It's Time To Make The US Open Cup Worthwhile
With the fourth round being drawn for the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup this past week, the same old discussions about the tournament were raised.
There is the contingent that want to make the cup worthwhile, and there is the group that feels it needs to be scrapped, or at least have the elite teams removed. Then you have the people that are unaware of the 102 year old tournament, and profess that the United States should have a competition where all levels can play - Someone did actually leave Jason Davis slightly stunned by calling into Soccer Morning with that comment. I would say I’m firmly in the first category.
Coming from England, particularly with the dust just settling at Wembley after Arsenal’s 4-0 FA Cup Final victory, we love our cup competitions. We take immense pride in the FA Cup being the oldest cup competition around. When your team is in the draw, you simply stop what you’re doing and watch or listen on a Sunday afternoon. Even for the qualifying rounds, which are drawn on a Monday lunchtime, thousands of people up and down the country stop work to obsessively check social media and the FA website until the draw is released. The only difference between FA Cup final day there, and Superbowl Sunday here, is the absence of FA Cup themed food at grocery stores.
Needless to state, the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup deserves better than the current attitude of being prioritized behind MLS, CONCACAF Champions League and those international prestige friendlies, where both teams inevitably play their reserves. So how do US Soccer and the leagues achieve this?
Publicity is everything. You can market a U12 academy cup final to sound like the most crucial game the stadium will ever see. US Soccer have failed to have any USOC coverage up until this season. You’ve probably followed TheCup.us on Twitter or visited their website. That isn’t run by US Soccer. That’s a chap named Josh Hakala, who donates his time to promoting a competition he has a passion for. You may have seen graphics promoting individual ties, again not from the national association but rather created by one of the most divisive personalities in American Soccer. Ted Westervelt, Tin Foil Ted, or whatever creative name you have for him, possesses a strong affinity for the cup. This year US Soccer have finally established a Twitter presence, although it really serves little purpose.
If you are after the rich history of the competition, or just to find a local game in the early rounds, you’re relying on Josh and Ted rather than those under the direction of Sunil Gulati. For British teams, there is a wonderful resource at FCHD.info, which details every league position and national cup game of thousands of teams. Richard Rundle, who runs FCHD, states that the information is out there and he’s just put it in an easy to access format. The challenge for people like Josh Hakala, is that the information is not easily available, and requires extensive research. Alternatively US Soccer must surely house an archive to delve into, not that they're making use of it.
The draw is an aspect that badly needs an overhaul. There was almost a bit of excitement over the fourth round draw being held live on web-based sports channel 120 Sports. The problem was that the round wasn’t drawn live in the Chicago studio. Instead, former Chicago Fire midfielder, Logan Pause, sat in front of a screen with two other hosts and simply read out the list of ties.
Compare that to the FA Cup third round draw. On a Sunday afternoon, sandwiched between two live games, the BBC will cut to Wembley Stadium as two celebrities or two well known faces in the game stand either side of the pot. The velvet bag containing the balls emptied out, whilst the screen highlights the numbers of the big teams and the plucky little underdogs. When there is a non-league side that has made it through, up to six qualifying rounds as well as the first two rounds, you can guarantee that there is a camera at their stadium waiting to catch the reaction of the fans and players alike.
Aside from the way the draw is portrayed to build some buzz for the ties, the way the draw is conducted badly needs changing. For a start, the policy of MLS teams not being permitted to play their own USL side is ridiculous. I understand it’s to reduce the possibility of match-fixing, but if you want to prevent Portland from playing Timbers 2, then the latter shouldn’t be in the tournament at all. Their place should go to a lower division side that are eligible to play any team. There is nothing wrong with a geographic limitation in a draw, that’s how the FA Cup qualifying rounds, and the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy work.
The problem with the US Open Cup is that you know who you will be playing a year in advance. FC Dallas would traditionally face San Antonio and Houston. This has only changed in 2015 with the founding of a second Oklahoma team. Similarly, the NYCFC v Cosmos game was common knowledge from the time NYCFC were given a start date by MLS. Rather than geographic pairings, a system of zonal boundaries, that can moderately adapt to the number in each round, would produce real draw. Here’s a map of the fourth round entrants, in a zonal basis, that would add some limited surprise to the draw. Furthermore, the system of coin flips is completely ludicrous. The first name drawn is the home team and the second is the away team. The notion that you’re awaiting the winner of the previous round, but you can be home in one scenario or away in the other is pathetic. We’ve also seen Chula Vista have to rely on crowdfunding to pay for their travel expenses, FA competitions divide match day profits between the teams, which factors paying for the away team's travel expenses, to prevent the possibility of a poor traveling side being unable to fulfill their fixture.
In terms of the games themselves, streaming must be the absolute minimum.
Local television rights should be given away in lieu of a national TV deal. There will be low attendances in the initial rounds no matter what is changed, but the quarter finals and beyond can attract a healthy crowd.
That will only happen if the Cup is given an important role in the season.
Although two or three clubs will take it seriously as a route to the CONCACAF Champions League, most place it at the bottom of the pile. In many countries, the national association will declare that cup games take precedence over league games, and would specify that the games should mainly take place on weekends. The current Wednesdays just forces teams to rest their better players between weekend league games.
As far as the final goes, this should be a spectacle in the American soccer calendar. Move the game until after the regular season, even if it’s the weekend between MLS conference semifinals and finals.
It should also be held at a neutral venue, bidding to buy the final only reduces credibility. It can be built up in the same way the UEFA Champions League uses their ‘Road to…’ tagline. If USSF make the final appear prestigious, it will be treated as such by fans and more of the teams. All of this does mean one thing, US Soccer will need to dip their hands in their pockets and invest in this wonderful historic sporting event. Prize money and publicity are a must, even if that means upping the registration fees. This, in time, attracts sponsors, some form of broadcasting deal, increased attendances, and it all goes back to the association and clubs.
The FA aren’t one of the richest associations in world football because of Chelsea and Manchester City, but because the FA Cup final can attract 500,000,000 TV viewers and justify the $45m Emirates have paid to have their name associated.
The Lamar Hunt US Open Cup is a tournament that has run more consecutive years than The FA Cup and Copa Del Rey, owing to the World Wars and Spanish Civil War. Those that do enthuse over this historic competition will proudly point out that it’s either the second or third longest running tournament in the game.
Even the trophy itself is steeped in history. Baron Dewar - Yes, of Dewar's scotch fame - donated a number of trophies to numerous soccer and cycling events, but this is the one that has stood the test of time. Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham have all won the Sheriff of London Shield, his other soccer trophy.
With many unhappy over US Soccer’s submissive role in the leagues, and the lack of promotion and relegation, isn’t this a chance to showcase the lower leagues taking on the big names. What an opportunity to show how much US Soccer is prospering whilst CONCACAF and FIFA languish over finally conceding defeat with their 20 year game of legal hide & seek.
I appreciate that a secondary competition isn’t a regular feature in American sports, but at the same time, American soccer doesn’t boast anything to rival the Superbowl or World Series.