If you are a fan of a Major League Soccer or USL Championship team in the United States, then chances are you are seeing a game on your favorite team's schedule that is outside of regular league play. The games are a separate tournament called the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. The tournament, which was renamed in honor of Hunt in 1999, has happened every year since 1914. This 105 year history makes it the oldest ongoing national soccer tournament in the U.S. USL Championship teams enter the tournament in the 2nd round, and those games are happening this week.
If you listen to our show, or read our articles on a regular basis, then you are already familiar with the English FA Cup. The easiest way to explain that U.S. Open Cup, is that it is essentially the U.S. version of that tournament. Since 1996, the competition has been dominated by MLS teams, including last year, which was won by Houston Dynamo. The last team from outside the MLS to win was the the Rochester Raging Rhinos in 1999, a team that still exists, but isn't even currently playing games. The last non-MLS team to make it to the final game was current USL Championship side, Charleston Battery, who along with the USL League One, Richmond Kickers, are the longest continuously operating teams in the U.S. Both squads have been in operation since 1993 (3 years before the MLS kicked off).
More About U.S. Open Cup Competition
If you are a fan of American Football, then chances are, you are already familiar with the name Lamar Hunt. Not only was he the owner and founder of the Kansas City Chiefs, but he is even the guy who coined the term Superbowl. Later in his life, he would be one of the driving forces behind the founding of the MLS. At the time of his death in 2006, he not only owned the Kansas City Wizards (commonly referred to as Sporting KC), but also FC Dallas and Columbus Crew SC. In 1999, the Open cup tournament was renamed in his honor by the soccer federation.
While there is money at stake in the tournament, perhaps the biggest prize that a team gets for winning the U.S. Open Cup is a spot in the following year's CONCACAF Champions League. The winner of the Cup gets a $300,o00 cash prize, while the runner up gets $100,000. A nice payday for sure, but not a tremendous amount of money for an MLS team. The more important cash prizes in this tournament is for the lower level teams, as the furthest advancing team from each league receives a $25,000 cash prize. This money can mean the difference between keeping the lights on for another year, or not for these often amateur level teams.
Who Plays In The U.S. Open Cup
The 2019 U.S. Open Cup competition will feature a record 52 professional teams. This includes all 21 U.S. based MLS teams, 25 USL Championship teams, and 6 from USL League One (the third tier of U.S. soccer). One note should be made that USL Championship teams that are owned by an MLS team are ineligible for the competition. This means you want be seeing teams like Portland Timbers 2, or Tacoma Defiance in the competition. Additionally, teams from other leagues around the country, such as the National Premier Soccer League and Unites States Adult Soccer Association, among others compete in qualifying rounds before the tournament proper begins.
The first round proper consists of the qualifying winners, in a round that also includes the USL League One teams. As mentioned above, USL Championship teams enter the tournament in the second round proper, with games in this round already underway. These second round match-ups are regionally based for ease of travel in these early round. For example, Phoenix Rising FC will be squaring off against their neighboring rivals, New Mexico United, Wednesday, 15 May 2019. The MLS teams do not enter the tournament until the fourth round of play, which happens on Wednesday, 12 June 2019. There are 32 teams in the fourth round, and from there the field pairs down to 16, then to 8, then 4, and finally the last 2 teams standing will meet for the title on either 4 or 5 August 2019.
What To Expect And Who Is Favored
It's safe to say that an MLS side will win this tournament, but picking which one could be a little bit more tricky. For instance, last year's winner Houston, was a team that finished 9th in the Western Conference. In fact they finished the 2018 MLS season, six games below .500, and missed out on the playoffs by 11 points. In other words, they would have hardly been considered favorites coming into it. Considering the low payout for this tournament, it is not unusual for teams that are focusing on the MLS season to rest their top players in these games. Furthermore, as with any single elimination knock-out tournament, any team can get on a hot run, or get unexpectedly upset on a given day. This year's tournament will be easier than ever to watch, as games will be broadcast on ESPN Plus, and that will continue until at least 2022.
In spite of its long history, this has not been a well followed event. Even in the U.S., only the most devoted soccer fans generally find an interest in the U.S. Open Cup. However, with the increased level of play in both the MLS, and USL in recent seasons, look for this tournament to grow in prominence not only domestically, but also in terms of the world soccer calendar. Furthermore, the addition of the CONCAF Champions League qualification in 2017 gives MLS teams motivation to play their best line-ups. Over the years, several teams have found success in this tournament. Seattle Sounders FC have won it 4 times, including 3-in-a-row from 2009-2011. DC United was the first MLS team to win in 1996, and they have won it a total of 3 times, as has Kansas City. This year I am going to say that the U.S. Open Cup will go back to the Nation's Capital for a third time. My prediction is that Wayne Rooney will add a U.S. Open Cup title to his extensive resume, and DC United will win their 4th.