The US Open Cup may not receive the coverage the MLS enjoys but its place in the USA's sporting history is bigger than many may realize
Pleasant surprises: those wonderful little moments of unexpected glee. We all love them and we all experience them. They make life enjoyable and can give us that extra lift to get through the day. And I had one of the best of all time.
My hometown team, Sporting Kansas City, was having to qualify to enter the 2011 version of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup and the first qualifier was that night. We were fighting for the last two MLS spots to this national cup competition and our first match was against the Houston Dynamo. I went to wikipedia, my source for most of my sports scores, and searched "US Open Cup". Every page for a competition has this nifty link at the bottom of the info box on the right side that takes you directly to all the information about the current edition and the US Open Cup page was no different.
Before I reached that expertly placed link, I was pleasantly surprised.
Wait. That's probably understating it, though.
No. That's definitely understating it.
It was much more of an stupendous shock. The sort of moment that takes your breath away and makes your heart stop for half a second. Above the link to the 2011 US Open Cup was one simple piece of information about this cup. It stated simply: "Founded: 1914." I was dumbfounded! I was still in the middle of learning a lot about soccer in America and it was only a few weeks before this that I began to hear tales of the mythical North American Soccer League that brought professional soccer to the States way back in the 1970's. I was stunned when I heard that the Portland Timbers were not merely an expansion side and that the Cascadia Cup was not a new competition. Not at all! The Timbers and Sounders have been duking it out for decades. American soccer had history! We've played for over 40 years!
But, nearly 100 years? Since 1914? Surely not!
It was all true, though. The United States has a rich footballing history and the US Open Cup is the best example of that fact.
To understand the US Open Cup, you actually have to go even farther back into history to 1884. In this year, the first organizing soccer organization, the American Football Association (AFA), was born. It only covered regions around New Jersey and New York, but was still ground-breaking. Most importantly for this story, the AFA organized America's first non-league cup, the American Cup. The first American soccer dynasty of sorts came about as Clark ONT, a team from northern New Jersey sponsored by the local Clark Thread Company, swept the first three American Cups. Teams from New Jersey and Massachusetts dominated the competition until 1897 when the Philadelphia Mainz defeated the previous year's champions, Paterson True Blues.
Internal conflicts within the AFA caused the competition to be suspended in 1899 until 1906. Even after the competition was restarted, the problems had not been solved and many were calling for a truly national body to look over all of American soccer. The AFA wanted to take on that role, but in 1911 the American Amateur Football Association (AAFA) was created and quickly spread its reach further than the AFA. Using their newly-gained influence, the AAFA created a cup competition of their own, the uncreatively-named American Amateur Football Association Cup. The two organizations stood toe-to-toe and refused to budge.
Obviously, the decision needed to go to FIFA. In 1913, the AAFA, who was now reorganized as the United States Football Association, superceded the AFA after several AFA organization jumped ship. FIFA gave provisional membership to the USFA and they quickly created a new cup to fit the new name after just two years of the AAFA Cup. Thus, the National Challenge Cup (don't worry!--the Open Cup is coming) was born.
For the next ten years, both the National Challenge Cup and the American Cup were both played. During this time, Bethlehem Steel exerted their power over the American game. The Pennsylvanian team sponsored by the local steel corporation managed to win 4 National Challenge Cups, 5 American Cups, and 5 league titles in the 1910's, including, from what I can tell, the first American treble, as Bethlehem Steel won the North American Foot Ball League and both cup competitions in the 1918/19 season.
This set-up began to crumble as the USFA exerted more and more influence over American soccer and the AFA continued to flounder. The final death-blow to the AFA and their American Cup was the creation of the USFA's National Amateur Cup that took more teams away from the AFA. The final competition was held in 1924 with--who else?--Bethlehem Steel winning the final 1-0 over the Fall River Marksmen in dominating fashion. The match report describes that "on the day's play the Steel Workers were far the better team, and the score hardly indicates the advantage maintained by the local clan throughout the affray." What more would you expect from the dynastic American team of that era?
During these early years of the National Challenge Cup, teams from the American Soccer League (ASL), located in the northeast, and the newer St. Louis Soccer League (STLSL) dominated the competition. Before too long, conflict developed between the dominant league, the ASL, and the national organization, the USFL. The stated issue was scheduling of the National Challenge Cup. The ASL was upset that the cup was scheduled during their off-season, making it very difficult for their teams, made up of mostly amateurs and semi-pros who held other jobs when not playing, to show up for these cup matches. The deeper issue, though, was control over American soccer. The ASL wanted to plant itself as the premier competition within the States and to crown their league's champions as champions of the whole US. Fuel was thrown on the fire when FIFA accused ASL clubs of signing European players who were already under contract to European clubs. Conflict over player contracts, control of American soccer, and ASL proposing their own sort of cup competition (which was similar to modern-day playoff set-ups) all exploded into what is referred to as the American Soccer Wars.
The biggest battle was fought between the ASL and its member clubs. The ASL's new tournament, which was really just a playoff after the regular season, would be stuck with a fixed number of teams since the ASL was under a closed league model, whereas the National Challenge Cup could continually expand to include any USFL affiliates. Three teams in ASL, Bethlehem Steel, the New York Giants SC and the Newark Skeeters, rejected the ASL's proposed tournament and joined the National Challenge Cup against their league's wishes. The ASL quickly suspended all three clubs and fined them $1000. Because of this the USFA suspended ASL teams from their competitions. The three rebel teams left to join a different league and the ASL realized that they could not win this war. Unfortunately for American soccer, the feud was ended just in time for the Great Depression to strike. The combination of the American Soccer Wars and the economic collapse strangled the growing popularity of the game and ended the first golden age of American soccer. The game thrived in a few urban areas, namely in New York and St. Louis, amongst certain ethnic groups, but outside of these small pockets the game died.
