By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (May 9, 2018) US Soccer Players - It’s that time of year again, when the flowers are blooming, the birds are singing their songs, and the US Open Cup is upon us. The first round of the 105th edition of America’s oldest knockout soccer tournament got underway with a single game on Tuesday night and continues with 25 games on Wednesday.
As is always the case in the modern era of the competition, the value and prominence of the Open Cup in American soccer is a big part of the conversation. A bevy of small, community-based teams, almost all of them amateur, dive headfirst into the first round. All hope to be the club that makes a Cinderella run into rounds where the biggest of American sides enter.
Underdog stories have extended the US Open Cup's appeal in recent editions. In 2017, that team was Christos FC, an amateur outfit out of Baltimore that reached the fourth round. Christos earned the right to take on DC United in Boyds, Maryland, where a not-insignificant portion of the 5,286 fans cheered on the upstarts from Charm City. Christos managed to take the lead on the MLS side and even looked capable of forcing extra time before a late flurry lifted United to a 4-1 win.
The American soccer community outside of Washington rallied around Christos during its run. The little club had all the elements of a great underdog story, including backing from a mom-and-pop liquor store.
Christos hearkened back to an era of the American game when clubs popped up in small ethnic enclaves or on the back of support from businesses with strong ties to soccer in other parts of the world. The greater American soccer community is always quick to romanticize stories like Christos because they seem to prove soccer in America is capable of mimicking the organic growth that spawned the world’s most loved competitions.
For those with some familiarity of the place Christos occupies in the soccer hierarchy of the United States, the Marylanders' run represents something of a redemption story for a group of players who either maxed out their ability before going pro or couldn’t make a good enough living in the lower professional levels. The team’s success struck a blow against a system that doesn’t provide enough opportunity or is failing to properly leverage the talent that exists in this country.
It was a good story, but more than that, it was a readymade cudgel for hammering away at perceived problems with American soccer. The Christos story also helped the Open Cup get more attention. That's a necessity if the tournament is going to rise to prominence and begin generating more interest and revenue.
A club like Christos needs a healthy dose of luck to make a run as far as the fourth round in the Open Cup. It all naturally begins in the first round. NPSL and PDL clubs play each other or the occasional adult amateur side on a regional basis. That means derbies of a sort. The draw pits clubs from the same geographical region who do not occupy the same league against one another.
There’s magic in those matchups. Whether or not any of them can compete with the USL is a question for the next round. Fostering new interest in the Open Cup shouldn’t be completely dependent on a Christos-like run. It should also be born out of rivalry games that pit town against town in ways that are mostly unachievable in American soccer.
Major League Soccer’s own focus on the Hudson River Derby and the new LA Galaxy vs LAFC matchup speaks to the power of those local rivalries. The uniqueness of the Open Cup thins out later in the tournament, especially if there’s no Christos story.
This year’s first round pits clubs from Detroit (Detroit City FC) and Pontiac (the Michigan Bucks) against one another. The Brooklyn Italians, a legacy amateur club out of New York City with an obvious ethnic connection, will face the Lansdowne Bhoys, a Yonkers, New York club founded by Irish immigrants just over 20 years ago. Teams from Dallas and Fort Worth will meet, NTX Rayados and the Fort Worth Vaqueros. Two creatively named teams separated by less than 15 miles, FC Arizona and Sporting Arizona FC, face one another. A couple of Orange County, California team will meet and there’s one more match featuring two Southern California teams.
Not all of those game represent natural rivalries, but there are examples of the most accessible part of the Open Cup for casual soccer fans. The problem for Open Cup boosters and the clubs involved is that American soccer’s history of supporting locally focused clubs with little or no payroll is nonexistent. The teams entering the Open Cup in the first round generally aren’t clubs who even attempt to attract fans, much less drawn many when they do. There are notable exceptions to this rule, like Detroit City FC, but the bulk of the Open Cup amateur entrants aren’t in a position to leverage their participation in the tournament, local rivalry matchup or not.
As with so many things American soccer, attention for the Open Cup and its small teams is a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Limited budgets make progress difficult for most clubs. While attention from Open Cup games might drive revenue, the tournament needs bigger investment.
US Soccer has incrementally increased the prizes for the tournament over the past few years. The 2018 edition will see the winner received $300,000 (up from $250,000 in 2017), the runner-up receive $100,000 (up from $60,000) and the amateur team that progresses the farthest $25,000. Perhaps more importantly for Christos FC and clubs who might follow in their footsteps, the Federation also raised travel reimbursements.
The 2018 edition of the US Open Cup isn’t guaranteed to deliver another Christos FC. It will deliver special stories, as only a knockout tournament of its kind can. It’s filled with intriguing teams with fascinating origins and gives many American soccer fans their only chance to see a real local rivalry. That's the magic of the US Open Cup.
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(Photo by Tony Quinn - ISIPhotos.com)