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Open Cup provides a valuable platform for NYCFC reserves

Opportunity knocked for five New York City FC First team players who were with the II squad. With Nick Cushing and his assistants there watching, did any impress enough to gain more minutes?

Augustín Ojeda played the full 90' for New York City FC II | Courtesy

The US Open Cup and the Hudson River Derby, MLS NEXT Pro edition, came to Queens on a miserably wet, windy Tuesday night, and opportunity knocked for five members of New York City FC's first team.

The five players – Malachi Jones, Agustín Ojeda, Christian McFarlane, Tomás Romero, and Rio Hope-Gund – are all currently on the periphery of the NYCFC senior squad, and all were handed prolonged chances to impress Nick Cushing and his assistant coaches, who were at Belson Stadium watching as NYCFC II earned their 4-2 Open Cup victory over New York Red Bulls II.

The win-or-go-home cup stakes, the opponent being NYCFC’s undisputed biggest rival at any league level, along with the presence of high-profile spectators from the club’s hierarchy, president and CEO Brad Sims also included, gave this the feel of a match of much higher intensity than your average MLS NEXT Pro midweek fixture.

Beforehand, it looked like New York City FC II might be shorthanded or undermanned, given the absences of regular starters like Maximo Carrizo, Johnny Shore, Drew Baiera, and Jacob Arroyave, away playing in the Generation Adidas Cup.

Yet this was not a threadbare Open Cup lineup, nor a fixture NYCFC ignored, with the club utilizing it as a testing ground for players aspiring to bigger roles in MLS. The promise of players like Jones, Ojeda, and McFarlane was evident, and while Hope-Gund and Romero each had shaky moments, they and the rest of the team's defense ultimately held strong to see out the win and advance in the tournament. 

JJ Jimenez was the night’s hat-trick hero, but his success came alongside strong showings from the whole of NYCFC II's attacking front, seemingly aided by the presence of a first-round MLS SuperDraft pick and another player signed reportedly for over $5.5 million. 

Both Jones and Ojeda showcased the speed, directness, and willingness to go at and get behind defenders that made each such an enticing young attacker to the club. Their games stood in stark contrast to how the New York City first-team has looked at times, which might best be described as deliberate, methodical, or downright slow. As our site's head honcho Oliver Strand wrote after the loss in Cincinnati, NYCFC has a glaring need for speed.

Interestingly, the pacy Trapito Ojeda's first start in the United States came while playing on the right of NYCFC II’s attack.

Ojeda had been a left winger in much of his previous professional playing time with Racing Club in Argentina, and even in his first MLS appearance with New York City. He subbed into the loss to FC Cincinnati and played on the right, and did so again in his Open Cup debut, an interesting twist as the right-wing spot remains unsettled at MLS level.

The young Argentine on the right wasn’t as involved as Malachi Jones on the left, who scored his first goal for either the First or Second Team and was consistently terrorizing the young Red Bull backline. Jones seemed more in sync with other NYCFC II attackers like JJ Jimenez and fellow SuperDraftee Taylor Calheira, who assisted on Jones’s goal to make it 3-1 shortly before halftime. 

Ojeda was at times left on an island as his teammates concentrated their build-up play and counterattacking moves either up the left flank starting at the back with Christian McFarlane, or by going direct and trying passes over the top to split the two Red Bull center-backs.

This was the first time Ojeda had played in a competitive game with the bulk of his new NYCFC II teammates, and he was on the side of the field also inhabited by fullback Chris Tiao, who himself is new to the NYCFC system and, up until this match, had been playing left-back for the MLS NEXT Pro squad.

Tiao was displaced by Christian McFarlane's presence, and McFarlane's night of Open Cup action was mixed. The rumored Manchester City transfer target seemed at times tentative and in duress due to that patented Red Bull high-press, and made a few careless giveaways in dangerous areas. McFarlane also was plenty effective at other points, credited with five successful passes into the final attacking third while never seeming to cede much ground while defending. The Red Bull attack seemed to prefer to go at NYCFC's right defensive side, not the left being patrolled by McFarlane.

That young trio of Jones, Ojeda, and McFarlane seems closest to breaking into one of Nick Cushing's MLS lineups, and each but McFarlane went the full 90 minutes, with the English-American left-back substituted after 88 minutes played.

Logging the minutes might be mission accomplished enough for this group of first-teamers, but goalkeeper Tomás Romero succinctly summed up the importance of these games when speaking to the media post-match about joining the II's Open Cup squad: "If you're a first-team player coming down, you're fighting for more minutes with the first team. These types of games are amazing to demonstrate your skills and show the first-team what you can do."

NYCFC II head coach Matt Pilkington said after the match that the MLS players "showed their level," but how exactly does Nick Cushing now perceive that level? And were any of the individual showings enough to convince Cushing and the rest of the sporting hierarchy that any of those players deserve to be bigger parts of the present and immediate future of New York City FC?

The club's most promising academy prospects might have been away in the international shop window that is GA Cup, competing against top international youth squads in front of staff, scouts, agents, and other figures of importance.

Back in New York, a different kind of window-watching occurred for young aspiring players already in the mix at MLS level. The Open Cup run continues thanks to the clarity of the result in Queens, but now we wait for some more clarity on the future plans for a handful of promising NYCFC youngsters who are on to the Third Round of this year's domestic cup tournament.