More than MLS: The Importance of Lower-Division Teams to the US Open Cup and Growing US Soccer

By Patrick Salkeld

Every year soccer fans experience the US Open Cup, the oldest soccer tournament in the United States. It started in October 1913 after FIFA sanctioned the American Amateur Football Association (AAFA), which renamed itself United States Football Association (USFA) that year and is now the United States Soccer Federation (USSF or US Soccer). Originally known as the National Challenge Cup it later became known as the US Open Cup. For the first time, a “true national championship tournament” existed in the United States and has been held every year since its founding.[1] This competition is the third oldest soccer tournament across the globe, and its history negates the misconceptions that soccer arrived in the United States after World War II during the rise of mainstream soccer. The sport has thrived, although not on the same nationally cohesive level as American football or baseball. For this historian and soccer fan, the US Open Cup serves two purposes: a competition to show the diverse soccer talent across the country and a necessary tool to preserve the history of soccer in the United States. I argue that despite its history and potential to increase the popularity of soccer in the US, US Soccer fails to put forth the necessary effort to promote the Open Cup to the public (both soccer fans and non-fans).

The US Open Cup is the ultimate convergence of soccer for American fans. It brings together teams from each region of the United States and at all levels including both amateur and professional. Likewise, the US Open Cup relies on sponsorship from US Soccer and the fans, who attend the matches for funding. The teams advertise their games on social media, by word of mouth, and likely through other forms in their city. Interest in the tournament dwindled during the 1930s and by the 1950s “had fallen into even more pitiful obscurity.”[2] In 1999, US Soccer arranged for a national broadcast of the Open Cup Final for the first time.[3] That year, the Rochester Rhinos played in the finals against the Colorado Rapids and defeated the MLS team 2-0. Professional clubs have played in the Open Cup since its inception, but the NASL refused to compete in it during the league’s existence, so between 1984 and 1996, the tournament featured more regional semi-professional and amateur teams. In 1996, mainstream teams entered with the MLS. For this author, the difference between regional and mainstream is the division structure because the higher divisions receive more national publicity. As David Wangerin wrote, “To all but the most dedicated fan, the Open Cup hadn’t mattered for more than half a century, and the sudden inclusion of professional clubs would not shatter that indifference.”[4]

In 2017, much of the United States population, even people in the soccer community, remains unaware of the tournament. As Josh Hakala, founder of the website TheCup.US dedicated to the history of the Open Cup, wrote in 2010,

The fact that there are soccer fans in this country who are unaware of this tournament is really the biggest tragedy. Is it that hard to ‘sell’ a tournament like this? Whenever I am interviewed about the Open Cup, the most popular question is, “How can the US Open Cup become more popular?” I believe the answer is simple. Tell the fans about it. Hell, I don’t even have trouble selling the tournament to non-soccer fans.[5]

The tournament has made many strides since 2010, but it still requires much effort and work. In general, MLS teams seem to treat the Open Cup like a pre-season game that contributes nothing to its success or a match for reserve players to receive playing time since the clubs owned by professional teams cannot participate in the tournament. They field rosters primarily consisting of its reserve players, likely because the tournament games occur midweek between MLS Regular Season weekend matches. For example, when the Seattle Sounders played the Portland Timbers on June 13, the Sounders lineup featured only “a small number of Sounders with previous experience playing for the first team.”[6] When I regularly wrote MLS game recaps, I saw many comments on social media about how the Open Cup is a waste of time because it reduces training time for the regular season to achieve one of the twelve playoff spots (out of twenty teams in the league) for the MLS Cup. A paltry amount of MLS fans usually attend games when MLS teams first enter the Open Cup in the fourth round. Yet, for these MLS teams, some will later miss the playoffs and not win either the Supporters’ Shield or the MLS Cup, but the Open Cup offers them a chance to raise a trophy and be champions. The fans then would celebrate their team emerging victoriously from a historic tournament and join the ranks with the defunct Bethlehem FC or teams still in existence like “the Brooklyn Italians (1949), Milwaukee Bavarian SC (1929), New York Ukrainians (1947), and the Croatian Eagles (1922).”[7] Nonetheless, the winner of the tournament receives a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League (a tournament for the best clubs in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean), whose winner moves on to the FIFA Club World Cup, which is less popular than the UEFA Champions League because only a few big clubs compete. As it is the only open division competition which allows clubs from all USSF-divisions to participate due to the lack of promotion and relegation in the US, it appears fans of lower-league teams take the Open Cup more seriously since it offers them their only opportunity to gain national exposure and a large sum of prize money ($15,000 for the last standing amateur team).[8]

