Opinion: 7 Changes for the US Open Cup

Opinion: 7 Changes for the US Open Cup
Kevin Wallace

The US Open Cup is the absolute best competition in sports. It's equal parts romantic, comedic, and chaotic; it's the best and worst of soccer. It contains multitudes.  If you don't like stories about pub teams scoring on MLS teams, amateurs defeating pros, and good ol' fashioned giant killing, then you may not be a sports fan. If you want to see two perfectly matched competitors go toe-to-toe in a perfectly balanced competition, go watch chess. if you do decide to watch the Open Cup, you'll get to see an amateur player break his arm scoring a bicycle kick for the chance to play a professional team. Hell yeah.

But, despite this tournament being awesome, there are a few issues.  There are actually a ton of issues, but there are a few that can actually be fixed before the next edition of the tournament. With FC Cincinnati about to find out their Open Cup opponent for 2019, it got me thinking.  Here are seven suggestions to tweak this monster into something that just might catch mainstream appeal.

1. Get a Title Sponsor

As great at the "Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup" name is, just imagine if it were the "Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Presented by Toyota"? Now that's an awesome name.  The hope/dream/goal/purpose of a title sponsor would be to inject a little money into the tournament. Money that is sorely needed.  While putting money into the prize pool would be great, it would be better served by having funds set aside to offset travel costs.  Let teams submit requests for funds, and then give out the money based on need. If a local pub team makes a deep run into the tournament, they shouldn't be online begging for money. That's a terrible look and it’s terrible for the sport. Funds for travel expenses would be a great solution to help offset some of those costs.  Eventually, monetizing the Open Cup would allow larger and larger prize purses for winning in each round, something that is sorely missing right now. Prioritize travel expenses, move to prizes, but overall, put more money into the coolest thing going in American sports.

And I know there are sports purists who hate the idea of a sponsor in the title of the competition, but those same purists likely watch the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl and the Maui Invitational Presented by EA Sports, so their opinion doesn't matter.

2. Let More Teams In

That's right, let's get wild with it.  In the 2019 edition of the Open Cup, the NPSL and USL League Two  entered 24 teams combined.  USL League Two and NPSL have 166 teams total. On top of that, that doesn't even include the UPSL, which has the exact same standing as the NPSL and USL League Two in the eyes of USSF, and has over 300 teams. The UPSL had their teams entered into the Local Qualifiers field which includes every amateur team in the country. The UPSL and the Local Qualifiers receive a combined . . . 8 teams in the Open Cup. Nonsense.

Admit it, you want more Florida Soccer Soldiers in your life. Image Source: thecup.us

Admit it, you want more Florida Soccer Soldiers in your life. Image Source: thecup.us

There are a ton of teams in these lower divisions and they should be included. Having only 32 teams represented below the professional ranks is a shame. More teams would reduce travel costs, one of the main issues with the tournament as it stands. And plenty of teams would be able to host and stream games online, a constant issue in the Open Cup. Increasing the number of teams that could host and broadcast would improve the overall quality of the tournament.

If you want more regional buy-in, expanding the tournament's footprint could go a long way as well. Notable lower division teams are left out of the tournament every year, most of the time not by choice, and it only hurts the competition and paints an incomplete picture of where we are as a soccer nation by not allowing these teams to compete. You know what else would happen if you expanded the field . . .

3. Static Bracket

That's right, static bracket baby. Sure, soccer fans are used to the draws every round because that’s what they do in England and therefore we all have to copy that, but it's not as much fun. Imagine every year soccer fans filling out their brackets, trying to figure out where Des Moines Menace will go and if they can topple Sporting Kansas City on their way to a surprise quarter final appearance. Imagine office pools of soccer bros and Marge in accounting tuning in to see if the Pittsburgh Riverhounds can upset the Philadelphia Union. Right now, the NCAA tournament is the only tournament that even offers this wacky tournament setup. A setup I’ll point out, that makes the tournament approachable to non-sports fans. If the Open Cup were to offer an alternative, and maybe partner with a sports book sponsor in Vegas, they could make some cash. Start with 128 teams, go big.

