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Can lower-tier teams still go far in US Open Cup?

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It is the romance of cup competitions that sparks passion, dreams and drama into the lives of every soccer fan.

I’m no different. I love the knockout formats and with this year being the 100th US Open Cup, I’m expecting something special.

Today the Centennial edition of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup kicks off, with the play in rounds set for this evening.

Find out the draw for the early rounds here, and loads of really cool facts, figures and Open Cup snippets too.

But as I was sat back thinking about the Open Cup, a sad thought entered my mind. “What if second or third tier teams could no longer compete with MLS sides in the future?”

Many would argue that point arrived long ago and we are way past it. But we have to remember that in the early rounds of this competition, MLS sides often send out weakened teams filled with youngsters and reserve players. The level evens out and as we saw on multiple occasions last season, upsets occur.

In the 2012 competition, Carolina defeated LA Galaxy, Cal FC beat Portland, the Michigan Bucks defeated Chicago, Harrisburg beat New England, San Antonio beat Houston, Minnesota defeated RSL and the Charlotte Eagles beat FC Dallas…all in one round!

Last seasons US Open Cup filled me with hope that the burgeoning soccer pyramid in the US was growing stronger by the season and smaller clubs could have the chance of replicating the famous upsets we see in the FA Cup and other cup competitions in Europe, season after season.

(More: New stadiums now heavier in lower tiers, US soccer moving forward)

Lower league teams are getting closer to MLS in terms of infrastructure and the gap is definitely closing. Therefore, every season the US Open Cup acts as a litmus test for just how far the rest of the US soccer pyramid is growing. Last season proved smaller teams can now compete with MLS, and this season people will judge NASL and USL sides on how well they perform against teams from Major League Soccer.

However, with the USL Pro-MLS Reserve League deal, ultimately this US Open Cup will become a little more complex, with player shared from parent clubs etc. Add to that the fact that two MLS U-23 sides have qualified for this seasons competition and we may lose some of that regional, almost tribal, rivalry.

(More: US Open Cup field set, as Centennial tournament awaits)

When the Galaxy rolled into Cary, North Carolina last May, they were the reigning MLS Champs, everyone knew who they were. But the Railhawks battled hard, the fans created an intimidating atmosphere and Bruce Arena’s face was a deep shade of scarlet after his side were upset by the NASL outfit.

I am not saying those days are over, because last seasons Open Cup proved NASL and USL Pro teams are drawing closer to the level of MLS sides all the time. But I am hoping a lower-league team can make it to the finals, or even the semis. Is that too much to ask?

The Rochester Rhinos won the Open Cup in ’99 and the Charleston Battery lost to D.C. United in the 2008 final. But those are the only two non-MLS teams to make it all the way to the final since MLS arrived in 1996.

I can see Orlando City, Tampa Bay, Carolina and possibly Charleston going far in this seasons competition.

Wouldn’t it be great for US soccer if a lower-tier team steps up and takes the Centennial US Open Cup? It would provide hope for the future anyway, that this terrific cup competition won’t fall by the wayside into obscurity.

Ranieri laughs off England speculation with quip about bookmakers

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 26:  Claudio Ranieri, Manager of Leicester City speaks during a Leicester City press conference ahead of their Champions League match against FC Porto at The King Power Stadium on September 26, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images
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When it comes to quotes, Claudio Ranieri is one of the best.

The Leicester City manager was put on the spot after Tuesday’s 1-0 UEFA Champions League win over Porto, and handled it well.

[ MORE: USMNT’s Pulisic, BVB best Madrid ]

Asked about his name appearing on betting sites as a favorite to replace disgraced England boss Sam Allardycewho left the job Tuesday — Ranieri responded with a nod to Leicester’s long odds-defying Premier League title run.

