MLS teams enter the 100th edition of the domestic cup competition in the third round starting Tuesday, but not all 16 should expect to make it through.
The combination of midweek games at out-of-the-way locations, featuring eager underdogs taking on overconfident favorites is recipe enough for the unorthodox to transpire. When those favorites turn to makeshift lineups and no longer have the right to buy hosting rights, it all adds up for a perfect storm of rampant upsets, which is exactly what the U.S. Open Cup, U.S. Soccer's answer to the FA Cup, has become synonymous with over the years.
The 100th edition of the U.S. Open Cup continues this Tuesday and Wednesday, with MLS teams getting their first taste of the competition after the lower-tier sides battled it out for the first two rounds. The field now contains 16 MLS teams, four NASL teams, eight USL PRO teams and four PDL sides, but history dictates that the writing on the wall is unfavorable for a number of the top-tier giants.
Last season, for example, the magic of fifth-tier side Cal FC was as captivating a story as the tournament has seen, and the amateur club was the flag-bearer for a bloodbath of a third round for MLS teams. Eight of them -- in other words, half of the top-flight league's entrants -- bowed out at this stage, losing to lower-tier competition, and a similar output in 2013 would not be all that shocking.
Between the fact that many MLS teams will be hurt by international call-ups and all will be playing on short rest following weekend matchups, coaches will be forced to look deeper down their rosters to try and put together a winning combination, while lower-tier sides take their best shot at pulling off the unthinkable.
Above all, it's the Open Cup. Wild outcomes are bound to happen, and all bets are off -- it couldn't be any other way. Here are five games in this year's U.S. Open Cup's third round that have upset potential:
Richmond Kickers vs. D.C. United (Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET)
This really is D.C. United's greatest nightmare, isn't it? Playing against its own USL PRO affiliate, with two of its own players (17-year-old Homegrown forward Michael Seaton and goalkeeper Andrew Dykstra) and a former castaway (the in-form Joseph Ngwenya) suiting up for the opposition, D.C.'s already tumultuous season could reach it's lowest low yet with an elimination loss.
Losing is something Richmond has yet to do this season, as it remains the only undefeated team in USL PRO (5-0-3), thanks to a heavy presence from the D.C. pipeline.
D.C. boss Ben Olsen takes the Open Cup seriously and is a safe bet to trot out a number of his starting-caliber players in hopes of securing D.C.'s place in the next round. Nothing with this team has been a given this season though, and finding success in a hostile environment could prove to be challenging.
Last year, these two met under wildly different circumstances, and Richmond pushed D.C. to the brink before the MLS side prevailed in extra time. That was when D.C. was playing confidently and was on its way to becoming a legitimate playoff contender. This season? Not so much.
Orlando City SC vs. Colorado Rapids (Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.)
The hosts will be super motivated to make a statement. Following New York City FC's introduction as the next MLS expansion team, Orlando City, which has been vastly outspoken in its quest to become an MLS franchise, offered a statement of congratulations while continuing to state its plans on joining NYCFC in 2015. What better way to hammer home its intentions than by claiming an MLS victim or two during the Open Cup?
Regardless of whether Orlando's expansion bid moves forward, the third-tier side is as ambitious as it is dangerous. Currently leading the USL PRO standings with help of some loanees from Sporting Kansas City (most notably scorching-hot forward Dom Dwyer, who has 13 goals in 10 games), Adrian Heath's side is as formidable as it comes across the lower tiers of U.S. Soccer's pyramid.
The upset potential in this matchup is more based on what Orlando City is capable of, and not what Colorado, who will have to make the cross-country trip for this meeting, is not. The Rapids are in fine form in MLS and have overcome a myriad of injuries and obstacles this season, but even the in-form are capable of an off night.
Sporting Kansas City vs. Des Moines Menace (Tuesday, 8:30 p.m.)
On the surface, this shouldn't be close. Sporting KC is the defending Open Cup champion and an MLS Cup contender. Des Moines is a PDL side (i.e. mostly college kids) being thrown into the fire at Sporting Park in front of the KC Cauldron. Surefire blowout? Not so fast.
The hosts will be without the likes of Graham Zusi and Matt Besler while they embark on U.S. national team duty, and while there is plenty of depth up and down Peter Vermes' roster, they are two huge pieces to the Sporting KC puzzle.
Des Moines, meanwhile, is coached by 2002 MLS Coach of the Year finalist and former MLS Cup-winning assistant coach Mike Jeffries, and its goalkeeper is former Sporting KC product and area native Scott Angevine.
Forward Jimmy Tulloch, a Jamaican international prospect, was a member of Akron's 2010 national championship team, transferred to the University of Central Florida and has had two productive seasons in the shadow of current standout MLS rookie Deshorn Brown. He has had a hand in both goals in Des Moines' two 1-0 victories thus far in the competition, scoring the first game-winner and assisting on the second against defending NASL finalist Minnesota.
In short, Des Moines, which has eight Open Cup wins in its history, is not a run-of-the-mill PDL pushover, and if Sporting KC overlooks its competition (which it did not do when it eliminated the Menace in the third round in 2005 and 2006), then the defending champs could find themselves relinquishing their crown.
LA Blues vs. Chivas USA (Tuesday, 10:30 p.m.)
If there is one that that has become clear with Chivas USA, it is that no game can be taken for granted. So even though the Goats are going up against a USL PRO opponent, it would be unwise to consider them overwhelming favorites, or even favorites at all.
Jose Luis "Chelis" Sanchez Sola's side has dropped four MLS games in a row, being outscored 13-1 along the way, and any semblance of positive momentum that the club had earlier in the season has dissolved fast.
Depending on how seriously Chivas takes the competition, a reserve Chivas side could be charged with trying to dispatch the upstart hosts. Even if Chelis trots out his first team, though, he claimed after a recent loss that his club just was not talented enough to compete in MLS. Can you imagine the outpouring of Chelis-speak that could happen with a loss to the third-tier Blues? The potential alone is staggering.
Carolina Railhawks vs. LA Galaxy (Wednesday, 7:15 p.m.)
The Galaxy had to fly across the country following Sunday's historic night and comprehensive victory over the Seattle Sounders, so the potential for them to play with an emotional hangover and tired legs is certainly a legitimate worry. Considering Bruce Arena's track record, there is little to no chance he risks his regulars for this affair as well, meaning the Galaxy's young guns -- who to their credit are proving to be capable first-team contributors -- should be called upon to try and get the MLS Cup champs to the next stage.
The RailHawks, meanwhile, who are a perfect 3-0-0 in home NASL games this season, eliminated the Galaxy from last season's competition, so they won't be intimidated or surprised by anything the Galaxy throw their way. Carolina boasts a number of former MLS players who won't be overwhelmed by the task of going up against the big-spending MLS giant, and last season's Open Cup heroes, Ty Shipalane and Brian Shriver, remain with the club.
The game does provide Galaxy barrier-breaker Robbie Rogers another opportunity to get acclimated to playing again after making his historic debut with the Galaxy on Sunday night. He won a national championship with the University of Maryland playing on what is now known as the WakeMed Soccer Park, so he should feel right at home in Cary, N.C., where the home fans will be hoping for another upset.