U.S. Open Cup Preview: NYCFC II aim for yet another U.S. Open Cup upset in Round of 16


With two thrilling triumphs over higher-division sides, NYCFC II seeks to make MLS NEXT Pro's first U.S. Open Cup even more memorable.

NYCFC II will represent MLS NEXT Pro as the only third-division side left standing as it takes on New Mexico United at Belson Stadium (7:30 p.m., in the U.S. Open Cup Round of 16.

NYCFC II coach Matt Pilkington remarked after his team's latest win, a 1-0 home win over Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, that the Open Cup offers the team an invaluable opportunity for experience against high-level competition and a test for the club's young roster.

"I think that the players are really excited for opportunities to play high-level teams, different teams from different leagues," Pilkington said. "We had six teenagers out there in the lineup and so for them to fight it out, go the distance, and keep a clean sheet and work for each other really well throughout, I thought it was a really good performance."

NYCFC II showed its attacking power in an exciting 3-2 win over Hartford Athletic after extra time, the Round of 32 win over Switchbacks FC challenged Pilkington's team to play stronger on the defensive side of the ball. The team's backline absorbed pressure from Switchbacks FC on the way toward progressing in the tournament.

"We've tried to improve our block. It's something that's new to us this season," Pilkington said. "Typically we've been really aggressive trying to press high and press up the field. It's something that we've had to work on, especially given that we have a young team. So for them to be without the ball, it's new to them."

Several young stars have emerged in the club's Cup run, 16-year-old Maximo Carrizo has two Open Cup goals and two goals and two assists in league play. A pair of 17-year-old defenders, Andrew Baiera and Christian McFarlane impressed defensively in the Round of 32, and 18-year-old forward Jovan Mijatovic has added another strong presence to the attack.

Jonathan Jimenez, who scored the only goal in the previous round against Switchbacks FC by dribbling past multiple defenders, is among the top attacking players in the tournament. With four goals scored, he is tied for the Open Cup Golden Boot lead and he is the highest-scoring player on a team still left in the tournament.

"He loves scoring goals and he loves these occasions," Pilkington said. "The more pressure and the higher level of competition and the moment, he really prepares for it. I've seen a different side of him this season, where he's been a bit more focused on his preparation for games. He's really hungry to score goals and be dominant in his position."

Though he is only 23 years old, Jimenez is among the most experienced players on the team. He's stepped up as a leader this season, and the Open Cup has brought the best out of him and the young standouts on NYCFC II's squad.

"I've taken more of a leadership role in these games," Jimenez said. "To help them through, motivate them, help them feel confident. We're all getting experience. They are getting the experience of playing at higher levels and I'm getting the experience of leading them."

NYCFC II is in the midst of a competitive start to the 2024 MLS NEXT Pro season, taking 12 points from eight matches. The club's last win, 4-2 on the road over Chicago Fire FC II, included a third league goal of the season for Jimenez.

Togetherness between academy players, MLS NEXT Pro players, and first-teamers has been a highlight since the club's memorable Cup run began.

"All the first-team guys that I know are cheering the two's on," said Rio Hope-Gund, an NYCFC first-team player who attended the match supporting his brother Kofi Hope-Gund. "A win for them is a win for the club. At the end of the day, we are all together."