Ranieri pleased as Leicester goes 2-0 in UCL: “We played with our spirit tonight”

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 27:  Islam Slimani and Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City celebrate victory after the UEFA Champions League Group G match between Leicester City FC and FC Porto at The King Power Stadium on September 27, 2016 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Leicester City is now 2-0 in the UEFA Champions League after holding out to beat Porto 1-0 on Tuesday at King Power Stadium.

Combine that with their opening match blowout at Club Brugge, and the Foxes are flying. Contrary to many projections — including mine — the UEFA Champions League slate has only served to fire up, not wear out, the Foxes (at least in Europe. More on their Premier League problems below).

[ MORE: Champions League roundup ]

Of course we should have learned to stop predicting struggles for Leicester. Even if Tuesday’s match did see the Foxes hanging on for dear life, they did that plenty of times in last season’s run to the Premier League title.

And this year the Foxes have Islam Slimani.

The striker has been a force in each game of his young Leicester career. Slimani has terrific chemistry with fellow Algerian Riyad Mahrez, and the ex-Sporting CP man has plenty of experience in Europe.

Both his manager and captain were pleased with Slimani, and the effort.

Here’s Wes Morgan, from the BBC:

“We know we’ve got to be resilient, especially at home. We had to dig in at the end there so it’s pleasing to get three points.

“Islam Slimani is a handful and he works hard for his goals so he deserves a lot of credit. Pleased for him tonight.”

And Ranieri:

“We suffered in the last 10 minutes but it was important to win. Concentration was high, we were resilient, I’m very happy. We played with our spirit tonight.”

Leicester City could be as good as onto the knockout rounds with a win in Copenhagen on Oct. 18, and have set themselves up well for the remaining matches.

Now, it’s onto Premier League improvement. The Foxes fell to Manchester United in a blowout this weekend, and have Saints, Chelsea, Palace, and Spurs next. That’s a very challenging slate for the PL’s 12th ranked club.

Champions League wrap: Spurs, Foxes collect wins; Juve wins big in Croatia

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 27:  Heung-Min Son of Tottenham Hotspur controls the ball during the UEFA Champions League Group E match between PFC CSKA Moskva and Tottenham Hotspur FC at Stadion CSKA Moskva on September 27, 2016 in Moscow, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images
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The UEFA Champions League’s group stage hits its second round of matches Tuesday, with two Premier League teams in play and a bevy of big names from outside England.

Leicester won again, meaning the unlikely Premier League champions could all-but-clinch a spot in the knockout rounds if they beat Copenhagen in October.

[ MORE: Dempsey out for 2016 ]

Spurs also won to help make amends for losing at home to start the group stage while — surprise, surprise — USMNT star Christian Pulisic again was the super sub for Borussia Dortmund, making a big difference in a draw with Real Madrid.

Standings at bottom.

CSKA Moscow 0-1 Tottenham Hotspur

There’s no shame in picking up a point so far from home, but a loss in the group stage opener but a little more weight on Spurs.

Mauricio Pochettino‘s side bossed the play, but found themselves closed down atop the 18 by a stingy and aggressive CSKA Moscow side.

Erik Lamela and Son Heung-min were active, and it was the South Korean who found a break through in the 71st minute.

Played through on goal, Igor Akinfeev got a piece of Son’s right-footed rip only to see the ball crawl across the line. 1-0.

Dinamo Zagreb 0-4 Juventus

Gonzalo Higuain and Miralem Pjanic scored first half goals for The Old Lady, who has had little trouble establishing itself in UCL this year. Paulo Dybala made it 3-0 in the 57th minute, as we had cruise control in Croatia.

Monaco 1-1 Bayer Leverkusen

Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez reportedly cost Bayer Leverkusen less than $10 million, and he’s been an absolute steal. Whatever was missing from his game at Manchester United and Real Madrid has been on full display for Bayer. Hernandez busted the match open with his sixth UCL goal in 11 appearances for the German side. Unfortunately for his side, Kamil Glik leveled things deep into stoppage time.