The static tournament also allows teams to figure out hosting, travel, and potential opponents further into the tournament, keep the tournament regional, and pit teams against each other that would never have the chance to play otherwise. Imagine a world where teams could make sure they have their stadiums available to them weeks in advance so they don’t have to make last second changes.

4. Seeding

Since we're going with a static bracket, we'll need to seed the tournament. Now, seeding a tournament in the NCAA is always tricky because you need to compare resumes, NET scores, eye tests, and underseed the American Athletic Conference. But in soccer, things are so much easier! Every year these teams finish their seasons in nice big long lists in order of good to bad that we call a table. Combine the table with the different divisions and all of a sudden you have a really simple method of seeding. Start by making one giant table, then breaking the teams into four regions of 32 teams. Using a shortest split line algorithm, each year you can ensure the closest 32 teams are in the same bracket.

5. Everyone Starts at the Same Time

Static Bracket + Seeding = MLS and Local Qualifiers playing in the first round. Fantastic. LAFC vs Harpos Cafe is what the Open Cup is all about. By having all of the MLS teams start at the same time, a few things happen. For one, it means more upsets are possible. Two, If MLS teams decide to blow off the tournament like they have in the past, they can bow out very early in the year. Three, it keeps the tournament fair. The last point is a big one because right now MLS teams only need to win 5 matches to win the whole thing, where USL League One teams need to win 8 (or more with qualifying). That's a huge disparity. I don’t care if England does it that way, this is America, give us a soccer UMBC moment.

Cal FC beating the Portland Timbers launched a number of professional careers. Image Source: NBCSports.com

Cal FC beating the Portland Timbers launched a number of professional careers. Image Source: NBCSports.com

Adding everyone at the same time lets more regional match ups happen because there are more options for teams to play. Rather than sending teams thousands of miles to play a "nearby" team, with everyone playing at once more local teams will be available to play.

6. Lower Seed Hosts

This should actually be "Lower Seed Gets Right of First Refusal for Hosting" but that's not at catchy. Having larger teams come to lower division lets these smaller teams draw crowds to their home stadium, reduces travel costs, and gives a slight advantage.

However, not every team in the tournament will be able to host. Sometimes venues aren't available on short notice. Or sometimes teams would rather split gate receipts at the larger stadium than play at their tiny stadium. But at least this gives options to the lower seeded, and therefore likely lower division, team.

7. Remove the Academy and Youth Teams

As it stands right now, “2” teams cannot enter the Open Cup because they are professional. However, many U-23 teams ARE allowed to enter the tournament because they are not professional . That’s nonsense. If an MLS or USL team wants to get their younger players playing time in the Open Cup, they can play them under the senior team’s name. Devaluing the Open Cup with U-23 teams of teams also in the Open Cup is a real quick way to get people to not care about the tournament. I mean, does anyone only care about the New York Red Bulls U-23?


Imagine this tournament: 128 teams from all across the United States enter a massive, single elimination, tournament. Every team is seeded based on how they finished in their regular season in the previous year for one massive table. The teams are grouped into four regions of 32 teams to decrease travel costs and encourage regional match-ups. Travel expenses for teams are able to be offset by a title sponsor. And with a giant static bracket, gambling sponsors may be looking to finally put their name on a mainstream American sport. MLS teams getting in the tournament with everyone else means at most, teams will only play 7 additional cup matches in a season, and that’s if they make it to the final. It also increases the likelihood of upsets.

The Open Cup is great, all of the matches on ESPN+ is great, the upsets and story-lines are great. Now lets make this tournament that much better.

Never forget how great this tournament can be. Image Source: Sports Illustrated

Never forget how great this tournament can be. Image Source: Sports Illustrated

Kevin Wallace