The 107th edition of the U.S. Open Cup will take place starting May 18-19, 2021. After the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Open Cup to be cancelled last year, officials are taking precautions in hosting the competition.
The U.S. Soccer Federation Open Cup Committee has eliminated the usual qualification and early rounds of matches and will begin with the round of 16. The 16 clubs will be comprised of eight from MLS, four from the USL Championship, one from USL League One, one from the National Independent Soccer Association and two from the Open Division. The question MLS club supporters immediately asked is: What will determine the eight representatives from MLS?
The answer is that the eight clubs with the best points per game in all matches played through May 3 will make the cut. There are potential tiebreakers if needed, but for now let’s concentrate on the first cut.
One would hope that all schedules would be equal and that each club’s chances are the same, but given the MLS regular schedule was created before there was a plan for the 2021 U.S. Open Cup, that’s simply not the case. Let’s look at some of the factors that will work both for and against Orlando City earning a berth in the tournament.
The Lions will play three matches in that time frame. The first is the opening day match against Atlanta United in Exploria Stadium, on the road at Sporting Kansas City, and then back home to host FC Cincinnati. In fact, 23 clubs will play three matches. The potentially lucky three that only have to worry about two matches are the Columbus Crew, Toronto FC, and Real Salt Lake. This does assume that other clubs won’t have matches cancelled due to positive COVID tests.
Those three clubs only have to manage to get all three points in two matches to qualify, leaving the rest of the league to need three wins to match their points-per-game average. All three teams with only two games have one home match and one away match. Of course, if they don’t manage to get all the points, it might be tougher for them to work their way in if no clubs are perfect.
Of the clubs playing three matches, 12 have only one home match, and 12 have two home matches, including Orlando City. The one lucky oddball club is Nashville SC, with three home matches. Nashville plays Cincinnati, Montreal, and Inter Miami. There are definitely tougher schedules out there, but Nashville is a newer MLS side, and anything can happen.
We can look to last year’s top eight in points per game to predict the potential favorites to make the Open Cup. In case you’ve forgotten, that includes the Philadelphia Union, Toronto FC, Sporting Kansas City, the Columbus Crew, Orlando City, the Seattle Sounders, the Portland Timbers, and New York City FC. But LAFC and Atlanta will likely be contenders again and other teams are vastly improved. This gives the 2021 edition a slight feeling of an “open” cup competition despite this year’s restrictions.
There is, of course, the COVID factor. A club might have to cancel or postpone a match or, like Orlando City, players will start receiving the vaccines. Unless Orlando City’s players are going to receive the Johnson & Johnson single dose vaccine, the Lions could be getting their second vaccine in this time frame. As I’m writing this article I’m waiting to see if my second dose is going to have any debilitating effects. I get that we’re talking about professional athletes (which I am most definitely not), but everyone reacts to the vaccine differently.
Orlando City also goes into the season a bit shorthanded. The team will be without Mauricio Pereyra, who is suspended for the Lions’ first two games. Joao Moutinho is recovering from hip surgery, and even though Oscar Pareja has expressed some optimism about his return, he’ll likely be out to start the season. Daryl Dike’s loan will keep him at Barnsley through this time period, and captain Nani has an unspecified injury which could limit his availability at the start of the 2021 campaign. Other players will need to step up, but those key absences could affect the Lions’ chances at qualification.
There are many factors that could affect Orlando City’s chances to make the Open Cup. The only sure way for the Lions to secure a spot is to take all nine points, and ideally score enough goals to win any tie breakers. I’m not sure that Orlando City can be considered a favorite to make it given the Lions play three matches, including Sporting KC on the road, but they definitely have a better than average chance when compared to the schedules of some of the other clubs.
Let me know if you think the Lions will make it and why in the comments below.