The 2012 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup begins May 15, and with the 99th edition comes a multitude of changes. For lower-division teams, the most significant is the random selection process for determining home teams from the first round through the quarterfinals.
In previous years, all teams pursued this opportunity through a bidding process.
“In the last three to five years, MLS teams have actively been bidding on games,” said Andrew Bell, president of the USL PRO’s Charleston Battery. “Usually we were successful drawing to host games, but there had been a power shift with MLS teams. Looking from the outside, they’re taking the Open Cup a bit more seriously, at which point I think it became increasingly difficult to get a game against an MLS team.”
Now with a random selection process in place, the likelihood of a Division III team such as the USL PRO’s Richmond Kickers to host an MLS team should improve significantly.
“The opportunity for lower-division teams to host a game is a crucial component, especially from a brand exposure standpoint,” Kickers head coach Leigh Cowlishaw said. “We’ve had some successes on the road, but in the past we’ve also hosted the likes of D.C. United with [former D.C. forward] Freddy Adu and the LA Galaxy with Landon Donovan. Those memorable games leave a lasting impression not only for the players and coaches, but the fan base.”
From a business standpoint, lower-division teams benefit immensely when they host teams within MLS.
“It can be very significant,” Bell said. “You’re talking about a game against a team from the top league in the middle of your season. So now you have an opportunity to market it. A lot depends on the team you’re playing. We’ve had some good battles with the Houston Dynamo, and we’ve had some memorable games against D.C. United to where we’ve built a semi-rivalry with that club. It’s good for the fans, and it’s good exposure for the club.”
Another big change for the 2012 U.S. Open Cup includes the full participation of 64 professional clubs within MLS (Division I), the North American Soccer League (Division II) and USL PRO (Division III). At the start of the modern era (1995), with no Division I professional league in place within the U.S., there were only 11 teams out of a possible 59 within the Division II and III U.S.-based field that took part in the 82nd edition of the U.S. Open Cup.
The U.S. Open Cup competition clearly has made significant strides over the past 17 years.
“Certainly it lends itself to being a more meaningful and credible competition moving forward,” Cowlishaw said of the full professional participation. “To have all professional teams take part, including all of the MLS teams, that’s important. You’ll have a true champion.”
Another beneficial change is the schedule, which includes first- through fourth-round play taking place on back-to-back weeks from May 15 through June 5.
“It keeps the tournament condensed and focused on the event, and that’s good from the spectator’s standpoint of who we play next and not waiting a month for the next game,” Cowlishaw said.
The lure of the U.S. Open Cup for lower-division teams continues to focus on the underdog story lines that shape up through the course of play. The Battery and Kickers have taken that spotlight on several occasions over the years.
The Battery is the last non-MLS franchise to advance to the finals, reaching the title game in 2008 against D.C. United. Richmond won the 1995 U.S. Open Cup, and Cowlishaw’s Kickers had a memorable run to advance to last year’s semifinals.
“We’ve always regarded the Open Cup as a national championship,” Bell said. “It’s the Federation’s national championship, so we’ve put forth our best effort. We take it seriously.”
“We’ve always tried to utilize the strengths of our squad and tried to win several tournaments during the year,” Cowlishaw said. “We always want to go as far as possible, to knock out an MLS team every year. The Open Cup is a meaningful event, and you can’t get a more exciting tournament.”