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Smoke, Darkness, and Smell: The Third Round of the US Open Cup gets underway

Open Cup Digest #3: NYCFC II face Hartford Athletic, Charlotte host Rhode Island. Plus El Farolito, Lubbock Matadors, Michigan Stars in our Minnow Watch.

New York City FC II players and fans got to know each other after the US Open Cup win in the Second Round | Courtesy

Open Cup Digest #3

The Third Round of the 2024 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup is here. After two rounds of third-division and amateur teams battling to advance, 16 teams from the second-division USL Championship will enter the tournament this week.

New York City FC II are still alive and kicking after two exciting wins. They’ll head to New England to a place NYCFC fans know well as a home away from home: Connecticut. The Baby Blues will face a rebuilt Hartford Athletic that have three wins in four games played in the USL Championship so far this season. 

Another local-ish USLC team is entering the competition this round. Expansion side Rhode Island FC will travel to North Carolina to face Charlotte Independence of USL League One, in the third tier of the US Soccer pyramid.

The winners from the Third Round will be joined by an additional eight USLC teams and the eight participating teams from Major League Soccer in the Round of 32. That means a win here could set up a date against a first-division team in May.

Let’s go through the matchups and what fans can expect to see. If you can’t go to a game yourself, the matches will be broadcast live on the federation website, as well as on and

NYCFC II travel to the Nutmeg State

Hartford Athletic (USLC) vs New York City FC II (MLSNP)
Wed, April 17, 7:00 pm ET at Trinity Health Stadium in Hartford, CT

Tickets available here

There are many jokes to be made about New York City FC II playing away against Hartford Athletic. The First Team’s long history of playing “home” MLS games in the state is well-documented. But joking aside, Wednesday’s game might be one of the year’s most critical for both teams. From the point of NYCFC II especially, it very well might be the biggest match in their three-year history.

Despite the controversial circumstances of the inclusion of MLS NEXT Pro teams in the US Open Cup, New York City FC II has been making the most of their tournament run. The reserve side already notched wins over an elite amateur side by shutting out Motown FC on the road, and solidly outplaying their biggest league rival by beating New York Red Bulls II. All of this was accomplished while the squad was never at 100%.

NYCFC II was missing key players in both of their US Open Cup games. Against FC Motown, the international break loomed over many of the reserve teams. In the last round, the Baby Blues were missing five players due to the Generation Adidas Cup.

In the First Round, when striker Taylor Calheira wore the captain's armband, the MLS SuperDraft pick scored a goal and notched an assist in the 3-0 win. The chemistry he had with midfielder Maximo Carrizo and others on attack made him a focal point in that game. But Carrizo traveled to Florida to play in the GA Cup, which moved Calheira into a more reserved but critical role as a set-up man. Calheira provided another assist, but it was Jonathan “JJ” Jiménez who made headlines with his first professional hat-trick.

The Second Round also saw five New York City First Team players rostered: Malachi Jones, Agustín Ojeda, Christian McFarlane, Tomás Romero, and Rio Hope-Gund. Jones scored his first professional goal in the 4-2 win over the Baby Bulls.

While people like me may hate the circumstances of the 2024 Open Cup, NYCFC II are doing what every MLS club wants these reserve teams to do: The young squad are playing on a huge platform, and gaining gameday experience that they normally couldn’t access in reserve league play or while sitting on the bench in MLS.

New York City is one of only three MLSNP teams left in the US Open Cup alongside Chicago Fire FC II and the independent Carolina Core FC. Now all three are one win away from possibly playing a Major League Soccer team, and taking on a side from their parent league, in the next round.

This season, the Baby Blues are struggling in the MLSNP Eastern Conference. A shootout victory over Chattanooga FC sandwiched between second-half losses to both Inter Miami CF II and a revenge effort by NYRB II on April 10, were not much to write home about.

However, the team notched a big win on Sunday when they knocked off New England Revolution II, 6-2. Jiménez scored the first two goals, and Carrizo knocked in the third in the first half. Calheira, Jonathan Shore, and one-time El Salvador national team player Ronald Arévalo all scored in the second half.

