Open the Open Cup

Christos FC overcame the Local Qualfying madness and progressed to the 3rd Round of the US Open Cup with a 1–0 win over USL side Richmond Kickers.

There’s few things more exciting in world football than a knockout cup competition. One game to decide who advances and who is out. The ultimate opportunity for the underdog to seize their opportunity or for the favorite to prove their superiority. The sheer spectacle can be a huge boon for the smaller team, whether it’s Arsenal having to use the sparse facilities at Sutton United or Bayern Munich having to travel to lowly Carl Zeiss Jena FC. What is most important is that these small teams have the ability to compete in the cup due to their governing Football Associations’ decisions to allow amateur and semi-professional teams to compete within the same rules as the professionals. The same cannot be said about the Lamar Hunt United States Open Cup (hereafter referred to as the “Open Cup”)

The Open Cup is designed to be the knockout cup competition of the US Soccer Federation and the best opportunity for lower division teams in the United States to showcase their skill against teams from higher leagues. In particular, it offers an opportunity to the hundreds of amateur clubs that ply their trade on the fields away from the bright lights and large grandstands of professional soccer to prove that they belong on the same field as those pros. However, the problem with the design of the competition as it stands is that a majority of amateur teams must undergo a local qualifying process that makes it very difficult for amateur teams. Not only do they play two to up to five additional games, but as it stands, those games take place about seven months before the first round of the Open Cup proper. This keeps large segments of United States Amateur Soccer Association (USASA) teams out of the Open Cup.

Seven months. Within that time, teams who do not pay their players must do the following:

  1. Maintain roster continuity, and not use any players that may have played in a qualifier with another team during that qualifying cycle. The initial roster deadline was August 22nd, 2016. This 22-man roster would carry the team through qualifying with them able to make 5 changes to the roster on February 22nd, 2017 (also making sure those 5 new guys aren’t cup-tied)
  2. Remain in the league that they were participating in at the time of the application deadline. That application deadline this past year for amateur teams was June 30th, 2016. JUNE. That’s nearly one full year before the competition actually starts. Additionally, professional teams had until December 30th, 2016 to apply to enter the competition, which they already qualify for automatically. This particular rule lead to Minneapolis City SC’s infamous “Undefeated” Open Cup due to their move from the Premier League of America to the National Premier Soccer League, which is outlined here. This disqualification ironically occurred in the same season that two professional teams changed leagues (Minnesota United and Tampa Bay Rowdies) and both were allowed to compete in the Open Cup because it occurred before the December 30th pro application deadline.
  3. Pay a $200 application fee. Amateur teams pay about $500 less than MLS teams to enter the competition. That seems a bit absurd based on the margins that amateur teams operate on vs. the big bank accounts of the pro teams. I think we may be able to up that MLS entry fee a bit and just eliminate the entry fee for amateur teams. Unless US Soccer is hard up for cash…ahem.
  4. Be prepared to cough up a lot of cash to travel. US Soccer, to their credit, has tried to make the qualifying and early rounds of the Open Cup easy for smaller clubs to travel to. However, renting a bus to make an interstate trip is almost never cheap for a club that’s trying to scrape by on an amateur budget, with trips longer than 5 hours easily topping the $1,000 mark just for the vehicle.

Several teams have overcome these barriers and put together impressive Open Cup Runs. Yesterday, GPS Omens of Massachusetts, Christos FC of Maryland, and LA Wolves FC of California advanced to the 3rd Round. Having success out of the Local Qualifying is not impossible, but US Soccer could give more communities and clubs access to the Cup with a few steps.

So what should US Soccer do to open the Open Cup?

  1. Simplify the roster rules and condense the qualifying timeline. If the qualifying rounds are going to take place that far in advance of the first round, allow roster changes after each qualifying round. At the very least, allow more than 5 changes between qualifying and the competition proper. The roster rules can remain almost unchanged if the qualifying takes place in a period of time closer to the beginning of the competition.
  2. Understand the league volatility in the US. There is absolutely no reason to punish a club like MPLS City when you have professional teams moving leagues almost every year without consequence. If you’re not going to do anything to help that volatility, US Soccer, at least do not punish teams for trying to stabilize themselves.
  3. Pay the amateur teams. There is a $15,000 prize on the table for the amateur team that makes it the furthest in the Open Cup as it stands, but there are no prizes for winning qualifiers or early round matches, so the teams that sink all that travel money or money spent hosting matches receive zero return unless they’re the final amateur team left standing. What if the professional teams and US Soccer could put enough money together to just make sure each amateur team breaks even so that more are encouraged to participate in the Open Cup?

The US Open Cup produces the most compelling soccer product in the United States. No league can pit amateur and semi-professional teams against the elite of the game here in the States, so why don’t we do a better job of giving the underdogs incentives to chase the Open Cup dream? There is a wealth of amateur talent in the United States that would get an opportunity to display their game against a higher level of competition, yet does not due to the inefficiencies and complexities of the system. US Soccer, Open the Open Cup once and for all and set this beautiful competition free.