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Can lower-tier teams still go far in US Open Cup?

May 7, 2013, 1:35 PM EDT

Charleston Battery v Chicago Fire - Carolina Challenge Cup Getty Images

It is the romance of cup competitions that sparks passion, dreams and drama into the lives of every soccer fan.

I’m no different. I love the knockout formats and with this year being the 100th US Open Cup, I’m expecting something special.

Today the Centennial edition of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup kicks off, with the play in rounds set for this evening.

Find out the draw for the early rounds here, and loads of really cool facts, figures and Open Cup snippets too.

But as I was sat back thinking about the Open Cup, a sad thought entered my mind. “What if second or third tier teams could no longer compete with MLS sides in the future?”

Many would argue that point arrived long ago and we are way past it. But we have to remember that in the early rounds of this competition, MLS sides often send out weakened teams filled with youngsters and reserve players. The level evens out and as we saw on multiple occasions last season, upsets occur.

In the 2012 competition, Carolina defeated LA Galaxy, Cal FC beat Portland, the Michigan Bucks defeated Chicago, Harrisburg beat New England, San Antonio beat Houston, Minnesota defeated RSL and the Charlotte Eagles beat FC Dallas…all in one round!

Last seasons US Open Cup filled me with hope that the burgeoning soccer pyramid in the US was growing stronger by the season and smaller clubs could have the chance of replicating the famous upsets we see in the FA Cup and other cup competitions in Europe, season after season.

(More: New stadiums now heavier in lower tiers, US soccer moving forward)

Lower league teams are getting closer to MLS in terms of infrastructure and the gap is definitely closing. Therefore, every season the US Open Cup acts as a litmus test for just how far the rest of the US soccer pyramid is growing. Last season proved smaller teams can now compete with MLS, and this season people will judge NASL and USL sides on how well they perform against teams from Major League Soccer.

However, with the USL Pro-MLS Reserve League deal, ultimately this US Open Cup will become a little more complex, with player shared from parent clubs etc. Add to that the fact that two MLS U-23 sides have qualified for this seasons competition and we may lose some of that regional, almost tribal, rivalry.

(More: US Open Cup field set, as Centennial tournament awaits)

When the Galaxy rolled into Cary, North Carolina last May, they were the reigning MLS Champs, everyone knew who they were. But the Railhawks battled hard, the fans created an intimidating atmosphere and Bruce Arena’s face was a deep shade of scarlet after his side were upset by the NASL outfit.

I am not saying those days are over, because last seasons Open Cup proved NASL and USL Pro teams are drawing closer to the level of MLS sides all the time. But I am hoping a lower-league team can make it to the finals, or even the semis. Is that too much to ask?

The Rochester Rhinos won the Open Cup in ’99 and the Charleston Battery lost to D.C. United in the 2008 final. But those are the only two non-MLS teams to make it all the way to the final since MLS arrived in 1996.

I can see Orlando City, Tampa Bay, Carolina and possibly Charleston going far in this seasons competition.

Wouldn’t it be great for US soccer if a lower-tier team steps up and takes the Centennial US Open Cup? It would provide hope for the future anyway, that this terrific cup competition won’t fall by the wayside into obscurity.

  1. charliej11 - May 7, 2013 at 2:34 PM

    There will be upsets, but no way a non-MLS team wins it.

    First of all it is the Sounder’s trophy and needs to come back.
    Second, of all, no, not happening, just not good enough for the later rounds, starting teams.

  2. Dan - May 7, 2013 at 3:23 PM

    I would say IF a non-MLS club wins it it will be Charleston. Depth and quality make them a very difficult side.

  3. teamperkins11 - May 7, 2013 at 3:43 PM

    I do not see many positives if a non-MLS side were to win. Sure it would make a great cinderella story, but aside from that it would create a plethora of image problems for US Soccer. It is not as though Major League Soccer is widely regarded as Major League. A win by a “minor league” team would further damage the image that MLS is trying to promote of becoming a top 10 league in the world. I know it makes for a great story when a championship or league 1 team makes a run at the FA cup, but no one doubts the credentials of the Premiership, which is a sharp contrast of the views of the American top tier. I don’t even know how great of a cinderella story it would be since the tournament receives very little fanfare beyond the hardcore American soccer fan. Furthermore, the defeat of the MLS teams could cause casual observers to conclude that MLS is weak and not worth their time.

  4. dfstell - May 7, 2013 at 4:41 PM

    I know we call them “lower level”, but NASL and USL-Pro and are really just separate leagues from MLS. There’s no soccer pyramid since they aren’t connected by promotion & relegation.

    I’d love to see the NASL and USL clubs do well. I’m not a huge fan of the single entity structure and the salary cap and would love to see uncapped leagues with normal ownership rules blow their doors off.

    • mvktr2 - May 8, 2013 at 8:43 AM

      That would be great if it happened, and truly would be the best thing for the sport.

      However, it just isn’t going to happen. Finally MLS clubs are taking academy development seriously and we’re seeing the tip of the iceberg in that regard. How’s academy development in USL/NASL? Exactly. Add in the TV money, even as meager at best as it is, and you have another big difference. After the 2014 season and world cup MLS TV revenue should take a fairly large step forward as 3 of 4 contracts are renegotiated. It is what it is.

      The one thing the single entity has done is simply preserve the league at a time when it would otherwise have folded. The league is in a good place compared to where it’s been, but not so much compared to where it needs to go to become a top 10 league. However finally MLS has a steady firm existing foundation to build upon. That’s a God-send for US Soccer.

      For all my hopes and aspirations which I may never see fulfilled in my lifetime (I’m 40) relative to MLS/US Soccer I can only be glad I have entertaining competitive soccer to watch. MLS has many teams that try to play the game the right way. Watching Columbus come around over the last half of last season and this season, RSL, LA Galaxy, & SKC, they’re all worth watching and produce a highly consumable product.

  5. heinsryan - May 23, 2013 at 9:18 AM

    I’m sorry Joe, what was it you were saying

  6. heinsryan - May 23, 2013 at 9:20 AM

    Joe what was it you were saying….oh yeah “But I am hoping a lower-league team can make it to the finals, or even the semis. Is that too much to ask?”

    Of course it’s not, go back and look at the history. You don’t need to go back that far to find a team that beat two MLS teams back to back on the road. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_Lamar_Hunt_U.S._Open_Cup

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