The Hartford Athletic offseason total rebuild is, so far, showing promising results. After years of languishing towards the bottom of the USL Championship table and firing its head coach, former US Men’s National Team player Tab Ramos, in the middle of the season last year, the Hartford, Connecticut side has a new lease on life.

Brendan Burke, who formerly was an assistant coach with both the Philadelphia Union and Houston Dynamo FC, took over the squad last December. He wasn’t the only new face in Hartford, as nearly the entire roster was released or not re-signed.

The biggest acquisition this past offseason was adding goalkeeper Renan Ribeiro, formerly of Sporting CP (which is better known as Sporting Lisbon). He is joined by ex-MLS talent such as midfielder Marlon Hairston (Columbus Crew), midfielder Jay Chapman (Toronto FC, Inter Miami CF), forward Romario Williams (Montreal Impact, Atlanta United FC). They are on a squad that includes current national team players like defender Triston Hodge (Trinidad and Tobago), midfielder Emmanuel Samadia (Sierra Leone), and forward Deshane Beckford (Jamaica) among others.

Two players are also on loan from defending Supporters’ Shield-winning Cincinnati, defender Joey Akpunonu and goalkeeper Paul Walters.

In fact, one of the only familiar faces on this team is captain Danny Barrera. After years as a journeyman, including playing a role in one of the greatest US Open cupsets ever with Cal FC in 2012 when the amateurs beat the Portland Timbers, the midfielder has found his home in New England. This will be his sixth season with the team.

In season, the results for Hartford have been good with three wins in four games. The team’s last match on April 6 was a 3-2 outclassing of The Miami FC at Trinity Health Stadium. Romario Williams leads the team with two goals this season.

Historically, Hartford has been a .500 team in the US Open Cup. Their annual routine is to win their first game against an amateur team before falling to a professional one.

All three of their Open Cup wins have come against NYC amateur teams: New York Cosmos B in 2019Oyster Bay United FC in 2022, and Lansdowne Yonkers FC last year. Their win against Cosmos B was Hartford’s first win in a competitive match after opening its inaugural USLC campaign with a 10-game winless streak (nine losses, one draw).

A win against NYCFC II would put Hartford into the US Open Cup Round of 32 for the first time in club history. It would also be Hartford’s first win against a fellow professional team in the tournament.

Prediction: New York City FC II didn’t have a long time to recover leading up to this match, but the Jekyll-and-Hyde difference between the regular season and the US Open Cup is hard to ignore. Hartford Athletic may not have a killer offense, but their defense will annoy most teams. Hartford should get its fourth-straight opening game win but it won’t be easy. Expect a back-and-forth, with a late winner for the home team and a 2-1 final score.

Charlotte Independence host Rhode Island

Charlotte Independence (USL1) vs Rhode Island FC (USLC)
Tue, April 16, 7:00 pm ET at American Legion Memorial Stadium in Charlotte, NC

I’m dipping into Blazing Musket’s territory with this game: Rhode Island FC is their turf. However, Tuesday’s game between the Charlotte Independence and Rhode Island is very cool, especially for Open Cup nerds like me. In essence, it’s a grand return to a state that played a key role in the foundation of soccer in this country.

Rhode Island FC is just starting its soccer history. The Pawtucket, RI club is having the usual struggles of an expansion side, going winless in their first four games in the USL Championship. However, four of those five games have been draws. Forward Albert Dikwa leads the squad with three goals so far this season.

Led by first-time head coach Khano Smith, whose resume includes a 2007 Open Cup win with the New England Revolution, the team’s roster has a few interesting pieces. Former New York City FC defender Stephen Turnbull has found a home in Pawtucket, alongside the likes of former San Diego Loyal mainstay Grant Stoneman. The two of them have been huge parts of a surprisingly stout defense.

RIFC also spent a large chunk of its roster going after MLSNP talent, including defender Collin Smith (New England Revolution II), midfielder Amos Shapiro-Thompson (New York Red Bulls II), and forward Noah Fuson (Columbus Crew 2).

Brett Johnson, the team’s Chairman and Co-Founder, isn’t new to the soccer business. He previously worked with fellow USL sides FC Tucson, and Phoenix Rising FC, and he purchased Ipswich Town FC in the English Football Championship.

