The U.S. Soccer Federation yesterday announced an expanded Open Cup format and schedule, one that will incorporate all MLS and lower division teams in a newly and hopefully more condensed way. In essence, the changes allow the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup to mirror the English FA Cup, where lower division and semi-pro teams have a chance to play against the top level of the country’s soccer hierarchy.
The Open Cup in 2012 will expand from 40 to 64 teams, which means all 16 U.S. MLS teams, 10 USL Pro, and 6 NASL teams will be included in the tournament. Last season, only half of the eligible MLS teams and all the eligible USL Pro sides had been included in the tournament, so this format change alone guarantees more participation. Six MLS teams in 2011 had automatically qualified for the tournament while another two came from play-in rounds held prior, a format that in essence had been in existence as long as MLS. Now, every MLS side will have an opportunity to participate in at least one match. The larger pool also means an expanded number of amateur teams are eligible to participate, with 16 spots going to the Premier Development League and the remaining to be divided among other amateur leagues.
What does this mean for MLS teams? First, it means that they do not have to worry about “playing in” to the U.S. Open Cup; they’re in as of May 29 (more on schedule below). Secondly, it sets up some very interesting potential match-ups. Soccer fans who watched the FA Cup this weekend saw major upsets like Swindon defeating Wigan; imagine the Des Moines Menace upsetting DC United or the Real Colorado Foxes giving the Colorado Rapids a run for their money. Those amateur teams would have a shot, if they survive the first two rounds, to take down the big boys and gain a little attention. While it is unlikely that too many amateur teams will advance too far (again, see how many were in the most recent round of the FA Cup), the possibility exists. More likely, for the first time NASL teams, who were excluded last year, will have a chance to show how small the gap could be between the top two divisions.
Another change that addressed a major concern with the tournament is the hosting of home games. Last year, Seattle played five home games on their way to the title. This season, everyone theoretically will have a chance to host their match prior to the quarterfinals. When the match-ups are determined, if both teams meet U.S. Soccer specs for hosting an Open Cup match, a “random selection process” will be used to determine the host. While few non-professional teams will likely qualify to host, for USL Pro and NASL teams there exists a chance that they can bring MLS teams to their venues and make a little extra money off the match. After the quarterfinals, the old bidding system of submitting financial bids will be used to determine the hosts. So while the Sounders could again theoretically only play home games on their way to winning the U.S. Open Cup, the potential exists that they would go on the road due to a random draw.
A final major change of note is the timing. As referenced above, MLS teams join the competition in the third round, but the tournament itself begins on May 15 and wraps up by the first weekend in August. All matches will be played on a Tuesday. This condensed schedule allows MLS teams competing in the CONCACAF Champions League and the Open Cup to wrap up the latter before turning their attention to the former. However, this is where travel can become a factor in these matches. Since the Open Cup games are on a Tuesday, MLS teams potentially face large travel distances in a short period of time. For example, San Jose plays at Sporting Kansas City on May 27. If they hosted an Open Cup match, they’d have essentially a day turn around. Because MLS teams come in during the Third Round and the schedule is defused to avoid many of these potential conflicts, it may affect only one or two teams doing very well in the tournament (or it may increase the chance of an upset) but the possibility exists.
So what do all of these changes mean? Do the problems that existed in the previous few years’ Open Cups still exist? The answer is, potentially, yes. But the tournament now at least has the look and feel of a European-style tournament, which undoubtedly will please Euro-phile American soccer fans. The Davids of the U.S. soccer world will get their chance against the Goliaths, and the NASL/USL Pro sides have a slightly better chance to host and ride upsets to the finals. MLS teams have a chance to juggle their lineups to take the competition seriously, or use it to play younger players and not have to worry about too much schedule congestion. While the 99 year-old tournament will never approach the Copa del Rey or FA Cup in term of prestige or fan following, it does raise the professionalism of U.S. soccer and makes the tournament a bit more watchable.