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Anatomy of a Cup-set: Coaches share how to slay U.S. Open Cup giants

We chatted with Open Cup veterans to learn the secrets behind pulling off an improbable win.

12 min read
Design: Peyton Gallaher

Cup competitions are special because they produce chaos. 

March Madness has that nickname because a school like Duquesne has the same shot at glory as Duke does. In the U.S. Open Cup, the most memorable moments of chaos come in the form of the Cup-set.

Between the 2022 and 2023 Open Cups, MLS and USL teams met 46 times. The average scoreline in those match-ups was 2.04 goals to 0.93 in favor of the first-division clubs. MLS teams advanced in 34 of the 46 games; 32 were outright victories, and two came on penalty kicks. Winning isn’t easy for the smaller dogs in these big fights.

Still, that leaves more than a quarter of matches in which lower-league teams advance. No one knows the formula better than the coaches behind the Cup-sets.

‘We had movie companies reaching out’

For Bob Lilley, whose Pittsburgh Riverhounds downed two MLS teams on the way to the Open Cup quarterfinals last season, the tournament is a balancing act. A run can galvanize a team, but not at the expense of other competitions.

“Our priority is the league first,” Lilley told Backheeled. “I look at [the Open Cup] as a way to get guys very important minutes. We’re always trying to win those games and to play better competition. It’s a big responsibility for those players. We don’t always play all of our first teamers – last season against New England, we had five or six players rotated in even though it was an MLS opponent, and they were very good.”

More than 20 years into his run as a manager in the lower divisions, Lilley knows that the tournament can be a game-changer for a squad. “After we won that New England game, we went on a 13-game unbeaten run in Open Cup and league play. We were on a great run, and that was the moment where we became a strong team that believed we could play with anyone.”

Other managers mark the Open Cup with red letters on their calendar. Mark Briggs, coach of the Sacramento Republic, falls into that category. Thanks to his team’s run to the tournament final in 2022, he’s well aware of what an Open run – MLS upsets and all – can mean.

“We had movie companies reaching out to make a film about our Cup run,” Briggs remembered in a chat with Backheeled. “We were in New Mexico, where Kristen Stewart was filming a movie, and her producer came over to discuss the run with us before the semifinal. That’s the beauty of the Cup – it can ignite a city and bring people together. We had 15,000 fans in the convention center watching the big screen. Everyone can get behind an underdog and get excited.”

Meanwhile, Union Omaha manager Dominic Casciato, who led a League One Players’ Shield campaign in 2023 and has downed higher-level competitors two years running in the Open, sees the tournament as a spotlight for his entire organization.

“I think it's huge. Anytime our guys get an opportunity to play against a Championship or MLS club is putting them in the shop window,” he said. “Getting the opportunity to play against teams from a high level is a reward for the hard work that the staff are doing as well.”

Stick with the familiar

In the context of a single-elimination tournament, it’s easy to assume that a defense-first, counter attacking style is the way to go. Even the best USL team is likely to be outclassed by an MLS opponent on paper, and parking the bus is often seen as the safest way to approach a game.

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