USL has announced an addition to its competitive calendar starting in 2024. A new, in-season cup competition featuring USL League One clubs will kick off next Spring.

The unnamed cup competition is very similar in overall structure to the 2023 NWSL Challenge Cup. That competition, which has since been shelved in its previous form, also featured only the twelve teams within its league and was played within the confines of the regular season calendar.

The new USL cup will, at first, feature the twelve teams split into three groups of four. Teams will play a double-round robin against their group opponents, plus two games against clubs from other groups for a total of eight group games. Four teams will then advance to a knockout round. But there are a few wrinkles that make this USL competition different from other similar tournaments.

The groups for the inaugural version of the tournament are as follows:

Charlotte Independence
Greenville Triumph SC
Richmond Kickers
South Georgia Tormenta FC

Chattanooga Red Wolves SC
One Knoxville SC
Lexington SC
Forward Madison FC

Central Valley Fuego FC
Northern Colorado Hailstorm FC
Union Omaha
Spokane Velocity FC

USL League One cup competition changes the game – literally

In the group stage, similar to the MLS/Liga MX Leagues Cup held this year, there will be no tie games in the traditional sense.

Games tied after 90 minutes will go straight to a penalty shootout, with the winning team getting two points and the loser getting 1 in the standings. Regulation wins will be worth 3 points. This 3-2-1 point system is also used by some European hockey leagues.

The three group winners will advance to the knockout round, but even that is a little different. In the event of a tie in the table on points, the first tiebreaker will be goals scored, and not goal difference as is traditional. This is intended to produce more attacking, more entertaining, play.

Most interestingly, the final team that goes on to the knockout phase will not be the best second-place group finisher. It will be the non-group winner that scores the most goals – regardless of their point total.

Built to evolve

The tournament itself is great. It will add more games for fans and players for the involved clubs. With most lower-division pro teams only getting one or two U.S. Open Cup games each year, it’s a valuable addition to the soccer calendar.

However, the future plans might be the most interesting thing of all.

The league notes that “Over the next few years, the USL aims to grow the cup competition, including the integration of other leagues and the exploration of additional innovations geared toward the fan experience.”

League One president Lee O’Neill added “Our ambition is to include clubs from other leagues in the future. There are so many strong clubs across our country and our region, and we believe this competition can be a catalyst to bring many of them together to grow the game and create a unique and amazing experience for players and fans everywhere.”

You’d have to assume that USL Championship (division two) clubs will be added to the mix in the future. Maybe even a few USL League Two (amateur) sides too.

But the official USL release didn’t specifically mention the leagues in their own ecosystem. They just noted “other leagues”.

The USA does not have an equivalent of England’s League Cup or FA Trophy. Should USL extend an olive branch to independent clubs in MLS NEXT Pro, NISA, and perhaps amateur leagues like the NPSL or USPL, it would be a fantastic thing for the lower division game in the US.

USL Cup set for 2024

The winner of the tournament will earn prize money and a new trophy as well. Matches will be staged on dedicated cup match days during the season.

The name and logo for this new competition will be unveiled in the coming weeks. The tournament will start on April 27th, 2024, with the group stage running through the weekend of August 31. The final will be played on September 28/29 as the lone League One match of that weekend.