After his team beat New England Revolution, 1-0, in the quarterfinals of the 2017 US Open Cup, New York Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch noted his side's Cup run has been done "the hard way" so far.
He had just seen RBNY win on the road by a single goal in the 87th minute against an opponent that has made a habit of beating the Red Bulls on its own turf. RBNY has bested the Revs in New England on only seven occasions since the two MLS founding-members started playing each other back in 1996. Two of those seven away-day wins have come inside one 10-day stretch in July, 2017: a 3-2 league win over the Revs in MLS on July 5 at Gillette Stadium, followed by the 1-0 win in USOC at Harvard's Jordan Field on July 13.
And the latter win was achieved with a team so short-handed that it could only start one true center-back (and Aaron Long - the CB in question - only converted to the position last season, after starting his pro career trying to make his name as a midfielder).
The hard way, indeed. And the earlier rounds weren't much easier. The Red Bulls beat local rival, New York City FC, 1-0 in the fourth round of the tournament, and then went on to edge Philadelphia Union on penalties in the round of 16. As Marsch observed: three MLS opponents in three rounds of the Cup, and each more or less a rival - certainly a familiar foe, with an interest in bettering RBNY in every game, regardless of what's at stake.
It hasn't been an easy ride for RBNY in the Cup this year - though this is a team that traditionally struggles with whatever the tournament has to offer; hence the fact it will be playing its first USOC semifinal since 2003 this season.
That semifinal might seem like RBNY has caught a break: it will play a lower league opponent - either FC Cincinnati or Miami FC. But the specific circumstances of the match and the competition suggest it will be another challenging game for the Red Bulls.
The ✉️s have been opened and the path to the is set.— U.S. Open Cup (@opencup) July 14, 2017
Complete #USOC2017 draw results .https://t.co/33MvHUlmQe
First there is the simple fact that any team in the semifinal of USOC likely has something going for it. USL's Cincinnati made it to the quarterfinal round by beating MLS' Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire. NASL's Miami beat top-flight opponents Orlando and Atlanta on its way to the last eight.
The Red Bulls likely won't make the mistake of underestimating their semifinal opponent and playing a weakened lineup - the error that arguably tripped up all the MLS teams that fell to Cincy and Miami - but as the recently-concluded game against the Revs illustrated, a team doesn't always have its best or preferred starting XI available.
Further, the USOC draw for the semifinals has sent the Red Bulls on the road again. They will play either Cincy or Miami away from Red Bull Arena. Cincinnati will expect to draw more than 30,000 to Nippert Stadium for a big Cup game. Miami plays to more modest home crowds, but has recently clinched the Spring Season title in NASL.
So RBNY will hit the road for the semifinals of the 2017 US Open Cup to either play in front of one of the biggest crowds it will see all season, or to face the best team in NASL at the moment.
And it won't know which one until August.
The quarterfinal between Miami and Cincinnati was postponed due to bad weather, and has been rescheduled for August 2, so RBNY doesn't know which opponent it is preparing for just yet.
Also, to further complicate preparations, the date of the semifinal depends on whether Miami or Cincinnati win the quarterfinal.
If Miami wins, it will host RBNY on August 9. The match will fall between two important MLS Eastern Conference games: an away-day against NYCFC on August 6 and a home game against Orlando City on August 12. But if Cincinnati wins, the semifinal will be played on August 15 - three days after RBNY plays Orlando at Red Bull Arena, and three days before the team has to play the Timbers in Portland. (Incidentally, New York Red Bulls II will play Cincinnati in USL at MSU Soccer Park on August 19).
Part of the challenge of a Cup run is, of course, coping with additional games on the schedule. The Red Bulls play the Cup for the privilege of complicating their season and testing the squad's depth and recovery abilities. The added uncertainty of who and when they will next play in USOC is maybe just part of doing it the hard way. And maybe that's a good thing: the hard way has worked out pretty well for RBNY so far in the Cup.