How to Save the U.S. Open Cup

It’s been a thrilling and dramatic week of cup action here in the States, but even without the incessant Beckham buzz, you’d be hard pressed to have noticed. Many bloggers have been pimping the US Open Cup – a tournament that goes back to 1914, by the way, a reminder to those who mistakenly believe that American soccer has no traditions – but the mainstream soccer media coverage (such as it is) barely notices the games.

This might be chicken and the egg, yet it’s certainly the case that most soccer fans here are also less than fascinated by the cup as well. As Bill Urban at ussoccerplayers.com asks, “If a United Soccer Leagues club defeats an MLS side in the Open Cup and only a few thousand hard-core supporters attend, does the defeat really matter?”

Giantkillings were all over the place this week, with lower league Richmond, Charleston and Harrisburg all recording victories over MLS teams. In England, such F.A. Cup upsets would send Match of the Day’s ratings through the roof. But not here. What can be done to save the U.S. Open Cup?

For a country that goes nuts every year for March Madness, college basketball’s intense knockout tournament that usually features a Cinderalla story winning the nation’s heart, this lack of interest in soccer’s knockout competition is disappointing.

As Urban points out, soccer fans are more excited to watch disinterested foreign clubs play MLS teams than an MLS team (even if featuring their own reserves) in a game that could conceivably lead to winning a cup. Ask any fan from Section 8, and they tell you last year’s Open Cup final at Toyota Park was one of their favourite nights as a Fire fan. Yet as much as the hardcore loved it, only 8,185 were at the stadium.

U.S. Open Cup final 2006

Urban offers an interesting idea to pique the general soccer supporter’s interest: just as winning the F.A. Cup in England earns teams a place in the UEFA Cup, why not give the winner of the U.S. Open Cup a berth in the Superliga, an annual contest between Mexican and U.S. beginning this year?

At a stroke, the early matches in the Open Cup acquire far more purpose: the chance of qualifying to earn a million dollars in prize money. With an appearance in the SuperLiga at stake, far fewer Reserve players would be used in Open Cup matches, thereby making that tournament more attractive to MLS supporters. And those US soccer fans who don’t support MLS might be tempted to pay more attention to their country’s national cup, particularly if the “qualifying for Europe” angle was introduced by placing the Open Cup winner in the SuperLiga.

In its current incarnation, the Open Cup is regarded as a drag on players and supporters of MLS clubs. The general disinterest in the national cup competition could and should be remedied with this simple Superliga solution.

This is an ingenious and welcome idea, though without knowing the ins-and-outs of American soccer bureaucracy, I do wonder if its implementation might not be as simple as Urban suggests – if a USL team won the Cup, would they be allowed to participate in the Superliga? Would Mexican clubs and sponsors putting up the one million dollars be happy if they had to market a tournament featuring a non-MLS American team?

The premise of Urban’s article is entirely correct: the U.S. Open Cup should matter more, and we need ideas to promote it. Here’s my own half-baked suggestion (feel free to shoot it down in the comments): maybe it could be made over completely, as a kind of March Madness knockoff – how about a Feburary madness soccer tournament on the West Coast, featuring 32 USL and MLS teams playing knock-out games every few days and leading to a grand final at the Home Depot Center?

There’s not much going on in American sports in February in the gap between the Superbowl and the start of March Madness. Get it on ESPN – Beckham will play! – and give the winner a one million dollar prize. Teams and fans would surely care then, and it’d be a fantastic way to pique interest in soccer in the lead-up to the summer’s MLS action.

What do you think of these two ideas? Any other thoughts on how to make fans care about the U.S. Open Cup? To hark back to Urban’s original point…maybe the best solution would be to give the winners a prestige friendly against Barcelona or Chelsea. Then fans would care.

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