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US Open Cup Second Round: Baby Blues vs Baby Bulls

Open Cup Digest #2: NYCFC II host NYRB II in the Open Cup edition of the Hudson River Derby Jr. Plus: Vermont Green vs Carolina Core, Union Omaha vs Des Moines Menace.

Maximo Carrizo scored in his US Open Cup debut for New York City FC II | New York City FC

Open Cup Digest # 2

After an incredible first round of the 2024 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, the initial field of 64 teams is now down to 32. The amateur-vs-professional set-up created some unforgettable games after seven pulled off “cupsets,” and another advanced via forfeit.

That group of eight does not include any amateur teams from the Tri-State Area, as all fell last round. However, that does set up a huge derby match between New York City FC II and New York Red Bulls II at Belson Stadium on the campus of St. John’s University later this week. Plus, two big matches outside of the local boundaries have threads that connect them back to us.

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

New York City FC II (MLSNP) vs New York Red Bulls II (MLSNP)
Tue, April 2, 7:30 pm ET at Belson Stadium in Queens, NY
Tickets available here.

One of two matches this round featuring teams from the same league, the Baby Bulls will cross both the Hudson and East rivers to take on the Baby Blues. If you want a more robust look at the history of both teams, I’d suggest re-reading The Open Cup Digest #1.

New York City FC II host their first-ever US Open Cup match after a dominating display in the First Round. The Baby Blues cruised past FC Motown3-0, at Montclair State University. Taylor Calheira, Andrew Baiera, and Maximo Carrizo all scored their first-ever goals for NYCFC II while goalkeeper Alexander Rando notched his first-ever clean sheet.

The performance was by no means perfect. Head coach Matt Pilkington spoke about that following the match, noting later his team left goals off the board.

“We can obviously learn from tonight and we can learn from how to manage games and put games away, so we don’t have to run as much and fight as much towards the end,” said Pilkington. “I think that's something we can take away. It's from a learning perspective.”

But what the group did show was a lot of playmaking ability. Carrizo and Calheira combined for huge moments against a former national amateur champion. Even on short rest, there should have been talk about bringing them up for the New York City Senior Team game against FC Cincinnati the following weekend. With just 52.3% of possession, New York City limited Motown to just four shot attempts compared to their 34 total.

In the regular season, NYCFC II have been a mixed bag. The team lost their season-opener on the road, 3-2, to Inter Miami CF II. But, possibly using momentum from the Open Cup, the young squad had a come-from-behind performance against Chattanooga FC in its home opener. Homegrown Jonathan Shore scored an equalizer in the 55th minute, and Rando made a critical save in the fourth round to help the team take home two points, 1-1 (4:2 on penalties).

On the other side are a New York Red Bulls II squad that, likewise, cruised through the First Round. An early red card may have helped, but overall NYRB II was the better team anyway against the Hudson Valley Hammers in the 5-1 win.

The five goals for the Baby Bulls came from different players: Dylan Sullivan, Mohammed Sofo, Aiden Jarvis, Malick Dembele, and Ibrahim Kasule. Sullivan had the honor of scoring against a team founded by his step-brother, former Red Bull and current USMNT star Tyler Adams.

Head coach Ibrahim Sekagya talked about his team scoring three goals in the second half, While his team ended the game with nearly 72% possession, his group allowed 14 shot attempts including six on target against goalkeeper Aidan Stokes, who made his debut. The side allowed Hudson Valley to move the ball around a lot and eventually gave them a consolation goal in the second half.

“We needed more goals. We needed to… keep going,” said coach Sekagya. “You can’t take your foot off the pedal. You just must think of getting more goals because (in) these games you never know what can happen with these things.”

In the regular season, NYRB II sit atop the Eastern Conference standings at the time of this writing. The team won all three games played so far this season, including outright wins against Columbus Crew II and last weekend against FC Cincinnati II. A late comeback by Inter Miami CF II forced a penalty kick shootout, but a huge save by Rutkowski in the fourth round allowed New York to get the win, 3-3 (4:3 on penalties).

These two teams will meet three more times during the MLS NEXT Pro season. The first of which will be eight days after the Open Cup match when NYRB II return to Belson Stadium on April 10th.

There are two histories to look at going into this game: The one between these two specific teams, and the one between the clubs in the Open Cup.

Last season was the first year the reserve team Hudson River Derby Jr. took place. Red Bulls II won the first-ever meeting between the two teams on May 14 in New Jersey, 2-0. But the Baby Blues won the next two encounters both at home (3-1) and on the road (3-2) to win the derby.