With its current stature, it could be considered a niche competition. Yet, thus far, the 2017 edition has featured several important milestones. Ninety-nine professional and amateur teams competed, which is the highest number in the modern era (1995 to present) in addition to “a record sixty-four amateur clubs representing eighteen states and twenty-three leagues will take part in the first and second qualifying rounds of the Open Division.”[9] Over two hundred amateur clubs exist throughout the country compared to sixty professional teams (MLS, NASL, and USL). On June 28, 2017, ESPN broadcasted the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup Round of 16 match between the Chicago Fire (MLS) and FC Cincinnati (USL). It marked a seminal moment in American soccer history as “the first-ever nationally-televised U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 match.” US Soccer “controls all broadcasting rights in all formats (e.g. over-the-air and cable television, internet video streaming, over-the-air radio, internet audio streaming, mobile devices, etc.) for the U.S. Open Cup” and any participant or third-party must fill out a broadcast request form “to be awarded permission to broadcast for a specific event.”[10] The federation usually streams all Open Cup games on YouTube or on its website. For the Cincinnati-Fire game to be broadcasted by ESPN, three situations must have occurred: US Soccer contacted ESPN, ESPN submitted a broadcast request form, or one of the teams applied for an ESPN broadcast. Other than US Soccer, FC Cincinnati would benefit the most as it already wants to join MLS. US Soccer chose not to arrange a national broadcast for the next match—a more important quarterfinal—between Miami FC (NASL) and FC Cincinnati. The federation rescheduled this game to August 2 after weather postponed it, but still refrained from arranging another national broadcast. It only required a week after the random draw to decide the Round of 16 pairings to arrange the first broadcast (Fire-Cincinnati), whereas there was a fifty-fifty chance Miami and Cincinnati might face each other since the Quarterfinals uses a fixed bracket.[11] Fans already watch both teams on ESPN3 as USL and NASL have small individual contracts to broadcast some games on the channel.

Given the popularity of the Ohio team and the resounding reaction to its defeat of the Fire, US Soccer missed an opportunity to grow soccer in the United States. The Open Cup brings exposure to the lower-league teams (Division II and below). In his discussion of the Open Cup during the Cincinnati-Fire halftime, Taylor Twellman suggested two ways to make the Open Cup more competitive: starting MLS teams in the Round of 64 with lower-division teams and adding more financial incentives from US Soccer’s reported $100 million surplus to the tournament.[12] Both ideas offer benefits to US Soccer because it brings awareness to smaller clubs who might play in a market, such as Des Moines, Iowa, without an MLS team and gives them even more reason to play because of the money they might win to invest further in the team. Youth identify with athletes they see on national television and wish to be like them. For instance, fans in Des Moines must drive four hours to see the Chicago Fire, four hours for Sporting KC, or three hours for Minnesota United. If they saw the Des Moines Menace, a team in the Division IV Premier Development League (PDL) play on ESPN, they might learn about this local team (if not already aware of it) and choose to attend those games live rather than watch the aforementioned MLS teams on TV. It gives youth and fans more options to access soccer.

With the competition’s wide reach and possibility of a lower division team to defeat a top division club, it opens US Soccer to inquiries about why it seemingly refuses to more effectively promote the Open Cup. Could one reason be that US Soccer fears what might happen if a non-MLS team wins the tournament? Is another fear that it will divert attention from the MLS Cup or the league itself once the public becomes aware of the expansive number of teams in the country? None of the questions can be answered here, but they must be considered since US Soccer provides no inclination as to its reasoning for not helping the US Open Cup attain a higher standing.

One might wonder then why it chose to broadcast the Fire and Cincinnati game. Because Cincinnati wants entrance into Major League Soccer, the federation likely used the game to test the team’s entertainment value and attendance for a national broadcast if it joined the top division. In 1999, the Rhinos hoped its Open Cup success might translate into promotion to MLS, but nothing came of it as promotion to the league occurs with an expansion fee rather than sporting merit (although it helps to a degree for lower league teams).[13] The Rhinos ownership also balked at the expensive expansion fee when the league considered expansion bids in 2003 to accompany Chivas USA.[14] Cincinnati though eclipses the Rhinos’ attendance and has a proposal to build a soccer-specific-stadium, a key requirement from MLS.

