The U.S. Open Cup and Why You Should Care

The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, which kicks off today, is the best parts of American sports all in one tournament but sadly, nobody seems to know about it.  The tournament runs throughout the summer and is open to every organized adult team in the United States.  Each round is a single elimination knockout, and in the subsequent round, teams from the next level up in the U.S. Soccer Pyramid are added to the mix. In 2017, 99 teams from across the country will be vying for the cup. But again, hardly anyone knows anything about this big beautiful tournament. You would never know that the Open Cup is the third longest running open soccer tournament in the world.  Or that the Open Cup predates the NHL’s creation by 3 years, the NFL’s creation by 6 years, or the NBA’s creation by 32 years!  It is so old in fact that the two teams that have won the most number of cups don’t even exist anymore, with Bethlehem Steel (not that one) and Maccabi Los Angeles (a now defunct Israeli ex-pat team) each with five.  Only Chicago Fire and Seattle Sounders with 4 each are close from MLS.

Just look at this glorious logo from the folks at thecup.us

Just look at this glorious logo from the folks at thecup.us

The U.S. Open Cup was started in 1914 and the tournament itself tells the often confusing and terribly complicated history of American soccer.  The early superstar of the competition was Bethlehem Steel, again not the one currently in USL.  Bethlehem Steel was a team started by, unsurprisingly, employees of the Bethlehem Steel Company just outside of Philadelphia.  The company eventually gave them funding and even built them a stadium, the first soccer specific stadium in the United States! That's right, Columbus was not the first with a soccer specific stadium.  It was very common to have company teams in the 1920’s and 30’s, and is a tradition that can be found in other parts of the world as well.  Ever wonder why the German team is called Bayer Leverkusen? No, it isn’t a branding deal like New York Red Bulls have; Bayer Leverkusen were actually formed as a company team for the pharmaceutical giant Bayer.  Early American soccer was dominated by company teams that often played in company leagues.  That was until, the Great Depression. Sadly, many companies cut their athletic ventures in an aim to save money.

The 1938 U.S. Open Cup Champions Chicago Sparta 

The 1938 U.S. Open Cup Champions Chicago Sparta 

The Great Depression gave way to World War II, where sports in this country were hit hard by the draft.  High profile athletes like baseball’s Ted Williams would be taken away from the sporting world and off to fight a war. And yet, through World War II, the Open Cup did not fail to hold a tournament. Following World War II, the next era of U.S. soccer took shape: immigrant ball. Some of the oldest soccer teams in the United States have their founding club’s ethnicity proudly in their name. Teams like Greek American Atlas Astoria, an early powerhouse of ethnic soccer, were founded in 1941. They are still around today, going by the name New York Greek Americans and play in the Cosmopolitan Soccer League; they also have 4 Open Cups to their name.  Other ethnic teams founded around this time that still around today include the Brooklyn Italians (1949), Milwaukee Bavarian SC (1929), New York Ukrainians (1947), and the Croatian Eagles (1922). These ethnic teams dominated the post-war soccer landscape. 

But once MLS was created in 1996, The Open Cup has been MLS’s to lose. Since the league was created, MLS has had two teams in every final except two, 1999 and 2008.  In 1999 the Rochester Rhinos beat the Colorado Rapids 2-0, marking the last time a non-MLS team won the tournament.  In 2008, Charleston Battery made the final, but lost 2-1 to D.C. United. Also worth mentioning is USL’s own Richmond Kickers winning the open cup in 1995, a year before MLS took the field. 

This Rochester team was very, very close to being in MLS instead of the failed Chivas U.S.A.

This Rochester team was very, very close to being in MLS instead of the failed Chivas U.S.A.

I cannot emphasize enough that the Open Cup tournament is basically the best parts of the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament, but more-so.  Last year there were two amateur pub teams, Harpo’s F.C. and Aromas Café FC, that made their way to face fully professional outfits in Colorado Switchbacks and Richmond Kickers respectively.  This is the kind of David-vs-Goliath story that the English FA Cup only wishes it could have.  There is also the great story of Cal FC, an amateur team coached by USMNT Great Eric Wynalda, beating MLS’s Portland Timbers in 2012.  This is a story-line to watch as Wynalda is once again in the tournament as the coach of the LA Wolves, another amateur side that could easily be drawn against the Timbers.

Last year though, nothing was more controversial than LA Galaxy vs La Máquina FC.  LA was held to a 1-1 score-line by the amateur side until the 90th minute of regulation.  Then, with a Galaxy player injured in the box and being tended to, the other Galaxy players decided to quickly take the free kick and tapped in a goal.  With their own man down in the box!  Galaxy needed cheap, unsportsmanlike play in order to beat an amateur side that had pushed them to their limits.  That’s the kind of drama that will captivate every sports fan.

LA Galaxy's bench is probably worth more than La Máquina FC

LA Galaxy's bench is probably worth more than La Máquina FC

So this year, the U.S. Open Cup starts today 5/9/17!  Amateur teams from across the country will all play, with some of those games being available on YouTube while others only available if someone decides to throw it up on Periscope. The low-budget-ness of the first rounds is really endearing, as soccer spreads out across the country in a variety of forms, and we should celebrate it wherever we can. 

Of note to FC Cincinnati fans will be the AFC Cleveland – Des Moines Menace game this Wednesday.  FCC will play the winner of that matchup, and will play either Cleveland here in Cincinnati, or will head to Iowa to face Des Moines (the home teams for each round are determined by coin flip, assuming both teams have offered to host). The winner of the tournament in 2017 gets a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League, something that is normally only open to MLS teams thanks to MLS’s closed nature.

The 99 teams in the hunt for the cup

The 99 teams in the hunt for the cup

To follow the Open Cup and all of its glory, I highly recommend the website TheCup.US  They present the tournament, the stories, and access to the games better than even the tournament organizers.  The sub-reddits r/MLS and r/USOpenCup are good online resources as well.

So bring on the pub teams, bring on the upsets, and bring on the drama.  Is NASL better than USL?  Can FC Cincinnati hang with an MLS team?  Can a pub team take a globally recognized team to their breaking point?  Can FC Cincinnati get into the CONCACAF Champions League? The Open Cup is where all of those questions get answered. 

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Kevin Wallace