PHOENIX – Even though the USL season is in full swing, the Phoenix Rising have shifted their focus to a midweek U.S. Open Cup bout against fellow Phoenix team Valley United FC on Wednesday.
It will be the Rising’s first time playing in the competition since being eliminated via penalties against New Mexico United in 2019.
The U.S. Open Cup is the longest-running soccer competition in the United States. This year’s tournament is the 107th edition. Before the COVID-19 pandemic caused the cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 editions, the tournament had crowned a winner every year since its inception in 1914.
The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, as it’s officially known, brings top-division MLS squads together with teams from all the lower divisions of U.S. soccer. It was renamed in 1999 after Lamar Hunt, a pioneer of soccer in the U.S., to show appreciation for the man who effectively founded MLS, as well as the NASL, which has since folded.
This year’s competition has a record 103 teams competing, including a record 71 from Divisions I, II and III, which will square off against Open Division clubs and one another in pursuit of U.S. Soccer’s National Championship.
“The Open Cup is an important part of the American soccer landscape, a unique tournament within American sports,” former USMNT player and current Sporting Director at Austin FC, Claudio Reyna, said in a press release.
With so many teams taking part, the Open Cup’s early stages of competition are staggered by divisions, according to geography.
The first round of the tournament features the lowest division teams, which includes any league below Division III. In the second round, both Division II – which includes Phoenix Rising – and III teams begin play along with the advancing lower division squads, with matchups determined based on location to make travel easier for lower division clubs.
The third round is where things get interesting because that’s when the Division I clubs – including the lesser ranked MLS teams – begin play against the second-round winners. In the fourth round, the eight highest-seeded MLS squads start play.
The tournament is single elimination with games going to extra time, and then, if necessary, penalty shots.
One of the unique features of the U.S. Open Cup is each team is allowed a maximum of five international players, which will lead to some lineup changes for many teams, including the Phoenix Rising.
Rising Coach Rick Schantz said that the limit on international players will give opportunities to some of the Rising’s domestic players such as Carlos Anguiano and Ryan Flood.
Beyond the glory of taking home the most storied trophy in U.S. Soccer, there is also a financial incentive for teams to perform well. According to the U.S. Soccer website, this year’s winner will earn $300,000 in prize money and a berth in the 2023 Concacaf Champions League and have its name engraved on the Dewar Challenge Trophy, one of the oldest nationally-contested trophies in American team sports, which is on permanent display at the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
Given that no lower division club has won since the Rochester Rhinos in 1999, and none have made the Cup final since the Charleston Battery in 2008, the Open Cup awards $25,000 to the deepest-advancing team from each lower division.
The Rising are hoping to change that trend with a deep run this season.
Before a preseason match against Kansas City of the MLS, Schantz said he told his players, “Let’s not let this be the last time we play an MLS team this season.
“I’d like to play one of them with something on the line, that’s for sure,” Schantz added.
Before the Rising can think about an MLS matchup, their focus is on Wednesday’s second-round match against Valley United FC.
Valley United were founded in 2020 and play in the National Independent Soccer Association, in the third tier of U.S. Soccer. This is Valley United’s first season playing in both NISA and the U.S. Open Cup, making them Arizona’s third professional soccer team alongside the Rising and FC Tucson.
“We’re excited,” Schantz said. “It’s good that Phoenix has two teams in the Open Cup. I think it’ll be great for fans to see two local teams competing in a meaningful game.”
Wednesday’s game will be played in the Phoenix Rising’s stadium, but Valley United do have a stadium of their own at Bell Bank Park in Mesa, as they continue to grow each year.
While no game is a guarantee, the Rising are heavy favorites.
“You have to play with intensity against anybody so we can’t overlook them at all,” Schantz said. “In a Cup competition you can’t win the trophy if you lose a game…it’s one game and you’re done, that’s it, so we haven’t really thought much about what happens next.”
If they defeat Valley United, Phoenix Rising will look to the third-round draw on April 8 for their next matchup, potentially against a lesser-ranked MLS team.
One thing that’s always been a goal at Phoenix Rising is to establish themselves as one of the top teams in America and the U.S. Open Cup offers lower-division clubs a unique opportunity to prove just that.
“As a coach, a player who grew up here in Arizona, the opportunity to possibly host a MLS team here in an Open Cup game, in a big stadium like we have here at Rising, that’s kind of always been a dream of mine,” Schantz said.
For those who can’t make it out to Wild Horse Pass on Wednesday, the game is also being streamed on ESPN+.