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.

Albanian federation denounces “extremist acts” of their fans in Italy

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TIRANA, Albania (AP) Albania’s soccer federation has strongly denounced the incident that halted the World Cup Group G qualifier with Italy for nearly nine minutes on Friday.

During the match, which was won by Italy, 2-0, a group calling itself Illyrian Elite threw flares onto the pitch.

“Such totally extremist actions from the grouping Illyrian Elite have nothing to do with the excellent Albanian fans” who were distinguished in the EURO 2016 finals in France for their friendship and camaraderie in their festivities, the statement added.

The federation said an coach Gianni De Biasi also was “upset by the flares,” adding that during five years he has been in charge “I’ve seen something that’s never happened before.”

USMNT: 4 players, including Brooks, Lletget, released; Arriola added

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Hours after his side’s 6-0 thrashing of Honduras to resuscitate dreams of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, Bruce Arena announced on Saturday five changes to the U.S. national team roster ahead of Tuesday’s qualifier against Panama.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s USMNT coverage | MLS ]

John Brooks (sinus infection), Sebastian Lletget (foot), Jordan Morris (knee) and Michael Orozco (knee) were all released back to their club teams, while Club Tijuana midfielder Paul Arriola was added to the squad.

[ MORE: USA 6-0 Honduras | Three things we learned | Player ratings ]

Brooks dealt with the sinus infection throughout USMNT camp this past week, as Morris did his knee injury which he picked up last weekend. Lletget left Friday’s win over Honduras in the 18th minute and will undergo further tests to determine the severity of his injury; he was seen leaving the stadium on crutches and wearing a walking boot.

The USMNT’s roster for Tuesday’s qualifier in Panama City, Panama, now stands at 23 players, and reads as follows:

Goalkeepers: David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)

Defenders: DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Tim Ream (Fulham), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)

Midfielders: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Jermaine Jones (LA Galaxy), Sacha Kljestan (New York Red Bulls), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)

Forwards: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)

Rapinoe won’t back down on social issues despite U.S. Soccer policy

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Megan Rapinoe recently earned her spot back in the U.S. Women’s National Team squad ahead of next month’s friendlies against Russia, but the veteran won’t remain silent when it comes to her stance on the social climate of America.

[ MORE: Looking back on USMNT’s big win over Honduras ]

The 31-year-old was scrutinized for joining NFL player Colin Kaepernick in 2016 when they knelt during their respective sporting events, along with dozens of other athletes across the United States.

While Rapinoe admits that the form of protest is up for discussion, she also states that social inequality issues in the U.S. go far beyond that.

“What has surprised me the most, especially post-election, is that people are still sort of arguing against it. It’s really obvious that we have very serious inequality in this country across many different spectrums,” Rapinoe told the Guardian. “Yes, we can talk about the form of protest, or the way it’s done, or this or that. But it’s still not really the conversation that I think we desperately need to have more of in this country.”

A few weeks back, U.S. Soccer announced that it now requires all players that represent the Stars and Stripes to stand when the national anthem is played, and Rapinoe has agreed to do such.

While her days of kneeling on the pitch are in the past, Rapinoe believes she wouldn’t do anything different because she was simply trying to spark discussion amongst the American people.

“I don’t think there’s any perfect way to protest. I think if there was something else being done, something else would have been said about it. I can’t look back and say that I would have done this different, this different or this different.

“I can sleep at night knowing that I genuinely tried to have a really important conversation, or at least tried to open it up. I think I came to it with an open mind, an open heart and tried to get as many people to talk about it as I could.”

Report: Chelsea planning Hazard, Courtois pay raises

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Eden Hazard has returned to his old self under Antonio Conte this season, and now Chelsea is hoping to lock down their star attacker.

[ MORE: Lukaku says decision has been made on Everton future ]

According to the Mirror, the Premier League leaders are planning on offering up a pay raise to Hazard, who has 11 league goals this season for the Blues.

Hazard signed a nearly $250,000 per week deal two seasons ago, but the Belgium international will likely rake in significantly more under the reported deal as Chelsea hopes to keep the 26-year-old away from Spanish giants Real Madrid and others.

The Mirror is also reporting that goalkeeper and Hazard’s Belgian teammate Thibaut Courtois is likely to be handed a raise is salary as well.

The shot-stopper is set be handed a deal roughly in the range of what Hazard is currently making after allowing just 21 goals in 28 PL matches this season.