This collapse in the popularity of the game led to a collapse in the number of professional teams and leagues. This caused the National Challenge Cup to become dominated by amateur teams. This trend wasn't stopped until the creation of the MLS in 1996. Amateur teams were so dominant that the again-newly-named United States Soccer Football Association--we finally settled later on the United States Soccer Association (USSA), the name it holds currently--gave control of the tournament over to the organization that oversaw amateur soccer for a short time in the 1950's. The emergence of the North American Soccer League (NASL) that brought professional soccer back to the forefront of American sports didn't stop the run of amateur teams as NASL teams did not participate in the tournament.
In 1948, the National Challenge Cup was offically rebranded as the--wait for it--United States Open Cup. Until the creation of the MLS, amateur teams from a few local areas dominated the competition. New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and San Francisco produced every champion from 1958 to 1986 when Washington Club Espana from Washington DC defeated the Seattle Eagles 3-2 on penalty kicks. During that run, Maccabi Los Angeles, a club formed by Israeli expatriates in LA, tied Bethlehem Steel's record with 5 Open Cup championships.
The 1995 US Open Cup was the first to feature both professional and amateur teams in 45 years. The Richmond Kickers of 4th tier USISL Premier League won the cup by defeating fellow league participants, El Paso Patriots 4-2 on penalties after a 1-1 draw in full time. Since that tournament, only one non-MLS team has taken the cup. In 1999, the Rochester Raging Rhinos of the lower-league A-League defeated 4 MLS teams on their way to the cup title.
In 1998, the USSF rebranded the US Open Cup as the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. Lamar Hunt was a vital part of expanding the MLS and a huge contributor to American soccer at all levels. The honor was well-deserved.
The noughties have seen the Open Cup go through some interesting times. MLS clubs have overwhelmingly dominated the competition, but many seem to not take the competition seriously. Many teams put out full reserve squads and show no real intention of winning. This was most obvious during this year's quarterfinal round when the New York Red Bulls sent all reserves to Chicago. And it wasn't just the reserve players that were sent. Head coach, Hans Backe, and most of the senior coaching staff stayed in New York and the reserve coaches handled the game. The Chicago Fire, the most successful MLS team in the Open Cup, mainly because they are one of the few who have taken it seriously in past years, handed a 4-0 defeat to the Red Bulls.
Fortunately for the competition, the mindset of the Fire seems to be spreading and that of New York seems to be dying. Encouragingly, Red Bulls supporters staged a protest during their game against FC Dallas because of their club's lack of effort in the Open Cup. For the first half of the game, the supporters stayed completely silent in protest. Although Open Cup matches get less attention than league matches, attendances are increasing. With the addition of a bid to the CONCACAF Champions League tied to an Open Cup championship and the increasing prestige of the contiental competition, the US Open Cup is beginning to gain more traction amongst the American audience, but is still not where it should be. I wrote some thoughts on what should be done to increase the popularity of the competition that you can see here.
My biggest pet peeve is that only 8 teams from each tier of the American soccer pyramid enter the competition. That seems odd for a competition that claims to be an 'open' cup and is especially strange when you consider that it was just that free expansion of the competition that made the National Challenge Cup more appealing than the ASL's closed cup competition.
This year's competition has certainly been one for the history books. An exciting competition is bringing more attention to the games that desperately need more eyes focused their way. MLS qualification for the Open Cup proper pits teams who placed below 6th place (the top 6 automatically qualify) in last year's MLS table in a bracket to fight for the last two qualifying positions. Of the 8 qualifying matches, 4 went to extra time and 2 of those went to penalties. Ike Opara scored for the San Jose Earthquakes in the 120' minute to escape Portland's Jeld-Wen Field with a 1-0 victory. In the next round, they nearly eliminated perennial Open Cup contender, Chicago, after going into half up 2-0, but Chicago got 2 back and won 5-4 on penalties. And this was just qualifying!
The third round of the tournament proper saw MLS clubs enter the fray. A New York derby took place as the New York Red Bulls faced off against FC New York of the 3rd-tier USL-Pro league. A 65' winner from new draftee and brother of Wayne, John Rooney, put the Red Bulls through on a 2-1 scoreline. A derby of sorts was fought in the northwest between the Seattle Sounders and 4th-tier club, Kitsap Pumas from nearby Bremerton. The stronger team went through, but not without a fight from the lower-league rivals. Throughout the night, lower-league teams gave a fierce fight to MLS teams, but only one managed to advance to the next round, the Richmond Kickers. They conquered the Columbus Crew 2-1 after a dramatic winner in the 85' put them through.
The quarterfinal saw more excitement as Seattle managed to conquer their western Conference rival, the Los Angeles Galaxy to advance to their 3rd semi-final in 3 years. The Sounders have taken the last two Open Cups. The most shocking result of the night was Richmond's taming of another MLS team, my beloved Sporting Kansas City. It was a tough loss for me as a fan as I describe here, but it was exciting to see lower-league teams continue to fight against MLS competition.
The Lamar Hunt US Open Cup holds a tremondous amount of history and is a very entertaining competition. It's exciting to see the event grow as time goes on, but it's a shame that it is so scorned at present.
The semi-final matchups take place on August 30th. Open Cup extraordinaire, but MLS league flop, Chicago Fire face off against the spoiler of the competition, the Richmond Kickers. Meanwhile, two Western Conference powerhouses, Seattle and FC Dallas, will duke it out for a chance to go to the final.
So, sit down and tune in, it’s a little bit of American soccer history.
If you're interested in learning more about the history of American soccer, visit this website: http://homepages.sover.net/~spectrum/. It is an incredible treasure trove of information.