The New York Red Bulls U-23 team take a short trip to Queens today, to take on New York Pancyprian Freedoms in the first round of the 2016 US Open Cup.
The Freedoms will enjoy the comforts of home field - Belson Stadium - and whatever advantage is conferred by having the more impressive pedigree in American soccer's oldest ongoing national competition. Founded in 1974, New York Pancyprian Freedoms rattled off USOC wins in 1980, 1982, and 1983. Three major trophies before your 10th birthday is not bad at all.
And the Freedoms have also been to a CONCACAF Champions Cup semi-final (the forerunner to CONCACAF Champions League): in 1984, though they suffered the indignity of disqualification along with CD Guadalajara when the two semifinalists couldn't agree on a schedule for their series.
Times have changed in US and CONCACAF soccer, but take the Freedoms lightly at your peril.
We can't pretend to have great insight into the lineup the Pancyprians will field for USOC, but it is a club capable of attracting players with professional experience, despite its amateur status. Don't be too surprised if former New York Cosmos forward Stefan Dimitrov shows up for the Freedoms. It is possible Chris Megaloudis and Mike Palacio - attacking players briefly attached to the New York Red Bulls (in 2008) - will also make an appearance.
The New York Red Bulls U-23s have their own pedigree, of course. Though relative newcomers to USOC (this is their third appearance in the competition) and lacking any great achievement in the competition (they made the second round last year, which was an improvement over a first round exit in 2014), the U-23s have consistently been one of the better amateur teams in US soccer since 2010.
In five seasons in NPSL, the RBNY U-23s won their division three times, made the playoffs four times, and won the league's national championship game in 2014 (after a 12-0-0 regular season). Last year, the squad was switched over to PDL (same tier of the US Soccer pyramid; different league), won its division and its conference, and lost by the odd goal in seven to K-W United FC in the Championship game.
The U-23s are, by the standards of US amateur teams, generally very good.
But the team is essentially rebuilt every year: it is an age-group side comprised of players who wish to maintain college eligibility but keep playing to a high standard over the summer months. It will often include some of the better recent graduates from RBNY's academy system (that is its primary purpose: to keep academy grads connected to RBNY), but it is basically a team of college kids brought together for a short season. And USOC comes early for the U-23s: tonight's game is this squad's first competitive game of 2016.
There is talent in the U-23 team (the 2016 intake includes recent USMNT U-20 call-ups Marcello Borges and Andrew Lombard, for example), but how quickly it gels into a competitive unit is the question that must be answered every year.