Wednesday night, Minnesota United FC begins their US Open Cup campaign for this year. For the un-initiated, the US Open Cup is the open knockout competition for all US-based clubs; the preliminary round took place in late April, with only amateur teams, and gradually bigger and bigger teams have entered the competition. United, in the second division, plays their first game in the third round; St. Louis FC, their opponent, had to win a second-round matchup with the fourth-division Des Moines Menace to advance.
The coin flip again went against Minnesota, and they’ll be traveling to St. Louis for Wednesday’s game. And if they can win that, their reward is a trip to Sporting Kansas City on June 16. Which would be a repeat of last year, when United won away in Des Moines, earning a trip to Kansas City for the fourth round. And also a repeat of the previous year, when United lost at home against Des Moines – but if they had won, they would have made the journey to Kansas City for the fourth round.
Coin flip luck is one thing, but the US Open Cup’s emphasis on geographic scheduling is another. Minnesota fans guessed their team’s schedule as soon as the tournament’s format was announced – Des Moines, St. Louis, or (maybe) Madison in the third round, then Kansas City in the fourth round. The “magic of the cup” tends to disappear when you’ve seen the same trick over and over and over again. The US Open Cup should be the most widely exciting competition in American soccer, one that unites fans across the country – not the same thing, over and over again, every year.
US Soccer’s determination to pit teams against each other geographically makes some sense in earlier rounds; most of the amateur and semi-pro teams, from the fourth-division PDL on down, don’t have the financial wherewithal to be making repeated cross-country trips for the US Open Cup. Geographic scheduling means that more teams can enter the tournament, and that’s a good thing.
Once the tournament gets into the third or fourth round, though, I wonder whether geographic scheduling is even necessary, from a cost perspective. MLS, NASL, and USL teams should all be able to bear the cost of entering the tournament. Most lower-division fans, including Minnesota’s, get excited about the chance to enter a tournament that includes the entire soccer country, including MLS. At the top, some MLS teams take the competition less than seriously, then turn around and treat it as a financial burden, which is disingenuous; Kansas City, which worked hard to sell their game against Minnesota, drew more than 17,000 fans for last year’s game. This tournament should be a money-maker, not a money-sucker. If it’s done right, it can work for everyone.
United play-by-play announcer Chris Lidholm came up with a partial solution that US Soccer needs to take a hard look at. His idea is to eliminate the repeats at the fourth-round stage – to change it so that we don’t see a replay of the same MLS-vs-lower-division match every year. Effectively, if Minnesota played at Kansas City in 2014, make it so that Minnesota can’t be drawn against Kansas City in 2015, removing the possibility of having the same match over and over and over.
There could still be a geographic component; repeated Kansas City trips might be replaced with games against Chicago, or Colorado. It wouldn’t have been difficult to swap games this year – in that scenario, the Minnesota/St. Louis winner would have played Chicago, and the Indy/Louisville City winner would have played Kansas City. None of that seems like it’s a problem.
As American soccer develops, we shall hopefully see the US Open Cup transition to an entirely open competition, and Minnesota drawn against whoever, from across the country – Pittsburgh or Arizona, Ventura County or Fort Lauderdale. But Lidholm’s suggestion will at least eliminate the year-to-year sameness. And it would certainly help the future Des Moines, Madison, and St. Louis fans, stuck with repeated games against Minnesota’s new MLS side.
For much, much more on United in the US Open Cup, check out Northern Pitch.