It’s the magic of the cup. A second division side drawn to play away from home against their local rivals, a “proper cup tie” some might call it. It’s David against Goliath, a potential giant killing, a banana skin, as well as a local derby. It has all the storylines one would want. An expanded away following that typically comes with a glamor tie is on hand for these romantic cup ties is on hand and prepared to make their presence felt. This match has the potential to be a classic. Unfortunately, no one else seemed to get the message and the stadium was about a third full, mostly made up by season ticket holders getting free tickets and passionate away fans.
My first experience with the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup was 10 years ago on a Wednesday night in Ocean City, New Jersey. As a child, I used to spend my summers down on the Jersey Shore and my family would frequently attend the home matches of the Ocean City Barons (since renamed Nor’Easters) of the PDL and sometimes I would double up as a ball boy. That night’s opponents were the Long Island Rough Riders, then playing in the old USL Second Division (third step on the US Soccer Pyramid). I was told that if Ocean City won this game and their next game they would play against D.C. United. As an impressionable nine-year-old, I thought the idea of this local team made up of current college students, who played their home matches on a high school football field, playing against professional side D.C. United was the coolest thing ever. I had no idea what this competition was or any of its history or tradition or its place in American Soccer, but I was immediately hooked. It would be another five years before I would start following soccer religiously and learning about the concept of knockout cup competitions, specifically the F.A. Cup, but there was nothing I wanted more than my little Ocean City Barons to take on D.C. United.
Ocean City, despite being a step below their opponents on the pyramid, thrashed the Rough Riders 3-0 that night to move one step closer to that dream date with D.C. United. In the next round, Ocean City met USL-1 (second tier) side Richmond Kickers and went ahead on four minutes. The shock was on! D.C. United awaited! Well, not really, Kickers scored the next four goals and went on to win 8-4 and Ocean City were out. No matchup with D.C. United but the two game journey and hope made me fall in love with the U.S. Open Cup. Ocean City would later get MLS dates when they played D.C. United in 2009 and Philadelphia Union in 2013, but by that point I had moved on from spending summers in Ocean City and did not have the opportunity to enjoy it.
Last night, I headed to Red Bull Arena for a Round of 16 U.S. Open Cup match and local derby between New York Red Bulls and New York Cosmos. A year earlier, Cosmos had thrashed Red Bulls 3-0 in the Open Cup, opening some eyebrows in the soccer community, but ultimately dismissed as the Red Bulls benched most of their first team. To Cosmos, this was their joint-biggest match of the season, alongside the previous round’s victory of NYCFC on penalties. They had signed two former Spain Internationals in Raúl and Marco Senna, sold some shirts with Pelé and Beckenbauer on the back to trade on the history of their previous incarnation and done some goodwill diplomatic relations by playing a friendly in Havana against the Cuban National team. But as a second division team in a soccer pyramid that does not have merit based promotion or relegation, the U.S. Open Cup provides their only opportunity to prove their worth against MLS teams, as well as their only opportunity to qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League and gain more exposure.
As a result, a decent number of Cosmos fans came out both in their away section (about 300) as well as scattered around the rest of the stadium. For an away team in North American sports, the turnout was impressive. However, for a similar FA or League Cup game in England for a second division team playing an hour’s drive away from home against a supposed rival, anything less than 1,000 would be considered pitiful, exacerbated by the fact that Cosmos draw from such a large geographic area. The rest of the stadium, save the Red Bull supporters group behind the goal opposite the travelling Cosmos fans, was empty. Huge swaths of the upper deck were vacant and the aesthetics for what was to me a very classic and mouthwatering cup-tie were very disappointing. When Watford were drawn away to Chelsea in this season’s third round of the FA Cup, 6,000 Hornets made the trip across West London to Stamford Bridge and many more were left complaining about the club’s ticket distribution policy and their inability to get tickets. The home end of the stadium also sold out. Simultaneously across London, Arsenal took on Hull City at The Emirates in front of 60,000. While I am not expecting anything close to the levels of support that the English enjoy, it provides a pretty stark comparison to what I witnessed at Red Bull Arena last night.
To be fair, those inside the stadium did make a very good amount of noise (although the Cosmos drum bleating the same three songs, two of which were in Spanish, the entire night got a bit boring) and the match itself was very entertaining (a 4-1 Red Bulls victory to set up a date with Philadelphia Union in the last eight). But it made me wonder, how could 48,000 people cram into Yankee Stadium three days earlier for a regular season MLS game, but only an announced attendance of 11,000 (although my Dad and I both estimated it was more like 8,000) come for a very meaningful knockout game in the oldest competition in U.S. Soccer history.
Unfortunately, the American people (at least in New York) still are not completely sold on the beautiful game of soccer and unfortunately rely on marketing schemes to get fans to come out in droves for the game. The week before last week’s “Hudson River Derby,” my Facebook was full of advertisements trying to get me to buy tickets for the game. Every time I turned on ESPN, there was an advertisement for “Rivalry Week: NYCFC vs. New York Red Bulls at 4:30 on ESPN followed by Portland Timbers vs. Seattle Sounders on Fox Sports 1.” I must have seen the ad 20 times in the week before the match. For the U.S. Open Cup tie? Not so much. I might have seen one ad on my Facebook page the day before the match and that was it. What worries me is that apart from the diehard supporters of our sport, who will follow their team to every match, the next tier of “fans” are really just not that actively interested in the sport and do not really go for the whole “romantic” side of the sport unless it is served to them on a silver platter on ESPN, NBCSN or Fox Sports 1.
As for the Lamar U.S. Open Cup itself, despite all its history and tradition, it is a European idea stuck in an American sporting model. With the MLS Cup Playoffs also being a knockout cup competition with the incentive of being named league champion, the U.S. Open Cup seems a bit superfluous. Take, for example, the New York Red Bulls. They have never won a trophy (apart from a 2013 Supporters Shield) in their 20-year history and this year for the first time they have decided to take the U.S. Open Cup seriously by naming nearly full strength lineups in the last two rounds. But how seriously are they really taking it? The week of the quarterfinals, a date that has been set in stone for months, Red Bulls set up a money grabbing, sure to be sold out friendly against English Premier League champions Chelsea. When given the option between money and the chance to progress in the premier domestic cup competition that the country has to offer, the Red Bulls took the money and ran. That unfortunately is the problem in the modern game. It’s a shame really, because the Open Cup is a great competition that is not being given the proper spectrum to shine in. The die-hards will continue to come out, but unless there is a revamp or an increase in exposure, the casual fans will either stay away or remain ignorant. To me, the Open Cup is a good barometer of how much people actually care about the domestic game up and down the pyramid and are willing to make it succeed as opposed to being lured in by heavy-handed marketing tools or big name European friendly opposition. And unfortunately in that regard, soccer still has a long, long way to go to being a top tier American sport.