The stage has been set for the 102nd edition of the US Open Cup, the oldest soccer tournament in the United States. A tournament which has pitted amateur clubs against professional sides, the Open Cup has been a constant through the trials and tribulations of soccer in the United States. The drawing of the first and second round matches took place on Wednesday, April 8th. The first two rounds of the Cup consist of third and fourth division regional matchups.
Despite the fact that the tournament is the longest running soccer tournament, it has been more like a sleeping giant for the better part of a century. It has yet to captivate audiences and passion like national cup tournaments in European countries. The FA Cup in England, for example, was first held in the 1870s and has captured English football audiences for over a century. The thrill of lower division teams competing against (and occasionally upsetting) their local top-flight neighbors has elevated the tournament to international heights. High profile FA Cup matches are broadcast internationally in later rounds of the tournament.
The US Open Cup on the other hand hasn’t produced such fan interest, despite having the same long-standing history and similar format as the FA Cup. While Europe developed an almost exclusive infatuation with football in the 20th century, Americans were infatuated with a different sort of amateur competition.
Intercollegiate gridiron football was the most popular sport in the United States for the first half of the 1900s. The passion that student-athletes brought to the game is comparable to the passion in the FA Cup. The craze surrounding college institutions is similar to the blind passion that local fans have for their club team in Europe. Gridiron football filled the void and took the spotlight away from soccer in the United States. Europe developed a rich history and appreciation for their local football tournaments, which is why they are internationally legitimized today.
Many American soccer fans have been screaming to broadcast Open Cup matches on television to help grow interest. Most networks would not dare purchase the rights to even high profile Open Cup matches, knowing full well they would not get enough viewers to make it a sound investment. With the advent of the Internet, broadcasting some matches on the web could draw the die-hard fans while also engaging fans through online user comments, which would be a start. United Soccer League, the third division soccer league in the US, partnered with YouTube in 2014 to stream all of their matches online to increase ratings by offering their content to users for free.
According to Josh Hakala, creator of TheCup.us, the most extensive online coverage of the tournament, explained in a recent interview that the tournament has shifted to a more regional focus in the past six years. Building on regional rivalries between clubs from all divisions could produce more interest in the tournament. Geography is a hard mountain to climb for many sports in the US, something that most top European footballing nations do not struggle with.
Hakala also states that increasing fan interest in the tournament begins with investment from Major League Soccer (MLS) teams in the tournament. Many MLS clubs have taken heat from supporters for trotting out the second string against lowly opponents and crashing out of the tournament early. While this would make for nice headlines in Europe for the lower ranking club, it signifies to American fans that they simply do not value the tournament.
Hakala says this has changed over the past few years and teams are placing a higher emphasis on the tournament. After all, it is the shortest road for a team to compete in the CONCACAF Champions League. The winner of that tournament competes in the FIFA Club World Cup, a feat that no MLS team has done yet. The international exposure is a big enough carrot for MLS clubs to take the tournament seriously.
To say that the Open Cup has caught the attention of American sports fans would be inaccurate. But the Open Cup is no longer on the periphery of soccer fans’ vision. Steady and measured progress has been the mantra of MLS over the past decade, and the same might be the winning recipe for the Open Cup. Increased exposure, building local rivalries, and making the tournament matter will awaken a giant that has been largely dormant for 100 years.