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.

8 thoughts on “How to Save the U.S. Open Cup

  1. Dave's Football Blog

    I actually offered the same SuperLiga bid suggestion on FanHouse today.

    http://sports.aol.com/fanhouse/2007/07/13/mls-needs-to-be-improved-not-saved/

    I also think the U.S. Open Cup would mean a lot more if the prize pool was bigger. The Open Cup winner gets only $100,000 and a nice trophy. Compare that to 2M pounds for the FA Cup winner and 2M euros for the Copa Del Rey winner, not to mention the UEFA Cup bids. Oh, and the SuperLiga winner gets $1M.

    The three MLS teams that tanked their Open Cup games (D.C., L.A., Houston) are all in Superliga. Why put the effort into a $100,000 knockout tournament that nobody watches when it’s worth much more to focus on a $1 million tournament that will actually be on TV somewhere?

    If the Open Cup brought the winner even $500,000 and a SuperLiga bid, MLS clubs might take it much more seriously.

  2. Bill Urban

    Tom:

    The article to which you linked makes no mention of the ultimate “responsibility” for the organization of the Open Cup: US Soccer. My general beat at ussoccerplayers.com is Major League Soccer, so the piece has a definite MLS slant. Nevertheless, a criticism that it is the USSF’s ultimate responsibility to promote the Open Cup is a legitimate one which others who have read the piece have made.

    Taking that into account, the awarding of a spot in the SuperLiga is well within the capability of MLS to arrange, since that tournament is organized by Soccer United Marketing.

    It would be easy to arrange; a snap of Don Garber’s fingers and it would be made so.

    As to whether that will actually happen…

    Probably not. As you noted, USL sides might lack the marketing appeal of an MLS club, although the league might do well to market such an event as its three top teams and a cinderella squad, like occasionally occurs in the Final Four in college hoops.

    Because the money from ticket sales is the bottom line in the SuperLiga, not organizing a competition to “improve US soccer,” as SUM surely spins it, a pot in the tournament for the Open Cup winners is unlikely to be arranged.

    But doing so would help the Open Cup’s market appeal, and would certainly cause MLS clubs to play more of their starters in the Cup, rather than their Reserve sides.

    The simple fact is that friendlies against “big” clubs sell more tickets than Open Cup matches, but somehow the Open Cup contests are cited as “schedule clogging” matches, whereas MLS clubs competing against teams from Europe on summer vacations in meaningless matches enthrall large groups of supporters who frankly should know better.

    This is the reality in US soccer, and this is why the Open Cup ranks a distant fifth in relative match importance for soccer supporters behind MLS matches, friendlies, (and in some cases the order of those two is reversed) the SuperLiga and the CONCACAF Champions Cup.

    Kind Regards,

    Bill Urban
    ussoccerplayers.com

  3. Bob

    A tournament is an interesting idea, but the majority of USL First Division teams don’t begin training camp until March. Some even start camp in early April. The shorter their preseason training the less they have to pay their players.

    One simple way to increase interest is to schedule the games on weekends. This would disrupt the MLS and USL schedules, but would improve the attendance at the games. Sign a deal with FSC or ESPN to cover one game per round and that would help too.

    One difficulty is that MLS and USL are different entities with different agendas. They aren’t on the same page a lot of the time and the perception I have is that USL folks sometimes find MLS hostile to their efforts.

  4. Max J. Rosenthal

    Someone at the DC boards at BigSoccer asked a decent question: is there any compelling reason other than our love of the FA Cup that this tournament should matter?

    I frankly think there are several, and that it should be taken more seriously, but I think there are decent arguments to be made that the USOC is the least of US Soccer’s worries. For one, both them and MLS have larger issues to face in getting the Nats and MLS teams into households that wouldn’t have cared before, and only big victories and international affirmation are going to do that in a lot of cases.

  5. Thomas Dunmore

    It might be the least of worries, but if you could create a showcase event on ESPN, you’d be reaching new households. I also think growing grassroots soccer is important, and it provides great exposure for USL teams.

    There are lots of reasons it should be marketed better, but it’s certainly true there are other priorities too. Still, if MLS teams are going to enter the Cup, why not ensure the tournament is as fun as possible and reaches as many folks as it can?

  6. Pingback: Fire’s Cup Run Ends Before It Begins - Team News - The Offside - Chicago Fire MLS Soccer Blog

  7. ursus arctos

    Not that it was timeless prose, but might you have an idea what happened to my prior comment?

    It wasn’t there, then was, and now has “disappeared” again.

    In any event, I think that a properly-organized and promoted Open Cup could well provide an alternative point of entree to “households that wouldn’t have cared before”.

    One shouldn’t under-estimate the appeal of “giant killings” and “Cinderella stories” to the casual sports fan who may not now give a crap about the national team or any MLS franchise.

    In a media landscape that gives wall to wall coverage of the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, there is clearly room for the Open Cup.

  8. Thomas Dunmore

    I’m sorry, ursus, I can’t find it anywhere on the admin side. Apologies for that, certainly not intentional.

    I agree entirely with your point though!