By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 20, 2019) US Soccer Players - Despite its age, the US Open Cup has never really been the finished article. A rich history that goes back to 1914 gives the tournament a sheen of permanence that doesn't exist. There's no reason to think the Open Cup is going anywhere, but that doesn't mean it will resemble previous versions of itself from year-to-year.
Some of that is beyond US Soccer, the administrators of the tournament. As American soccer changes, the federation updates the national knockout tournament to keep pace. A wave of new leagues and teams, many of them professional, forced US Soccer to alter a competition that was largely the province of amateur teams for decades.
The spirit of the Open Cup is a moving target. Regardless, amateur clubs have always been at the heart of how people think about the tournament. That perceived spirit of the Open Cup is front-and-center in the response to changes instituted by US Soccer for the 2020 edition. The federations made several adjustments, but most dramatic is moving the start of the tournament to late March.
US Soccer's reasons behind the move make logical sense. The earlier tournament start will provide for more time between subsequent rounds. That should allow teams to better market their Open Cup matches. With more lead time between rounds, travel costs should also be lower. That's an annual problem for amateur teams on limited budgets. It's now an annual tradition for American soccer fans to step up and donate money to help amateur teams as they try and manage the cash flow necessary to make a trip ahead of later reimbursement from the US Soccer coffers.
Unfortunately, good intentions crashed squarely into obvious realities. Some of those amateur clubs rely on the availability of college players. Both the NPSL and USL League Two play short summer seasons that serve as developmental opportunities for college players and enable clubs to operate without the cost of player salaries.
No club from the Open Division, meaning clubs not granted a berth in the tournament by automatically, has played in more consecutive tournaments since 1995 than Reading United. That run of 11 straight Open Cup appearances will end in 2020 thanks to the club's refusal of its invitation. In a statement issued via social media on Tuesday, Reading United made clear its anger over the changes made by US Soccer.
"This abhorrent scheduling decision forces the top USL League Two and NPSL teams, who afford an Open Cup playing opportunity to NCAA and U23 players in the USA, to completely modify how they structure a team, or worse, forces them to relinquish their deserved spot to a lower-ranked team."
USL League Two champions the Flint City Bucks also declined their US Open Cup invitation. The Michigan club is unquestionably the most successful amateur team in the modern era of the Open Cup. Since 1995, no amateur team has more wins, more goals, or more victories over professional teams than the Bucks.
2020 is the club's 25th season, an achievement at any level of American soccer. The celebration won't include an Open Cup run. Like Reading United, Flint City lambasted the US Soccer decision to start the tournament in March.
"This is a travesty and a complete disaster for US Soccer and the credibility of the US Open Cup," owner and CEO Dan Duggan said in the club's statement on the decision. "Not only are the teams punished, but the experience for the young college-age player to be able to take on pro teams and audition in front of pro coaches is gone. This incentive was one of the most important parts of the tournament and the reason you saw so many motivated young college players want to participate in this great event. Now, all that history and motivation is gone by the short-sightedness of a few people making decisions without fully understanding the repercussions."
No other country in the world deals with this kind of complexity in its amateur player base. The gold standard of domestic cup tournaments, the FA Cup, has no issue with player availability as dictated by a third party organization overseeing players tied to collegiate programs. Collegiate soccer programs are largely immaterial or nonexistent anywhere else. So the Open Cup runs up against another barrier to growth. Well, at least in the minds of those running high-level amateur teams in the US.
US Soccer's decision and the response by teams like Reading United and Flint City prompts a difficult question for American soccer fans who value the Open Cup. Should the potential improvement of the tournament beyond the status quo be sacrificed to ensure that long-standing teams that lean on college labor for their player rosters can fully participate?
The question for the wider culture is whether American soccer should be enabling clubs that use college players at all. Not just for those that rue the college game's influence on young talent in the country, but because of sticky issues with amateurism in college sports as a whole.
American soccer hasn't fully reckoned with college soccer's role in a changing culture. Player development is now more about professional clubs, potentially leaving the college version of the sport out altogether. US Soccer likely didn't intend to add to that conversation by changing the calendar for the country's national cup tournament, but here we are.
Both things can be true at once. It's a travesty that Reading United, Flint City, and other clubs cannot participate in the 2020 US Open Cup using college players. Moving the calendar to allow teams to better navigate the financial challenges of the tournament is the right thing to do.
The tournament has long languished below the radar and needs to evolve to grow and improve. Maybe there are better ways to do that than to effectively disqualify any college-attached player. No matter what happens, someone is bound to view it as "abhorrent" or as a "travesty," Which raises the bigger question. Can the US Open Cup be for everyone? And if not, who is it for?
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Photo by Jeremy Olson - ISIPhotos.com