However, the Open Cup is a different animal. The Red Bulls have beaten New York City all three times they’ve met in the tournament: In 2017, 2018, and 2022. NYCFC didn’t manage a single goal in any of those matches. I don’t need to also bring up the fact that the Blues have two losses to the other professional team that used to call New York home, the New York Cosmos. But I will.

Prediction: This is a toss-up between two fairly even teams. Last round, the rosters of both teams felt the effects of the international break, especially the Red Bulls. Still, both prevailed and impressed me outright. But overall, I think NYRB II has a better offensive unit and goalkeeper A.J. Marcucci, who should be available, is a future Major League Soccer starter. I lean towards the red team, 1-0.

Vermont Green FC (USL2) vs Carolina Core FC (MLSNP)
Wed, April 3, 7:00 pm ET at Virtue Field in Burlington, VT

This game falls more under the jurisdiction of our good friends at The Blazing Musket (please give them a read). But Vermont Green FC have captured the imagination of the greater soccer landscape. They’ll welcome a second pro team, Carolina Core FC, to Virtue Field this week. That intimate setting is looking less like friendly confines and more like a frigid nightmare for the opposition.

No team last round epitomized the aura of the US Open Cup quite like Vermont Green FC. In front of a sold-out crowd of 2,500-plus in Burlington, Vermont, the USL League Two side scored twice in ten minutes against professional outfit Lexington SC. Two corner kicks found the heads of Zach Barrett and Nick Lockerman, respectively, sending the snowy bleachers into a frenzy on the campus of the University of Vermont.

For Barrett specifically, he now holds the distinction of scoring the first-ever US Open Cup goal in the state of Vermont.

Lexington responded with a goal in the 20th minute, but four minutes later Jacob Labovitz made sure Vermont’s third straight shot on goal was, in fact, their third goal overall. Gerardo Castillo drove up the left flank and cut the ball back to Labovitz, who slapped a right-footed shot into the net. Jake Ashford made it four with another goal off a corner kick in the 50th minute. While Lexington made things hectic by scoring two goals, Vermont left with a historic 4-3 win.

I had the chance to profile Vermont Green and its story ahead of the first round for US Soccer. You can read it here.

One thing I want to touch on is one of the men who founded the club, Matthew Wolff. He is the same Matthew Wolff who created many of the iconic crests and brands you see across the soccer landscape today, including Paris St-Germain, LAFC, Gotham FC, San Diego Wave FC, and New York City FC. In my conversations with him, he let it slip that he wants to play NYCFC II in this tournament.

Carolina Core FC aren’t limping into this Open Cup round, but they aren’t exactly walking in with confidence either. Initially founded in late 2022 by former Major League Soccer and US men's national team midfielder Eddie Pope, Core FC only began play this year. The team from High Point, North Carolina has a grand total of four competitive games under its belt.

Unlike fellow first-year independent team Chattanooga FC, the Core made up most of their…core with highly-rated young players. The roster includes names like forward Yekeson Subah, forward Drake Hadeed, defender Ibrahim Covi, and more. Those players come with high prices, and despite it being early in the year none have stood out in any games.

After needing a stoppage time goal to force penalty kicks in their first MLS NEXT Pro match, Core FC walked away with a shootout win over Crown Legacy FC. But since then the team was blown out by Atlanta United 2, 4-0, and lost on Sunday to New England Revolution II, 2-1.

In the previous round, Core FC needed a late goal from Joshua Rodriguez to beat Northern Virginia FC of USL League Two, 3-2, at home. For perspective, NoVa was a late replacement team for Salem City FC, who dropped out of the tournament. Also, since NoVa attempted to qualify for the tournament via local qualifying with its Eastern Premier Soccer League team, none of those players could be used by the USL team due to being cup-tied. That meant a shuffled roster, including an appearance by D.C. United legend Bill Hamid in goal.

Prediction: Weather in Burlington, VT this Wednesday calls for rain, and potentially 7” of snow. That home field will be packed with over 2,000 crazed fans rooting on Vermont. Green showed how that environment, plus really good college talent, can tip the scales against a professional team. Mix in the fact that Carolina Core has looked lackluster so far this season, and you have the recipe for another cupset. Go Green, 2-0.

NOTE: Anyone in the NYC area interested in this game should know there’s a watch party happening in Astoria, courtesy of the Cosmos Supporters Collective. Vermont Green FC co-founder Patrick Infurna was, in a previous life, a regular at New York Cosmos matches.

Union Omaha (USL1) vs Des Moines Menace (USL2)
Wed, April 3, 8:30 pm ET at Al F. Caniglia Field in Omaha, NE

Okay I’m pushing the boundary of what “local” is. But matchups in the northeast are scarce, and this game needs to be talked about. Plus, it has a former New York Red Bulls legend, so I’m doing it.

