For the second straight year, New York Red Bulls Under-23 will be competing in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. This was announced on Thursday, Jan. 31 by the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) along with the tournament’s other entrants, format and schedule.
This is the club’s fifth time entering the competition, which pits professional and amateur teams in a single game elimination format, and they will be entering in the First Round alongside other amateur teams from around the country and six teams from the brand new USL League One (Division 3 of U.S. Soccer). The team will find out who they are playing in the First Round on April 10 and the game will take place between May 7-8.
The young group earned the spot due to its strong 2018 season in the Premier Developmental League (now known as USL League Two). A regular season record of 10-1-3 (31 pts), including a draw against division leading Reading United, was enough to finish second in the Mid Atlantic Division and earn a spot in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Goals from midfielders Jared Gilbey, a junior a Stanford University, and Kyle Zajec, a senior at Georgetown University were able to advance the squad past Black Rock FC, 2-1, and into the conference final. There, however, the team would ultimately fall to Reading, 2-1, despite a late goal from Gilbey and multiple second half offensive pushes.
Even with the impressive results it did not look like the club would compete in the tournament. For nationally recognized amateur leagues such as USL League Two and the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), teams are ranked based on their end of year results and finishes. The USSF announces how many spots go to each league and teams get in based on their rank.
Initially, the team was ranked 11th with only 10 spots going to USL League Two. However, due to multiple teams folding following the conclusion of the season, Red Bulls U-23 and two others were able to advance in rankings and qualify. It was also aided by the fact that the league champion, Calgary Foothills FC, was barred from entering due it being a Canadian team – lessening the potential field by one extra spot.
Whenever teams like RBNY U-23 or any other MLS academy side make it to the tournament, it brings up questions about the rules and regulations regarding these squads. In total, four amateur teams in the Open Cup this year have direct ties to professional clubs and serve as a “two team,” academy side, or some hybrid. Professional teams that exist as “two teams” or “reserve squads,” such as Red Bull 2 in USL Championship, are barred from entering. That rule, however, does not apply to amateur sides for a few reasons, but it’s namely for the distinction between professional teams and amateur in the United States in regards to player status. This is especially true when considering college athletes who have to deal with NCAA regulations as well.
Teams like the Under-23 side give college and young amateur athletes a chance to experience the feeling of a major tournament alongside regular season play. I do think that sort of trial is great for their careers as they grow and gain knowledge about that game. From a player development standpoint, which is the sole reason this team exists, it’s perfect.
Does that also mean professional reserve or academy teams deserve to be in the tournament? That all depends on how much the USSF could do to prevent collusion between the clubs. A player who starts with the main team shouldn’t be allowed onto the second team just for an Open Cup game and then loaned back. At the same time, I personally think the Red Bulls have one of the best academy / developmental systems in the United States. So if they are good enough to knock off higher tier teams, I’d be fine with giving them a chance. There’s pros and cons to both sides, but it seems as though USSF will continue with the current system.
Red Bulls U-23 will be joining other local lower league and non-MLS sides in the tournament as well. This includes last year’s NPSL finalist FC Motown from Morristown, NJ, the New York Cosmos B, Philadelphia Lone Star FC, and brand new USL Championship side Hartford Athletic from Connecticut.
Of course the Red Bulls first team will also be in the competition and will enter in the Fourth Round along with every other Major League Soccer side. However, the main team and U-23 team will not be able to face one-another unless both reach the final due to tournament rules.