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Why the New Format Will Save the US Open Cup

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.

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  1. F19

    January 22, 2012 at 5:42 pm

    I like the new changes but more needs to be done. For one thing,
    why keep the stupid bidding process for the most important games
    late in the tournament? It should be a random draw for the host for
    all match ups where both teams have suitable venues. That is except
    the final which I think should be at a neutral site awarded before
    the season starts. It’s much more fair that way. I do also agree
    with the guy that said the MLS Cup Final should move to a
    two-legged format. It’s crazy that they play one off games, then 2
    leg series for 2 rounds, then back to one game. Makes no sense. And
    fans deserve the chance to see their team in person in the
    championship. That’s what makes the NHL/MLB/NBA finals so great.
    The NASL does it 2 legged and it worked great last season. Nobody
    at Lockhart was confused when leg 2 ended a draw but the Stars won
    the title. Sad maybe, but not confused. They need to pump up the
    exposure of the Open Cup and then the final of that could be one of
    the big “event” days for soccer in the US.

  2. Jeff Johnston

    January 18, 2012 at 10:01 pm

    I like this new strategy.

  3. Real Charles

    January 15, 2012 at 2:45 am

    From what? From what is the new format saving US Open Cup?

  4. BamaMan

    January 13, 2012 at 5:13 pm

    I’d be fine with the final being in Seattle. The IDEAL set up, in
    my opinion, would be for the MLS Final and playoffs to be
    two-legged home-and-home all the way through and to play the US
    Open Cup Final at a neutral (or at least predetermined) venue the
    weekend after the season ends (a la the FA Cup). Make the Open Cup
    final the cherry on top of the MLS season.

    • Charles

      January 13, 2012 at 8:43 pm

      That doesnt sound very good to me at all…..MLS doesnt need a
      ProBowl type game. I like what they are doing making it more
      compact. The drift over the whole MLS season is a big part of the
      lack of interest….that and a lot of morons just dont care about
      US soccer.

    • Daniel Nieves

      January 14, 2012 at 2:28 pm

      Bama Man; NO WAY! Open Cup is barely even noticed among mls soccer
      fans (see avg. attendance) let alone the general public and you
      want it to upstage the finals and playoffs. As for a two legged
      final, let’s keep it the way it is. You can have all the pregame
      lead up and focus on one final game. Sure loved all the lead up to
      final between Man U. and Barcelona in Champions League (works for
      me). The one thing they should change is the date for the final.
      Someone made a great suggestion of playing the final on the friday
      after Thanksgiving. Very few games on (random college football and
      early NBA games). I know it’s shopping season, but rather try
      competing with that; than NFL on Sunday late in the NFL season. MLS
      on NBC day after Thanksgiving; MLS could own the night!!!

      • BamaMan

        January 16, 2012 at 10:30 am

        My point is that I think the MLS final would be better served as an
        event with home field advantage. MLB, NBA, and NHL do this. NFL
        does not have to because the Super Bowl is such a major event on
        its own that it doesn’t need a home crowd to make it a sellout/big
        event. But I agree about Friday after Thanksgiving. Personally, I
        think MLS ought to move all their regularly scheduled games to
        Friday nights. Of course, you’d have midweek games at times, but
        nonetheless, the majority of games ought to be Friday nights.

        • Charles

          January 16, 2012 at 6:55 pm

          But what do you think of The Dons concern…legit concern…of
          having a team win the championship on a night were they lost the
          econd game . I like the three game series….with home field
          advantage thoughout the playoffs…make em huge. Ps…Mexico US
          AllStar game it is the only way I am going to care.

          • BamaMan

            January 18, 2012 at 4:42 pm

            I think the American public (and, nearly as importantly, the
            Mexican-American public) is sophisticated enough to get the
            two-legged format. Not really that different from going into a 4th
            series game with a 3-0 lead in the series. Still, plenty of drama.
            Total, total agreement on MLS v. FMF All-Star game, however.

        • Charles

          January 24, 2012 at 2:48 pm

          GAINING TRACTION BABY !……BamaMan is going to go down in
          hiiiiistoooory !…………

        • Charles

          January 24, 2012 at 2:50 pm

          50% of the votes on ! Beating out RM and Barca by 30%
          points ! I am going to go vote again.

  5. Charles

    January 13, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    I TOLD YOU SO…………………………………………. I
    told the Sounders they should have all the games at Sounder’s main
    stadium, rather than their practice field/second home field. Sure
    there would only be 10k there ( probably more ), but that extra
    6-7k would have been plenty to have the Sounders keep the home
    field advantage in the early rounds…….US Open Cup is a LONG
    ways away from taking the semis and finals away from the Sounders.
    Too much money involved. WAY too much money involved.

  6. adam

    January 13, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    why isnt every game broadcast at the minimum across the websites
    for mls and…. hard to get interest in a tournament
    that dosnt show the games.

  7. BamaMan

    January 13, 2012 at 8:32 am

    These are great changes! I’ve thought for years that the US Open
    Cup ought to be one of the best ways to sell casual/European soccer
    fans and non-soccer sports fans on US Soccer. No other team
    tournament in America allows amateurs to compete against
    professionals in a major sport for a national trophy AND the
    tourney has the history and tradition that MLS lacks. It has the
    Cinderella stories of March Madness but with pro teams included. My
    only two issues: 1) they should remove the bid process for both the
    semis and the finals as well, ideally placing the final at a
    neutral site venue like NY or LA or KC. 2) the final should be
    played on a Saturday or Sunday. Even better if it could be
    broadcast by NBC.

    • Charles

      January 13, 2012 at 2:38 pm

      Hmmm, disagree with placing it at a neutral site. Maybe if it is
      the Washington Cup, but I don’t want to travel to Florida to watch
      the Sounders win.

      • Real Charles

        January 15, 2012 at 2:49 am

        Agree with my namesake here. There isn’t any reason for a Seattle
        fan to super neutral site when the final is always going to be held
        in the only place that currently cares about it. Insert obligatory
        Seattle-centric-universe theory here.

  8. CoconutMonkey

    January 13, 2012 at 4:22 am

    Huge fan of the changes!

  9. Jason

    January 12, 2012 at 6:43 pm

    “But the tournament now at least has the look and feel of a
    European-style tournament, ” Which is all people really care about.
    Also, the Open Cup didn’t need to be “saved.” It wasn’t on its last
    legs by any means. Lastly, I don’t think many MLS teams “worried”
    about playing in. They now don’t have to be bothered with the MLS
    play-in games. Worried wasn’t the right word.

  10. bradjmoore

    January 12, 2012 at 3:58 pm

    Interestingly, CONCACAF also just re-formatted the Champion’s
    League this year. This year, no preliminary rounds, all 24 entrants
    go into 8 groups of 3, best team in the group goes to
    quarterfinals. Only 4 group stage matches.,,12813~2575174,00.html
    I really like the new US Open Cup format shift, but in light of
    these new CCL changes, I’d make one suggestion: move up the US Open
    Cup so the final is in mid July instead of early August, and then
    the winner starts CCL group stage play 2 weeks later, rather than
    wait an entire year. Initially my apprehension was, with 6 group
    stage matches and a LOT of travel, that year in between winning the
    US Open Cup and starting CCL would give the winner time to build a
    deep roster. But now, with fewer group stage matches, and less
    travel (2 away dates instead of 3, or 4 if you were in the play-in
    round), could be more of an incentive to win US Open Cup, because
    you immediately go into CCL rather than have to wait a year, which
    means player’s leave, get released, etc. Nonetheless, MLS has to be
    VERY happy with these format changes.

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