North Carolina Preview: A History of Violence

Five years in, NYCFC’s experience in the U.S. Open Cup has been nothing but trouble.

The U.S. Open Cup has been a brutal affair both on and off the field for NYCFC, who in year five are still looking for their first win in the competition. The tournament has turned into an annual nexus of despair, with some of the most embarrassing losses in NYCFC history coupled with some moments of embarrassing fan conduct.

In the club’s inaugural 2015 season, Jason Kreis infamously squandered a brace from Kwadwo Poku against the New York Cosmos and lost on penalties, thanks to great managerial decisions such as subbing in Chris “A Player You Build A Team Around” Wingert, a fullback, to play center back and having him take the first penalty because it was his birthday.

NYCFC showed up to that game, held at Hofstra’s Shuart Stadium, with a whole host of away supporters. The club’s fans had already generated controversy that season with their use of pyro during the first Hudson River Derby in Harrison, which eventually resulted in sanctions by the Red Bulls. Worse, there’d been reports that there were “Latin skinheads” called Battalion 49 in Section 237 spewing “racial epithets, neo-nazi propaganda and general hate speech.” At Shuart, the Third Rail confirmed that more smoke bombs and trash were thrown on the pitch. There were also reports of fights with opposing fans after the game that resulted in emergency room visits, and a Cosmos fan arrested for mooning.

Kreis didn’t last long enough to manage another Open Cup game for NYCFC, but Patrick Vieira’s USOC debut in 2016 was more of the same. NYCFC won the draw to host and chose Fordham University’s Jack Coffey Field in the Bronx. Vieira put out an uninspiring lineup that couldn’t score against Jimmy Maurer and conceded a late header from Danny Szetela to give Giovanni Savarese and the Cosmos a second win in as many years, an especially painful result coming only a few short weeks after the Red Wedding.

Off the field, things were even worse than the first meeting. In the wake of the infamous 2015 sandwich board brawl, a number of far-right supporters were rumored to have been banned from Yankee Stadium. They took advantage of the temporary stadium and lax security situation of the Open Cup to reinsert themselves in the supporter section, where there were fights, sieg heils, and some insults to ya motha. In the aftermath of the first two years, Hofstra banned the Cosmos from hosting MLS teams in Open Cup games at Shuart Stadium, and NYCFC hasn’t been back to Fordham’s Jack Coffey Stadium.

Each of the next two years’ Open Cup draws sent NYCFC to visit the Red Bulls in Harrison, where an impotent attack netted zero goals over the two games, including a farewell 4-0 beatdown just before Vieira left for Nice in 2018. That game showcased the Red Bulls’ head start in building an elite MLS academy, as Tyler Adams and a litany of homegrowns gave them the domestic roster depth needed to succeed under Open Cup rules that only allow five internationals on the gameday roster.

By contrast, NYCFC’s emphasis on international talent and the gradual growth of the academy made Open Cup rosters a difficult proposition the first few seasons. In both games against the Red Bulls, the lack of domestic players forced NYCFC to roster three goalkeepers, and in 2018 NYCFC entered the tournament with only 17 players.

This year the club came better prepared, stockpiling green cards for internationals and signing a boatload of young American depth, but injuries and international call-ups have still left the roster thin. This year’s Open Cup roster will likely be missing Sean Johnson (Gold Cup), Alexander Callens (Copa America), Rónald Matarrita (Gold Cup), Maxime Chanot (Euro Cup Qualification), and Ebenezer Ofori (African Cup of Nations) on international duty, as well as an injured list that includes James Sands (broken arm), Ben Sweat (ankle), Jesus Medina (ankle), Alexander Ring (hamstring), and Joe Scally (hip surgery).

Dome Torrent is charged with making the best of what’s left, including the challenge of cobbling together something resembling a back line. With Anton Tinnerholm and Sebastien Ibeagha as the only healthy defenders, Tony Rocha is a lock to start. If Ben Sweat’s not fit, Rocha or Tinnerholm will likely have to fill in at center back. At training on Monday, Dome told the media that he only has 13 outfield players available and will be reaching deep into the bench to start Keaton Parks, Juan Pablo Torres, Justin Haak, and Daniel Bedoya.

NYCFC’s projected lineup for tonight features a lot of bench players and a dubious back line.

At least the fourth-round draw brought a sigh of relief, as NYCFC avoided the Red Bulls and New England Revolution to match up against the USL’s North Carolina FC. You may remember the Raleigh-based club from their former lives as the Carolina RailHawks, the partner in one of NYCFC’s first lower-division loan deals, before they rebranded in hopes of improving their shot at getting bumped up to MLS.

Now under pressure from a competing MLS bid out of Charlotte led by Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper, NCFC has recently drafted a new stadium plan, hired former USMNT caretaker manager Dave Sarachan, and gotten mixed up in several sketchy loans with Czech club MFK Vyškov, which is allegedly a front for skirting third-party ownership rules for large numbers of African players.

Fortunately for a hobbled NYCFC, it’s uncertain whether NCFC will field their starters either. The Carolina club is in the middle of a packed week, coming off a game last Saturday in Tampa, traveling to New York for the Open Cup match today, then heading back to home to Raleigh for another league game this Saturday. North Carolina is also dealing with its own roster problems, as leading scorer Marios Lomis has an injured ankle with no timetable to return and academy product and Celtic loanee Manny Perez has been mysteriously absent. Starting defensive midfielder Tommy McCabe was recently recalled by FC Cincinnati, which sent back former captain Nazmi Albadawi on loan.

The big question this evening will be whether NYCFC can break with its history. Underestimating a lesser opponent while trotting out a makeshift lineup could spell disaster. Dome probably would have been wise to keep his lineup closer to the vest, as Sarachan might have considered punting a game against a full-strength NYCFC in order to focus on the playoff picture in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference. A game full of backups gives North Carolina a puncher’s chance and makes them dangerous.

NYCFC also needs to prove, after the 2016 Cosmos disaster, that they can provide a safe environment at St. John’s Belson Stadium. Far-right supporters have been spotted traveling to away games as recently as this April against D.C. United, and a New York game away from Yankee Stadium could give them an opportunity to slip through the cracks and cause problems. NYCFC’s woeful Open Cup history, on and off the field, should be a chapter the club is ready to turn the page on—but you know what they say about those who don’t learn from history. ❧

Image: Master of the Aeneid, Pandarus and Bitias Fight the Rutuli Before the Trojan Camp (Aeneid, Book IX)