Leicester City 1-0 Porto

The chemistry between Algeria and now Leicester City teammates Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani is very real.

The former fed the latter for an opening goal on Tuesday in UEFA Champions League play at King Power Stadium, as the Foxes have opened up a 1-0 lead on Porto.

You can imagine the visitors aren’t too pleased with having to meet up with Slimani, who they just managed to see out of their league only to watch him arrive in their UCL group.

And how about the mad dabbing kid shown just after Slimani’s celebration? Wild nights in Leicester, as the Foxes held up to Porto’s second half pressure and went 2-for-2 in the group stage.

Borussia Dortmund 2-2 Real Madrid

Cristiano Ronaldo got on the scoresheet, though the hosts have been by far the more dangerous side. USMNT teenager Christian Pulisic is on the bench for BVB.

Thomas Tuchel’s side threatened to score through a Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang rocketed a shot just over the frame, and the Gabonese man made it 1-1 soon after when Keylor Navas punched Raphael Guerriero’s free kick off Raphael Varane. Aubameyang touched it over the line for an academic marker.

Varane, however, looked to have had the last laugh, poking in a go-ahead goal. That’s when USMNT star Christian Pulisic subbed on for Borussia Dortmund with 17 minutes to go and forced Navas into a save. Emre Mor then did the same.

Then, Pulisic beat his man on the right wing, sending a cross through traffic that Andre Schurrle collected and belted by Navas. 2-2.

Elsewhere

Sevilla 1-0 Lyon
Copenhagen 4-0 Club Brugge
Sporting CP 2-0 Legia Warsaw

Standings

Group E
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Monaco 2 1 1 0 3 2 1 0-1-0 1-0-0 4
Tottenham Hotspur 2 1 0 1 2 2 0 0-0-1 1-0-0 3
Bayer Leverkusen 2 0 2 0 3 3 0 0-1-0 0-1-0 2
CSKA Moscow 2 0 1 1 2 3 -1 0-0-1 0-1-0 1
Group F
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Real Madrid 2 1 1 0 4 3 1 1-0-0 0-1-0 4
Borussia Dortmund 2 1 1 0 8 2 6 0-1-0 1-0-0 4
Sporting CP 2 1 0 1 3 2 1 1-0-0 0-0-1 3
Legia Warsaw 2 0 0 2 0 8 -8 0-0-1 0-0-1 0
Group G
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Leicester City 2 2 0 0 4 0 4 1-0-0 1-0-0 6
FC Copenhagen 2 1 1 0 5 1 4 1-0-0 0-1-0 4
FC Porto 2 0 1 1 1 2 -1 0-1-0 0-0-1 1
Club Brugge 2 0 0 2 0 7 -7 0-0-1 0-0-1 0
Group H
Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Juventus 2 1 1 0 4 0 4 0-1-0 1-0-0 4
Sevilla 2 1 1 0 1 0 1 1-0-0 0-1-0 4
Lyon 2 1 0 1 3 1 2 1-0-0 0-0-1 3
Dinamo Zagreb 2 0 0 2 0 7 -7 0-0-1 0-0-1 0

WATCH: Pulisic sends cross to Schurrle to equalize with Madrid

Real Madrid's Luka Modric, left, and Dortmund's Christian Pulisic challenge for the ball during the Champions League group F soccer match between Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid in Dortmund, Germany, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)
AP Photo/Martin Meissner
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Borussia Dortmund substitute and USMNT phenom Christian Pulisic subbed into Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League match versus Real Madrid and made a difference.

Given 17 minutes to work, Pulisic needed about 10. The 18-year-old American sent in a cross that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang couldn’t volley but fell to another BVB player.

[ MORE: Big Sam canned ]

That was Andre Schurrle, and the ex-Wolfsburg and Chelsea man lashed a shot behind Navas to make it 2-2 at the Westfalenstadion.

Pulisic does well here, real well, and had a chance to make it 2-2 himself that was smothered by Navas.