For about 50 percent of the players in MLS, the best week of the year is coming up. Tuesday marks the first wave of U.S. Open Cup games for MLS teams. And for the guys around the league who aren’t starters, that means a rare opportunity to get on the field.
Managers in MLS, like managers around the world, use the early rounds of cup competition to give different players an opportunity to play. There are a variety of reasons. For one, the majority of MLS teams play lower-division teams for their first game. Logic suggests that the bench players for the top-division teams should be better than starters for lower division teams, so the MLS teams can rotate players and still expect to win.
It doesn’t always work that way, of course, but you can understand the logic. As a result, we generally see new or forgotten names in MLS lineups teams early in the Open Cup.
The other eight MLS teams, however, play each other, and managers have a tougher choice on their hands. They want to win the games, but that may come at a cost. The Open Cup games come smashed in the middle of the week between two MLS games. To play a player in a Wednesday game diminishes his energy levels for a Saturday or Sunday MLS game. It’s a clear Open Cup versus MLS tradeoff. Coaches often choose to prioritize the MLS regular season because they stand to gain the most from success in league play.
Many times managers are also forced into changes due to U.S. Open Cup rules. A team is only allowed to have five international players (those who do not have a green card) on the roster for an Open Cup game. Most MLS teams play more than five international players on a regular basis, so to meet the requirements for Open Cup requires a natural shift of personnel.
For the guys stepping into the lineup, it’s an opportunity to show they deserve more playing time. No player wants to be a backup. For a lot of players around the league, the Open Cup is their chance to demonstrate what they can do. Some will get their first taste of professional action; others will have a chance to regain a spot as a regular starter.
Open Cup games aren’t always the biggest box-office hits, but they have a ton on the line for the players involved.
Here are some players with a particularly big U.S. Open Cup ahead:
Even after a standout performance at the FIFA Under-17 World Cup last year, Andrew Carleton has found it tough to get playing in Atlanta United’s stacked attack. Carleton is still young and it feels like he has plenty of time to find a spot in the team, but the harsh history of professional sports consistently reminds us that you never really know how many opportunities you will get. If Atlanta fulfill their goal of selling Miguel Almiron and Ezequiel Barco for big sums, for example, the club will have even more money to spend on big players, and Carleton’s route to the first team could only get tougher. Every time Carleton steps on the field, he needs to feel like he has everything on the line. He’s only 17 now, but if he doesn’t perform when his opportunities come, eight games later, he might be 21. It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen it happen. The path to greatness starts on these seemingly innocuous Wednesday nights.
Maxime Chanot was a fixture for NYCFC when they finished second in the Supporters’ Shield in 2017 and as they got off to a hot start in 2018, but he lost his starting spot after a particularly poor performance against the Red Bulls. NYCFC have secured two shutouts in the four games since inserting Sebastien Ibeagha for Chanot. There hasn’t been much reason for manager Patrick Vieira to return to Chanot during MLS play, so Chanot will have to take every chance he gets to prove he deserves his starting spot back. It might not come in Open Cup specifically, but the crowded schedule means Ibeagha or Alexander Callens will need a break at some point soon.
Let’s stick with NYCFC for a second. Patrick Vieira’s roster has a plethora of regulars who do not yet have green cards, meaning Vieira will need to swap in domestic players to meet Open Cup roster demands. Jonathan Lewis could be a beneficiary.
Lewis has become a fan favorite in NYCFC, if for no other reason than he’s provided a sense of “you want what you can’t have.” The young American has played well in his cameos, yet he’s never seemed to gain favor with Vieira. Fans have never been able to see enough of him to know what he fully offers, but the little bits he’s shown have given people high hopes.
Cincinnati enter MLS in 2019 and will likely bring some of their 2018 USL roster with them. Which of those players that they bring is still up in the air, and up for grabs. On Wednesday, they have a chance to show how well they match up against MLS competition. A good day could make an important impression in the front office’s mind when those MLS contracts are set to be handed out.
Memo Rodriguez has impressed in his limited minutes so far in 2018, but, like Carleton, he has established starters in front of him. With options including Alberth Elis, Romell Quioto, Mauro Manotas, and Tomas Martinez in the attack, it doesn’t offer much reason for Wilmer Cabrera to actively search for a replacement – it will be up to Rodriguez to take the playing time from them. Unlike Carleton, however, Rodriguez doesn’t have time on his side. Rodriguez is now 22, and pretty soon, it’ll be about ability rather than potential.
It appeared that when the New York Red Bulls announced the arrival of Mark Rzatkowski from Red Bull Salzburg that the German would play a big role in their midfield. Due to a slow start and an injury layoff, however, Rzatkowski hasn’t made an impact in MLS yet. And coinciding with his absence have been some excellent Red Bulls performances, including wins over NYCFC and Atlanta. Sean Davis and Tyler Adams have proven they are capable of dominating some of the league’s best midfields. Where does that leave Rzatkowski, then? It’ll be up to him to take every chance he gets, particularly during this period of crowded fixtures, to push his way back into the team.