New on SocTakes: Rethinking Open Cup format

Open Cup format
Things get testy between the Indy Eleven and Lansing Ignite FC in the 2019 U.S. Open Cup. Photo credit: Robbie Mehling/Soc Takes

Well hello there, Soc Takes. It’s been a while.

You may have noticed my as-of-yet unexplained absence the past few months. To make a long story short, I got dumped, took some vacations, got a promotion at work, met a new girl and went to a lot of soccer games. But enough about that, it’s time for this hiatus to end, and what better way than with a #HipsterManifesto on the Open Cup format.

The 2019 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is finished, with chaos and drama and #Cupsets aplenty, and a new champion in Atlanta United. And that’s got me thinking about how the tournament itself is structured. With the growth of the professional game, between expansion in MLS and the USL Championship, the formation of USL League One and the advent of a new professional league on the horizon, there’s been a decline in the number of amateur teams making the tournament. Last year, we had 55 amateur sides competing; this year, just 32.

And next year, that number could drop even further. Between MLS adding two more teams, USL League One adding three teams and a high likelihood of the teams from NISA and possibly even NPSL Pro (should it survive) joining, we could see under 30 amateur sides qualify unless the format is modified.

Right now, after local qualifiers, all the amateur sides join in round one, along with the eligible clubs in USL League One. That makes for 38 teams playing a total of 19 games. USL Championship teams enter in the second round, for a total of 44 teams and 22 games. The third round continues without adding any more teams, simply pitting round-two winners against each other to determine the 11 teams that will take on MLS opposition in the fourth round. At that point, there’s 32 teams in total, and it’s a direct knockout bracket all the way to the final.

I have a few issues with this format. First off, MLS teams stay out of the hunt until the end, ensuring a heavy MLS presence from the round of 16 onward. Second, as professional leagues form or expand, they’re taking spots away from amateur sides. Third, there’s a heavy imbalance in the participation from round to round until the fourth round. Fourth, we often see MLS teams hosting lower-division or amateur sides, which shifts the costs of travel onto those who can less afford it.

Let’s fix all of these, and more.

Expanding the tournament

First up, the biggest point is to dramatically expand the tournament’s size. Just looking at the three current professional leagues, there will be a total of 75 professional teams in 2020 and at least 78 by 2022. Add in NISA’s 13 announced teams and that takes us to 88 next year and 91 after that. Even if we remove the ineligible B teams, we’re rapidly approaching 75 eligible professional teams, and could end up there by 2022 easily. The tournament, quite simply, needs to get a lot bigger and needs to rethink how teams are paired.

My first proposal begins with a dramatic expansion to 192 teams every year, divided into four regional groups of 48. Most of these additional teams will come from what used to be the local qualifying tournament, and will simply directly join the tournament outright. This lets us bring 32 teams from each of the NPSL, USL League Two and UPSL, and a fluctuating number of additional local teams from outside the “organized amateur system.”

The second major change involves moving the entrance of professional teams much earlier and the introduction of seeding for professional sides. Each regional bracket will contain 16 seeded teams that get a single-round bye, whether they play in MLS or the USL. Take all of the professional teams in a given region and sort them by points per game from their previous season. This way, teams that aren’t MLS sides can be rewarded for a better performance in league play, and MLS sides that aren’t performing get penalized with a quasi-play-in game. The top 16 teams from this ranking are seeded, and should there be fewer than 16 professional teams in a regional bracket, apply the same formula to the amateur sides to reward the top few performers there.

Now, we have our first two rounds set. Thirty-two teams enter in each region for the first round and the 16 winners advance to face the seeded teams. Instead of waiting until halfway through the tournament for the final participants to join, every single team will have played a game by the end of the second round. The regional groups remain for the third and fourth rounds, with 16 and eight teams playing eight and four games, respectively, per group. Once the final 16 are set, the groups combine for a final 16 knockout tournament, resuming the current format until the final.

Now, before the criticism begins about the lack of referees to officiate games involving professional sides, I actually have a solution. There’s no need to hold the entire first three rounds in 48-hour windows, and staggering these with games held across a two- to three-week window will help alleviate fixture congestion and stadium availability concerns, and ensure a sufficient number of officials. And since this modified format doesn’t actually add any rounds to the tournament, only games, it’s not much different than simply having more midweek Open Cup nights.

Although, on that point, there’s been some demand to move Cup ties to the weekends, and honestly, I agree. Particularly for amateur sides, many of which have players working full time, availability on Tuesday and Wednesday nights is tough, and it’s far easier to request the professional sides to play their league matches midweek to free up time for the Open Cup. MLS and the USL might not like it, but it helps more teams take the tournament seriously and should be strongly considered.

Onto the topic of hosting: Why is there a preference to MLS and USL Championship sides hosting? It adds to the expense for amateur sides, having to pay to travel, and costs those smaller teams a significant amount of gate revenue. Five thousand tickets sold on a Wednesday is a nice little bonus for the likes of FC Dallas, but would be a windfall for a team in the NPSL or lower. Expecting amateur sides to foot the majority of the upfront costs just to participate is absurd, and this sort of change would help end the reliance on things like GoFundMe for these clubs.

On that front, even when amateur sides need to travel, it’s not that crazy to request the USSF to cover the costs. These expenses are handled at the federation level in other domestic cups around the world, and the USSF definitely has the money for charter buses and the odd flight. And if they don’t, they could follow the FA’s footsteps and sell commercial branding rights to the tournament. Maybe even get American Airlines as the title sponsor and work out an arrangement for discounted airfare for teams.

Now, a lot of this is hypothetical, and this plan isn’t completely foolproof nor ready to implement in its current form, but it’s the sort of thinking I wish we’d see from the federation. With the move to ESPN+, we saw more serious media coverage than ever before, and the more they talk about it and promote it themselves, the more seriously teams treat it. This year was one of the most competitive, dramatic tournaments in recent history, and things are absolutely trending in the right direction. I simply want to see this continue in ways that solve some of the serious lingering problems.

Also, thanks for reading, and I’m glad to be back.

Follow John on Twitter: @JohnMLTX.

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