Historically, Rhode Island is one of the pillars of US Soccer. The state hosted the first-ever cup final, and went on to stage seven more. Early Open Cup tournaments, known previously as the National Challenge Cup, regularly featured teams from the smallest state. While nearly New York and Massachusetts housed a majority of the championships, Rhode Island’s Pawtucket FC won the tournament in 1941 and reached the final again the following year.

Another team was the Pawtucket Rangers, who reached back-to-back finals between 1934 and 1935. As part of a two-leg final system, their games at Pawtucket’s Coats Field are recorded as bringing out over 4,000 people each time.

This week, Rhode Island FC’s first Open Cup match will be on the road against defending USL League One Finalist Charlotte Independence. The Independence are a team already discussed in The Open Cup Digest #1, so I suggest re-reading that if you want a more historical look at the club.

Charlotte knocked off Pennsylvania local Vereinigung Erzgebirge in the First Round, including a goal from one-time New York Cosmos player Kharlton Belmar. A scoreless draw and critical shootout saved by Austin Pack got the Independence past SCU Heat last round.

Prediction: An interesting match with plenty of pros and cons for each team. Rhode Island FC’s slow start to the season and the long travel for a midweek game are knocks against them. However, Charlotte Independence haven’t impressed in its few league games so far this season or in the Open Cup. In the end, a minor cupset seems likely with an Independence win, 2-0.

Minnow Watch

As the US Open Cup rolls on and more teams get eliminated, finding teams that are either from the local area or have connections to the tri-state gets harder. However, that doesn’t mean nothing is interesting about the rest of the field. So, here’s a few quick hits:

The Burrito Boys

El Farolito SC (San Francisco, California) is probably the biggest darling of this US Open Cup tournament. The National Premier Soccer League side, named after the owner's chain of burrito restaurants, already knocked off two professional teams in Portland Timbers 2 and Central Valley Fuego FC — the latter of which is coached by former United States men's national team starter Jermaine Jones. The team is no stranger to the Open Cup, winning the 1993 tournament under its previous name of Club Deportivo Mexico. Unlike the rest of the NPSL, El Faro and other members of the Golden Gate Conference have been in-season since early March. Unlike the rest of their league counterparts, the Burrito Boys are been playing at full strength. The team is also undefeated in the regular season so far having won three games and drawn once.

If NYCFC II are doing everything MLS wants an MLSNP side to do in the US Open Cup, El Farolito is doing everything the US Open Cup is supposed to do for American soccer. El Faro’s match in the Third Round against USLC side Oakland Roots SC on Tuesday, April 16, could determine which teams play MLS side San Jose Earthquakes in the Round of 32.

Given that the Quakes are owned by John Fisher, currently the most hated man in Oakland for moving the Oakland A’s out of the city, many of the Bay Area's sporting fans will support either team to pull off a cupset and knock out the MLS side.

A second cupset for Lubbock?

Lubbock Matadors SC (Lubbock, Texas) of the NPSL will be visiting New Mexico United of the USL Championship on Tuesday, April 16. Unlike El Faro, the Matadors are completely out of season right now.

The team had a large influx of college players from Kentucky in their First Round cupset of professional side Arizona Monsoon FC. Another win in the Second Round against fellow Texas amateurs FORO SC handed them their first road game of the tournament. A second cupset for the team, which includes Moroccan youth national team player Toufik Najem, is a tall order. However, regardless of the result, the spotlight of a city made famous for being the home of Texas Tech University is already a great reward.

Smoke, darkness, and smell

Did you know former Major League Soccer winger and Iraq national team player Justin Meram is still playing soccer? He was a surprise inclusion for most watching the Michigan Stars FC’s (Pontiac, Michigan) second-round win over Minnesota United FC 2.

He’ll have a tall order as the National Independent Soccer Association side travels to face heated rival Detroit City FC on Tues, April 16, at historic Keyworth Stadium. The Stars and City have been rivals in multiple leagues, and despite Detroit’s jump to the USL Championship, this will mark the two team’s second Open Cup meeting in three years. The last meeting in 2022, which DCFC won 3-0, saw the Stars release one of lower league’s soccer greatest meme templates as they complained of “smoke, darkness, and smell.”