In December, when Major League Soccer announced its seismic decision to enter its Next Pro teams in the 2024 US Open Lamar Hunt Cup instead of its first teams, the league claimed it was at least partly in the spirit of player development.

Throughout the months-long boardroom saga involving the league and U.S. Soccer, MLS EVP of Sports Product and Competition Nelson Rodríguez mentioned a desire to get Next Pro teams — mostly made up of rising players from MLS academies as well as picks of SuperDraft and other players – in a high-stakes tournament against teams from across the league.

“Next Pro is another great investment our ownership is making that is paying dividends in the US National Team pool system.” Rodríguez said Athletics in March. “Banning those players from a meaningful competition that’s supposed to unify feels archaic and just plain wrong.”

And so, these teams made up mostly of players whose MLS clubs have not offered first-team contracts entered the arena. Through no fault of their own, they would be publicly viewed as avatars of MLS’s intention to prioritize other competitions, living embodiments of the shift in commitment to the century-old tournament.

Early results weren’t pretty – three affiliates lost their opening games against amateur opposition from outside the three sanctioned levels of the US soccer pyramid, while a fourth was eliminated on penalties after being held to a home draw by a Premier League Football League opponent.

Any kind of fear factor that traditionally came from drawing against an MLS side didn’t carry over to their development branch. On match nights during the first two rounds, many high-ranking members from a number of USL clubs sent messages Athletics after a win with a similar sentiment: “I hope we get an MLS Next Pro team next.”

In total, Next Pro teams won 60% of their matches against amateur teams, 25% against other third-tier opponents from USL League One and NISA, and one in two against second-tier teams from the USL Championship.

Thursday’s fourth-round draw included just one remaining MLS affiliate: New York City FC II.

NYCFC II defeated NPSL side FC Motown in the first round, then claimed a rivalry win over New York Red Bulls II before heading to Connecticut to face second division Hartford Athletic. Having an unbeaten first-team loan team, NYCFC II took Hartford to extra time and overcame a 92nd-minute goal from the home side to win 3-2 and give Next Pro a challenger in the round fourth.


Finally, MLS teams (and another octet of USL Championship teams) take the field as 32 teams participate in the fourth round of the tournament. Among them are defending champions Houston Dynamo, who are joined by the seven teams that finished higher in the 2023 MLS standings but were not part of the 2024 CONCACAF Champions Cup.

The teams were drawn from groups of four. In the table below, the teams that have priority hosting in the round of 16 are in the white rows; The winner of that match will wait for the winner from the match directly below them in a gray shaded row.

Osvaldo Alonso Division

of Charleston Battery is the reigning runner-up in the USL championship, led by Ben Pirmann (among the best coaches in the lower leagues) and midfielder Aaron Molloy (arguably the best player in the second division). They will wait South Georgia Storm, who advanced thanks to a winning goal from the delightfully named centre-back Callum Stretch, an LA native who spent three years in Aston Villa’s academy. The Tormenta is based in Statesboro, a town of 35,000 – smaller than Atlanta United’s average home attendance.

Atlanta will enter the tournament waiting Charlotte Independence, after starting her MLS season with 11 points from seven games. Independence were relegated from the second division to League One ahead of the 2022 season and went to the final last year. Among the players on his roster are former Minnesota United great Miguel Ibarra and Honduras international Luis Álvarez.

Billy Gonsalves Division

of Tampa Bay Rowdies we boast one of the best atmospheres in the country at the Al Lang Stadium. They are unbeaten in five league games in their first full year since Neill Collins left to manage Barnsley FC. They will host the other championship team Birmingham Legion with an eye on redemption as the Legion won all three games between the teams in 2023.

FC Dallas enters the tournament hoping to make up for a poor start in MLS action. Dallas has been in the lead for just one percent of all minutes played this season and will be watching the game against him Memphis 901 as a possible start. Memphis is off to a slow start of its own, having lost four of its first five Champions League games. They advanced to amateur side Miami United after a brace from 19-year-old forward Nighte Pickering, who left Dallas’ academy in 2022 to join Memphis.