This Iowa-Nebraska battle (shoutout to the Big 10) will pit amateurs against professionals. However, in this case, the amateurs are more historic and will have a lot of backup.

The Des Moines Menace are a pillar of soccer in the United States. Founded in 1994 in Des Moines, IA, and celebrating their thirtieth anniversary this season, the team is one of the oldest continuously active clubs in the country. In that span, the Menace have always played in USL League Two or its various predecessors and won two league championships in that time (2005 & 2021).

In Open Cup play, 2024 marks the team’s 16th qualification for America’s national championship (including the canceled 2020 tournament). The team upset professional clubs eight times in the tournament, the second most of any amateur outfit in the Modern Era (1995-present). Record-wise, The Menace won 15 Open Cup games and lost 15 times. They also have four draws, which resulted in three penalty shootout wins and one loss.

What sets 2024 apart for the Menace is how the team approached the competition. A few days before the team’s First Round match last month, they announced the signing of former Major League Soccer and USMNT midfielder Sacha Kljestan. The 38-year-old, who currently serves as an analyst for MLS Season Pass on AppleTV, was returning to the field after retiring from professional soccer at the end of 2022.

As the team explained in the announcement, the team’s First Round match being against Capistrano FC (AKA Capo FC) of the National Independent Soccer Association played a role in the signing. The game was being hosted by Capo in California, where Kljestan is from. That easy commute, plus Kljestan’s public dissatisfaction with MLS’s decision to not fully participate in the Open Cup, helped put ink to paper on a contract. He wasn’t alone either, as the roster included a plethora of former professionals including:

  • Goalkeeper Brian Rowe (LA Galaxy, Orlando City SC)
  • Defender Euan Holden (Stockport County F.C., Bury F.C.)
  • Defender Gabriel Claudio (Union Omaha, One Knoxville SC)
  • Midfielder Luis Arriaga (Real Salt Lake, Real Monarchs, North Carolina FC)
  • Midfielder Peter Pearson (North Carolina FC, Greenville Triumph, also previously played for the Des Moines Menace)
  • Midfielder Eddie Gordon (Union Omaha)

The First Round two weeks ago was chaotic in Southern California. After the game was initially delayed by a high school lacrosse match, Des Moines and Capo battled it out in a thrilling match. Kljestan played what would be a full 120 minutes, and assisted on his team’s first goal. After receiving a throw-in and while under pressure, the former RBNY captain sent a long pass towards a charging Cyrus Harmon, who shot a rocket under the keeper’s body to make it 1-0.

Capo was able to equalize and force extra time, where again both teams scored to force a penalty kick shootout. After four rounds each team had been perfect on offense. Kljestan stepped up and shot low and to the right, to convert what would be the decisive penalty as Capo missed its next attempt. Des Moines won the game, 2-2 (5:4 on penalties).

The crazy signings haven’t stopped going into the Second Round. Last week, Des Moines announced adding former MLS defender A.J. DeLaGarza. They followed up by announcing Roger Espinoza, a three-time Open Cup champion and FA Cup champion, has also signed a contract. This is all while Kljestan has confirmed he will be back for the upcoming round as well.

Their opposition is Union Omaha from Omaha, Nebraska, a professional team from the third-division USL League One entering their fifth season of play. Despite being a child compared to the Menace, the team, who are nicknamed The Owls, have a resume comparable to that of their counterparts. In half a decade, the team have won two regular season championships (2021 and 2023) and one playoff championship (2021). They even qualified for the league final in its inaugural season during 2020, but that was canceled due to COVID, and the title was awarded to Greenville Triumph SC based on points-per-game average.

In the Open Cup, Omaha’s best performance came in 2022 — which was also the team’s first time competing in the national tournament. The Owls cupset two Major League Soccer teams on route to the Quarterfinals, earning $25,000 as the farthest-reaching Third Division team that year. That tournament began with a 2-1 win in the Second Round against the Des Moines Menace.

Despite drawing the short stick last round and having to travel over 1,000 miles to their First Round match, the Owls barely looked bothered. Midfielder Joe Gallardo notched a hat-trick as his team beat USL League Two side Western Mass Pioneers, 4-0.

For their performances in the last round, both Kljestan and Gallardo earned nominations for Player of the Round.

Prediction: I don’t know if what the Des Moines Menace is doing is “good for the Open Cup.” But at the end of the day, I love and appreciate an amateur team doing what it takes to attract eyes and players for games that take place two months before its regular season. But what I do know is that the Menace barely beat a tired Capo FC squad. Union Omaha may only have one league result so far this year, a 2-1 road win at Central Valley Fuego FC, but the team is a well-put-together unit. Don’t expect a cupset: Omaha wins 3-1.