full story on changes to the 2024 USOC Handbook here.