Over one year after it first stopped sports, COVID-19 continues to affect soccer in the United States. Earlier this week, U.S. Soccer announced the already trimmed down 2021 U.S. Open Cup would now start with only 16 teams. This includes eight from Major League Soccer which will be determined via regular season results after three weeks of play (with May 3 being the deadline).
A new sense of urgency is going to be placed on those first three weeks. The chance to qualify for the 2022 CONCACAF Champions League via a shorter route (win four games) is very tempting. Combined that with the fact that the Red Bulls are a team with a lot of new parts, and the idea of a tournament schedule to go along with the league season is a great opportunity to flesh out new pieces.
Every MLS team will open the tournament against a non-Division 1 team. This group includes four from USL Championship (D-II), one from USL League One (D-III), one from the National Independent Soccer Association (D-III), and two from the amateur open divisions. Since teams are going to be grouped together geographically, and since the two Open Division teams have not been determined (they’ll be randomly drawn on April 6), the closest known options for New York if it qualified would be Detroit City FC (NISA) or Louisville City FC (USLC).
As a fan, both of those games are very tempting. Detroit has a large anti-establishment culture in its fanbase so you know they’d be very excited for a chance to beat the “energy drink company”. City is coming off a Fall championship in NISA and have never played New York in any capacity (MLS, USL, or otherwise). Meanwhile, Louisville has had a playoff rivalry with New York Red Bulls II in USLC as both teams played each other in multiple tournaments on the way to league titles. Plus, recent news has pointed to LCFC considering trying to join MLS sometime in the near future. Last season the team was upset in the Eastern Conference Finals by the Tampa Bay Rowdies, denying them a fourth-straight final appearance.
Both of these teams would make for incredible games for fans to watch and would challenge Gerhard Struber’s group in the Round of 16. It’s been four years since New York reached the tournament final back in 2017, and only three players (Ryan Meara, Aaron Long, and Sean Davis) are still on the roster that played in that loss to Sporting Kansas City.
But nothing is guaranteed and New York still needs to be one of the top eight teams after three weeks of games. Their schedule isn’t fully optimized for that, but there is a realistic chance the team gets two wins and a draw in the early season.
New York’s first game is at home against, coincidentally, Kansas City. The defending Western Conference regular season champions had a slower offseason, signing mostly academy talent, two French players from the Turkish Süper Lig, and even picked up RBNY 2020 draftee Kendall McIntosh following his release. They’re still a dangerous team and there’s a reason why the Red Bulls haven’t beaten them one time in the last five meetings (including the 2017 Final).
The following games against LA Galaxy and Chicago Fire are both prime opportunities for New York to take home some points. LA had an awful 2020 going winless in the MLS is Back Tournament and having a historically bad second half only winning two out of 13 games. They’ve had a busy offseason trying to fill in holes, like picking up Irish defender Derrick Williams from Blackburn Rovers, but it will take time for them to fully rebound. This game is a prime chance to get something from them and increase RBNY’s chances to reach the tournament.
Chicago meanwhile still looks like a team trying to find itself as well. The Fire and New York have been pretty evenly matched going back to 2017, with a record of 4 wins and 2 draws & 2 losses favoring RBNY. If anything, it could be a contest between two average/sup-par teams but it’s probably the best way to finish up the three week push. If the Red Bulls enter the third week needing a certain result to get into the top 3 it’s best they go against a weaker team they can match-up with.
The obvious course to get in would be three wins to start the season, but a more realistic option involves draws. If RBNY takes three points in two games and ties in the third, it will almost certainly be enough to qualify. Two draws and a win would probably put them somewhere in the middle. Any loses, including one on April 17’s opening day, will almost certainly end this campaign outright.
Even if the Red Bulls don’t qualify, hopefully one of the local amateur teams will win the draw and enter as a Open Division side. This group includes Atlantic City FC (NPSL), FC Motown (NPSL/USL2), Newtown Pride FC (USASA), and West Chester United SC (NPSL/USL2).