After a three-year delay, the most prestigious competition in American soccer is finally back. Now in its 107th iteration, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is older than the Coupe de France, Coppa Italia, NFL and NBA.
It features 91 semi-pro and professional American soccer teams from four divisions and seven leagues, plus a further 12 amateur clubs — good for a total of 103 entrants.
The first round, which was contested March 22-23, featured the 12 amateur clubs plus 10 teams each from the NPSL and USL2 (both fourth tier). Seven rounds and six months from now, the winner of this competition will be crowned.
In terms of format and history, the U.S. Open Cup is analogous to its English cousin the FA Cup, except that low visibility has morphed the American competition into an afterthought in U.S. soccer.
How many serious soccer fans in the states even knew that the cup began last week, or that it was broadcast on ESPN+? You would not be reading this article right now if I had not randomly stumbled upon the FC Motown-West Chester United match while browsing the ESPN app on a random Tuesday night.
These boys are NEVER quit!!!! https://t.co/5grjBeEv6E— West Chester United SC (@WCUSCPredators) March 23, 2022
The U.S. Open Cup deserves better; American soccer fans deserve better. But how can this precarious situation be improved?
Open Doesn't Always Mean Open
The biggest farce in the U.S. "Open" Cup is that qualification is limited to clubs based on their league performance. The magic of the FA Cup is that every club in the top 10 tiers or better of English football is eligible. They all have a chance to participate and there is always the slim hope that one of these underdogs can do something special.
Upsets this year like Boreham Wood over Bournemouth and Kidderminster Harriers make the FA Cup the memorable competition it is. Yet if the FA Cup limited the number of entrants — as the U.S. Open does — it's possible that neither of these non-league sides would have been given a chance to compete.
What the lower levels of American soccer lack are real rewards for on-field success. There is no sense of something beyond, no anticipation for what may come because clubs are largely at the mercy of the U.S. Soccer Federation.
It is difficult to look forward to the future when your club's hope of moving up in the pyramid is dependent on an owner with deep pockets. The barriers in place are purely financial, and even then they are dependent on the the schemes of the USSF.
Lower league teams in England know that winning their division will earn them promotion to a higher league. But without promotion and relegation, the only advancement for lower league American sides (if you can call it that) is through the U.S. Open Cup.
This rare opportunity should be celebrated, not hidden in some obscure corner of the U.S. footballing landscape, and it should also be open to every club within the American soccer pyramid.
Having a set number of entrants from each league also makes planning more of a hassle given the ever-expanding nature of American soccer leagues. The USSF won't have to worry whether the USL League Two gets 10 or 12 entrants because the entire league will be in. After all, it is the U.S. Open Cup.
This would mean an extra 200 or so clubs, but the round of 16, quarterfinals, semifinals and final are each separated by a month or more, plus the season extends into late autumn while the cup concludes in early September, so finding a few open days throughout the season should not be a problem.
Now fans and teams alike will be looking forward to the competition because they know they will be involved.
Television Trumps All
The broadcasting rights for the U.S. Open Cup were sold to ESPN+ in 2019 with a contract that extends through the 2022 season. Some matches are also being streamed live on YouTube. This made the cup more accessible to viewers, as in previous years broadcasting rights were spread across various local and national stations, that is, if they were televised at all.
ESPN+ was a convenient platform for the fans who subscribed to the service for its extensive soccer library (LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, and FA Cup to name a few). But with the cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 iterations of the competitions, ESPN was never able to establish a rapport with its audience — not that it made much of an effort to advertise the U.S. Open Cup.
The cup has neither been well-promoted nor highly viewed in the television era, with one likely being the product of the other and both contributing to the competition becoming an afterthought.
Beginning in 2023, Turner Sports, which includes TNT, TBS, and HBO Max and hosts the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, will be the official broadcaster of the U.S. Open Cup. Perhaps more importantly, the competition was incorporated in a package deal as part of the U.S. Soccer portfolio of USMNT and USWNT international matches.
This eight-year deal finally provides the U.S. Open Cup the platform it deserves, and even though it is somewhat of a contractual afterthought, the competition will benefit from being grouped with the men's and women's national teams.
Plus, HBO Max has almost three times more subscribers than ESPN+. Yes, this does mean subscribing to yet another streaming service, but you also get to watch (or rewatch) "The Wire" and "The Sopranos."
"The potential seems unlimited particularly in a nation that loves straight knock-out competitions and playoffs," says World Soccer Talk writer Kartik Krishnaiyer, "The competition needs sponsorship dollars to enhance its profile, along with a consistent television or streaming presence, but the inclusion of it in a larger package can only help."
The ingredients are there for the U.S. Open to become a more prominent and successful competition.
Reconnecting With History
American soccer does not have a historic site of national importance like the rarified monument that is Wembley Stadium. The United States also lacks smaller local clubs with an extensive history. Looking at the NPSL, a league with 92 teams, just eight of these teams were founded before 2000.
But the U.S. Open Cup is the perfect opportunity to grow the game among these small clubs. The cup is a chance for an NPSL or USL1 team to make history and create the kind of moments that fans will remember for years to come.
Sports across the globe are steeped in the past, and it is this connection to something special, something sacred that makes us feel as if we are connected to the roots of the game.
It will be difficult for soccer to acquire the sort of cultural importance that baseball, football and eventually basketball have earned in the country — that can only come with time. But there is no better place to start than the U.S. Open Cup.
The history of the U.S. Open Cup is the the history of soccer in the United States. Far too often it is a history that is forgotten. The new deal with Turner Sports is a chance to change that and bring one of America's most historic sporting competitions back to the spotlight.