Over 30,000 fans filled Nippert Stadium to watch the Columbus Crew take on FC Cincinnati on June 13, setting an attendance record for a non-final Open Cup match. Two weeks later that number grew to 32,287 as the Chicago Fire visited Cincinnati. The team played well against Chicago, and the crowd impressed soccer commentator Jon Champion. He complimented the fans in a Tweet, explaining that they made it a “Proper occasion that makes the US Open Cup so valuable.” Champion’s statement begs the question, how valuable is the tournament to US Soccer? In 2015, reporter Bob Williams interviewed Josh Hakala about the tournament’s popularity for The Telegraph, and he asked Hakala, “The major US sports have just one major prize, so is the mere concept of a cup competition hard to sell to the American public?” To which Hakala responded, “Honestly, there hasn’t been much of an effort to market the tournament on a mass scale, so I wouldn’t really blame it on that” because once it is “properly marketed even the casual sports fan would get behind this unique tournament that is unheard of in mainstream American sports.”[15]

The 2017 US Open Cup will be the first time a non-MLS team competes in the semifinals since the Richmond Kickers in 2011. Whoever wins between Miami and Cincinnati will give hope to non-MLS teams that they might equal this feat in future editions of the tournament. Just as NCAA basketball fans cheer for underdog “Cinderella” teams, soccer fans will also want to see more lower-division teams reach the same heights. These narratives provide a great opportunity for US Soccer to expand the appeal of the tournament and showcase the larger world of soccer in the US beyond the MLS. FC Cincinnati revealed a potential untapped monster to the American public and hopefully showed the power of the Open Cup to US Soccer. The federation has wasted two weeks to prepare to showcase Miami vs. Cincinnati on national television. Because weather postponed it, US Soccer has more time to arrange a broadcast, but as of July 14, it only plans to stream the August 2 game on its website. This pairing resembles a similar event seen across the globe—lower division teams fighting tooth and nail to see who will play with teams in a higher division (in other words, a promotion based on sporting merit).

The match between Miami and Cincinnati had the potential to be another tremendous boost to the Open Cup and to show just how much the United States loves soccer outside of MLS and the quality below the top division. Who knows how many people might have attended this game had US Soccer properly promoted the tournament? Some attendees for the Fire-Cincinnati game possibly attended due to the fact ESPN broadcast it. With more advertising, it might have drawn more people who rarely attend games in the way national team matches do. The Open Cup represents the regional popularity of soccer in the United States, and fans across the country enthusiastically gather in stadiums to watch these lower-division teams.

The Open Cup requires advertising and promotion of any kind for potential attendees to learn about the tournament. Otherwise, the teams wait for people outside of its supporters to stumble upon the information by chance. If Miami or Cincinnati reach the US Open Cup final, the teams and fans will add their name to a long historic list of 104 winners. If neither go to the end, their accomplishments will still be remembered because of the notoriety they created and the records they produced. More soccer fans, and hopefully media personnel like Taylor Twellman, will further pressure US Soccer to preserve the tournament’s past and future history and make the sport more accessible to all within the country.

The 2017 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup has proven, thus far, to be a milestone in the modern era of the tournament. Hopefully US Soccer will recognize the tournament’s ability to truly grow the game in the United States in ways the country has yet to see. It needs to give the 104-year-old tournament the national exposure it deserves. During the 2017 broadcasts on the US Soccer website, it incorporated “historical pieces tracing the long history of the Cup…and [brought] fans all the action and romance that make the nation’s oldest knockout competition so special.”[16] Yet the majority of fans who watch these streams might enjoy the history and read about it further already, so a national broadcast with these historical pieces would reach more viewers. As more Americans become aware of the tournament, they will learn about the long history of soccer in the United States that dates back to the late 1860s with the first professional league called the American League of Professional Football founded in 1894.[17] By denying the tournament to the people, US Soccer fails to fulfill its mission and its responsibility “to make soccer, in all its forms, a preeminent sport in the United States and to continue the development of soccer at all recreational and competitive levels.” As evidenced by the lack of knowledge about the US Open Cup, US Soccer is derelict in its duties to, as Taylor Twellman said, “grow the game outside of Major League Soccer markets” (although it should continue to grow the game with lower-league teams in MLS markets as well) and the preservation of American soccer history with the tournament it founded in 1913 or it will remain up to historians, the fans who care about the competition, and the local communities to drive the growth of soccer across the country.[18] More effort into the US Open Cup might be the spark the United States needs to improve the men’s national team and become a higher quality soccer nation.

