The Union begin their quest for a third straight appearance in the U.S. Open Cup finals Wednesday at home versus City Islanders FC of the USL.
Jim Curtin’s men will see real action for the first time since their 3-2 win against the Columbus Crew on June 1st, a span of two weeks. The City Islanders are coming off of a 1-0 defeat to RBNY II on June 9th. The Union are in first in the Eastern Conference of MLS; the City Islanders are in 10th in an Eastern Conference of 14 in the USL, or third tier of American soccer.
For the uninitiated, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is an NCAA-basketball-style single-elimination tournament held among soccer teams of all levels in the United States. Amateur teams enter the bracket and play for the right to play teams on the lower tiers of pro soccer (like the USL and NASL), who then play for the right to play teams from MLS and ultimately, for the Open Cup. The winner of the Open Cup wins money and a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League, a separate competition made up of the best teams in Central and North America, along with the trophy that goes with it.
The boys in blue have come tantalizingly close to winning the oldest soccer tournament in the United States for the last two years. In the 2014 Final against the Seattle Sounders, they started the scoring with a Maurice Edu header off of a Chaco Maidana free kick near the area late in the first half. Chad Barrett equalized for the Sounders soon after the second half started; both teams had good chances as the second half progressed, and the Union had several chances to win it late and in stoppage (most notable a Vincent Nogueira shot that hit the post and went near the goal before being cleared) but couldn’t convert. The Sounders found their touch in extra time as Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins both tallied as the team in green hoisted the U.S. Open Cup in the Union’s home, 3-1.
In 2015, the Union fought to get back to the Open Cup Final once again, winning several matches along the way despite having players sent off and being forced to play a sort of false nine. The 2015 Final was again in Chester and was against Sporting Kansas City. Again the Union started brightly and carried play in the first half, and opened scoring with a Sebastien Le Toux tally in the 23rd minute. It took KC until the 65th minute to find an equalizer, with US national Graham Zusi sliding a pass to SKC forward Krisztian Nemeth who curled a ball past Union keeper Andre Blake in a brilliant finish to level the match. With neither team finding another tally in regulation or extra time, the match went to penalties, where the teams matched efforts until the eighth round, when Union man Ray Gaddis’s effort was stopped by Tim Melia, and then Jordi Quintilla converted to send Kansas City home with the Open Cup.
One would expect a USL team to go quietly in the face of an MLS team, but the Union’s former affiliates in the USL (until this year) have traditionally been a tough out in the Open Cup, repeatedly making the quarterfinals by beating MLS teams. The City Islanders will take this competition seriously and the Union will have to be ready. The last match they played in the Open Cup in 2014 went to additional time, with the Union needing late heroics in the extra session to beat the Islanders 3-1.
One USL team the Union won’t have to worry about is Bethlehem Steel. A rule amendment to Open Cup eligibility this past year banned all teams in lower tiers who are owned by a team in an upper tier, as it’s a conflict of interest.
In past years, the Union had refocused the efforts of their season on doing well in the Open Cup due to their poor MLS season. For their part, the Union are taking this competition every bit as seriously as they have in past years; coach Jim Curtin told reporters on Monday “there’s two major trophies… we’re going to try to win both of them.”
Andre Blake will be in the house on Wednesday, fresh off of Jamaica’s 3-0 loss to Uruguay in Copa America Centenario on Monday, but whether or not he plays is up for speculation. Matt Jones and John McCarthy are both potentials to go in Blake’s stead. Due to the citizenship requirements of the Open Cup (which prohibit a team from playing more than five players who are neither citizens of the US nor possess a green card), McCarthy could see the start if Blake does not go but can back up.
My guess on the foreign players? Tranquillo Barnetta, Roland Alberg, Matt Jones, Ilsinho, Fabian Herbers. We could see a bit of rotation in the squad (Alberg for Barnetta and Gaddis for Fabinho perhaps) but largely, I anticipate it’ll be the standard lineup.
Starting XI: Jones; Fabinho, Marquez, Tribbett, Rosenberry; Carroll, Nogueira; Pontius, Barnetta, Le Toux; Sapong
Prediction: the Union are a bit rusty but get the job done as some faces who haven’t seen a lot of time contribute. Union 3, City Islanders FC 1