Five Thoughts: Lansing Ignite in the US Open Cup
January 31, 2019
On January 31st, U.S. Soccer announced the format and dates for the 106th U.S Open Cup. The US Open Cup is a yearly tournament featuring both pro and amateur teams from across the nation. This year features 84 teams total. With Lansing Ignite being in USL League One, they receive automatic entry into the tournament rather than having to earn their way in during the season. Since USL League One is the lowest division of pro soccer, Lansing will enter the tournament in the first round of the tournament. USL Championship teams will enter in the second round, and MLS teams will enter in the fourth round.
Unfortunately, we have to wait until April 10th to find out who Lansing will play in round one, and then April 17th for the potential second round opponent, But with all the teams and the dates listed, we can start to make a few educated guesses about how things will play out in the coming months. Here are five takeaways from today’s announcement.
Lansing Could Host Round One
I was originally pessimistic about Lansing’s chances of hosting any US Open Cup matches this year. Sharing a stadium with the Lugnuts means that Ignite already takes up a good chunk of the available days at Cooley Law Stadium. But the stars have aligned and Lansing really could be hosting their round one matchup this year. The Lugnuts are away from home from May 6th through the 12th, and round one will be taking place on either May 7th or 8th.
Based on their press release, Ignite seem to be prepared to put in a bid to host round one. This does not guarantee they will get to do it though, as US Soccer determines home teams via a random draw of those who enter. We will find out for sure once the matchups are announced if we will get to see a US Open Cup game in Lansing.
If Lansing advances in round one, they will not be hosting round two, The Lugnuts are in town May 14th and 15th, when round two games take place. If Lansing somehow goes on a magical run (more theories on their chances of doing that below), they could potentially host Round 3 (May 29th) and Round 4 (June 12th), as the Lugnuts are away during both of those dates.
A Michigan Milk Cup Finals Rematch Is Probably Coming
With many lower league teams who cannot travel as easily as the biggest pro teams, geography plays a big role in how US Open Cup matchups are determined. This isn’t a tournament with a big NCAA style bracket. Each round, matchups are picked out factoring in the leagues that the teams are in,, affiliations they have with other teams, and location.
Due to this, we can pretty easily guess who Lansing will be playing in their round one game. There is only one other team in Michigan in the tournament this year, and that is AFC Ann Arbor of the NPSL.
For those who followed Lansing United last year, the game against Ann Arbor was one of the most memorable of the year. It took place in the Michigan Milk Cup Finals, a cup tournament for local teams. Lansing United came with a thrilling 3-2 victory while picking up two red cards. One of them late in the match as Steeve Pouna decided to celebrate Lansing’s third goal with The Ransom. You can see the highlights here.
With Lansing now having a pro team, their talent should be far and away better than Ann Arbor’s, and this is a game they absolutely have to win.
Possible Round 2-4 Opponents
In Round Two, all winners from Round One will have to play a team from the USL Championship, which is a tier above USL League One. This is where things will get much more difficult for Lansing, as now the talent level will be higher. Based on location, the most logical opponents would be Indy Eleven, Pittsburgh Riverhounds FC, or maybe even Louisville FC, who played Lansing United in Lansing during United’s only year in the Open Cup.
All three of these teams made the playoffs last year in the USL, and would not be easy foes. If Lansing makes it through, their opponent in round 3 could vary widely based on whoever comes out of round 2. The coolest possible outcome would be a Lansing-Madison match to really solidify that rivalry, not to mention, it would be a team that is more on our level in terms of talent. Obviously, a whole lot would have to happen for that to come about.
If Lansing does somehow make it to round four, it would be time to face a MLS opponent. The most likely opponents would be Chicago, Columbus, or Cincinnati.
How Far Can Lansing Go?
With USL League One being a totally new league in the third tier of US Soccer, it is very difficult to anticipate how the teams in this league will perform against the second tier USL Championship teams. There may be a significant gap between the leagues, or it might not be quite as big as we think.
The last time we had division 3 teams facing division 2 teams in the Open Cup was 2016, when the USL was division 3, and NASL was the division 2 league. In NASL vs. USL matches in that tournament, the NASL went 6-3 against the lower league USL. In 2018, division 4 teams went 9-19 against the division 2 USL (where there should have been a much more significant talent gap). So if this holds up, there is probably a 33% chance Lansing beats whoever they face in round two. Even if the higher division has better talent overall, there is always a decent chance they decide to play more reserves in some of these early round games for rest purposes, which obviously helps out the lower division team.
Ignite will have to get out of the first round to be able to worry about taking on USL Championship squads though. Upsets happen there too, but Lansing should still be far superior to Ann Arbor (or whoever else they might play). I’d put their odds at 90% to win based on past Open Cup history.
Making round 2 will be the requirement for the US Open Cup to not be a total disaster for Lansing. Making round 3 will be difficult, but it is also a realistic goal that I think the team will be shooting for. Making it far enough to face a MLS team in round 4 would make the US Open a complete success beyond what anyone could reasonably expect this year.
Coach Nate Miller Will Have To Make A Decision
Every round that Lansing advances in the Open Cup will present Head Coach Nate Miller with some difficult decisions due to a compacted schedule. If Lansing makes it to round two, they will end up having a brutal 5 games in 14 days stretch. Nate will have to figure out how to best use his bench to keep everyone fresh and limit injury risk during this stretch.
Some of this may sort itself out once the League One season starts. If one of the League One teams proves to be far weaker than Lansing, Nate might decide to take his chances and play more subs against one of those squads. But there will be a balancing act for sure.
If I had to take a guess, I’d expect a few strategic bench rotations, but nothing major in the League One games against Richmond, Greenville and North Texas that take place in May. Due to what should be a large talent gap, I bet the round one matchup against Ann Arbor will see the most subs of any game in this stretch, with a few “super subs” in the 18 in case of emergency. I think Nate will go all in with Ignite’s best 11 in a potential round 2 matchup against a USL Championship squad. A win in round 2 would be a season defining kind of moment, and would also continue to put Nate on the map as a coach to watch in US Soccer.