Josh Hakala-Chuck Nolan Jr. Division

Union Omaha projects as the third-tier team most likely to make the round of 16. The perennial League One contender reached the quarter-finals of the 2022 US Open Cup, where they were eliminated in Sporting Kansas City. They will host Peter Vermes’ side this year, a clear chance for redemption against an MLS side that has already fallen 12 points off the top of the league.

of Pittsburgh Riverhounds were the farthest promoted team from the lower division in 2023, memorably defeating eventual MLS Cup champion Columbus Crew before falling in the quarterfinals to FC Cincinnati. They will wait FC Tulsa in a clash of teams currently outside the USL Championship playoff spots, hoping to gain momentum from a cup run.

Sébastien Le Toux Division

of Seattle Sounders are four-time US Open Cup champions and are among the favorites for this year’s installment. However, they have struggled to convert positional play into goals and points, leaving them open to a potential cup run. This is music for City of Louisvillehis ears, as one of the Championship’s banner clubs plays in the knowledge that a win would earn them a place in the next round. It’s a good test for Danny Cruz, another of the brightest coaches in the minor leagues.

North Carolina FC (née RailHawks) activated a clause to return them to the Champions League after spending three seasons in League One. Fittingly, they won the third division league last season and will face the reigning second division champions, Phoenix Rising FC. Both teams are set in mid-table positions in their respective conferences, but the pseudo-USL Super Cup makes this a strange fixture.

Rodrigo Lopez Division

The Sacramento Republic made history in 2022 becoming the first lower division team to make the US Open Cup final since 2008, eventually falling to Orlando City in the middle a potential espionage scandal. Their hopes of making a deep run begin against the Championship side Monterey Baywho won in the second round thanks to a brace from former San Jose academy product Jerry Ayon.

of San Jose earthquakes are tied for the most points conceded by the leaders in the MLS junior season (12), but an Open Cup game at home could help Luchi Gonzalez’s side find some positive form. They will wait Oakland roots, a championship team that needed extra time at home to beat amateur El Farolito SC, a team backed by a San Francisco taqueria.

Sam Mark Division

of The lights of Las Vegas have exploded since former Toronto Blue Jay great Jose Bautista bought the team this offseason, currently sitting in fifth place in the Western Conference Championship. They will face off Los Angeles FC in a match between an MLS team and its former affiliate. Las Vegas was Steve Cherundolo’s first coaching stop, where he spent a single season before leading LAFC to an MLS Cup title in 2022.

Orange County SC is among the country’s top youth development clubs outside of the MLS ranks, recently selling Milan Iloski to FC Nordsjælland. They will welcome the other Champions League club Loudoun United as the USL side make the longest journey of any team in this round. Orange County is currently atop the West, while Loudoun is seventh in the East.

Pat Onstad Division

Indy Eleven have struggled out of the gate under new manager Sean McAuley, picking up four points from their first six games. They will welcome the winner of the 2022 Championship San Antonio FC in one of the most intriguing matches of the round.

of Houston Dynamo open the defense of their Open Cup title at home, entering in fine form despite the continued absence of Hector Herrera. They will be grateful to be on the receiving end of a draw against Detroit City FC, avoiding one of the most intimidating places to play in the country. Detroit has won its first four games in the USL Championship, but will be without left back Brett Levis after his third-round red card.

Jamie Watson Division

In another geographical path, New York City FC II will enjoy waiting privileges. Of particular note is Máximo Carrizo, a 16-year-old midfielder who has excelled during the team’s cup run and is suiting up for the United States and Argentina. They will welcome one Switchbacks Colorado Springs the team in poor form, having lost each of their last five matches. The Switchbacks still go in as close favorites, but NYCFC II have a viable chance to advance.

New Mexico United made an inspired run in the quarterfinals of the 2019 US Open Cup, stacking up under then-coach Troy Lesesne before his eventual move to MLS. Eric Quill has kept the team on course, with New Mexico sitting fourth in the West with 10 points from five games. They will welcome The real Salt Lake in a border battle, with RSL off to a good start in MLS play.

(Photo: Doug Zimmerman/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

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