Patrick Salkeld received his Master of Arts in History from the University of Central Oklahoma in 2017. His research focuses on the rise of mainstream soccer in the United States from the 1960s to the present in addition to the relationship between social movements and sports, the role of the LGBTQ+ community, race, and gender. His twitter is @patsalkeld and his website is patricksalkeldhistorian.wordpress.com.

Notes:


[1] “National Challenge Cup,” American Soccer History Archives, http://northamericansoccerarchives.com/year/1914.html.
[2] David Wangerin, Soccer in a Football World (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008), 98-99, 103.
[3] Wangerin, 305.
[4] Wangerin, 281.
[5] Josh Hakala, “State of the US Open Cup: After 97 years, is the tournament finally starting to arrive?” The Cup.US, November 6, 2010, http://thecup.us/2010/11/06/2010-us-open-cup-coverage-after-97-years-is-the-tournament-finally-starting-to-arrive/.
[6] “2017 US Open Cup Round 4: Seattle Sounders win reserves-heavy rematch with Portland Timbers,” TheCup.US, June 14, 2017, http://thecup.us/2017/06/14/2017-us-open-cup-round-4-seattle-sounders-win-reserves-heavy-rematch-with-portland-timbers/.
[7] “The U.S. Open Cup and Why You Should Care,” The Pride: FC Cincinnati Supporters Club, May 8, 2017, http://www.thepridecincy.com/blog/2017/5/8/the-us-open-cup.
[8] “U.S. Soccer must grow the Open Cup,” ESPN FC, http://www.espnfc.us/us-open-cup/69/video/3150131/us-soccer-must-grow-the-open-cup.
[9] “2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Format unveiled,” US Soccer, March 1, 2017, http://www.ussoccer.com/stories/2017/03/01/13/54/20170301-news-usoc-2017-lamar-hunt-us-open-cup-format-announced.
[10] “Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup 2017 Handbook Finalists’ Edition,” US Soccer, April 4, 2017, https://www.ussoccer.com/lamar-hunt-us-open-cup/open-cup-tournaments/2017-usoc/2017-open-cup-open-division-handbook.
[11] If neither team defeated their MLS opponent, the Quarterfinal match would instead be the Chicago Fire versus Atlanta United.
[12] “U.S. Soccer must grow the Open Cup,” ESPN FC, http://www.espnfc.us/us-open-cup/69/video/3150131/us-soccer-must-grow-the-open-cup.
[13] Wangerin, 306.
[14] Gideon Nachman, “US Open Cup: focus on lower leagues after season of MLS upsets,” The Guardian, July 12, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/football/2017/jul/12/us-open-cup-miami-fc-fc-cincinnati-soccer-mls.
[15] Bob Williams, “Lamar Hunt US Open Cup is badly in need of some romance but MLS clubs are playing hard to get,” The Telegraph, April 9, 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/11518690/Lamar-Hunt-US-Open-Cup-is-badly-in-need-of-some-romance-but-MLS-clubs-are-playing-hard-to-get.html.
[16] “2017 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup First Round Matches to Stream Live on USSoccer.com,” US Soccer, May 10, 2017, http://www.ussoccer.com/stories/2017/05/10/18/08/20170510-news-usoc-first-round-open-cup-games-stream-on-ussoccercom.
[17] Steve Holroyd, “The First Professional Soccer League in the United States: The American League of Professional Football (1894),”American Soccer History Archives, http://northamericansoccerarchives.com/alpf.html.
[18] “U.S. Soccer must grow the Open Cup,” ESPN FC, http://www.espnfc.us/us-open-cup/69/video/3150131/us-soccer-must-grow-the-open-cup.

One thought on “More than MLS: The Importance of Lower-Division Teams to the US Open Cup and Growing US Soccer

  1. US Open Cup is the second-oldest *continually operating* tournament in the world, but it’s the 14th oldest tournament.

    Like

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