The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup has a lot of moving parts and balls are always up in the air. This year, the 105th consecutive edition of the tournament, consists of eight Rounds (eleven for the Open Division amateurs who played out a grueling qualifying process). 94 teams from every tier of American Soccer will take part in #USOC2018, with combatants drawn from the dizzy heights of Major League Soccer (MLS) down to the grittier corners of the amateur scene.
Read on to learn about all the rocks and obstacles on the road to the 2018 Open Cup, America’s oldest soccer tournament crowning a national champion since 1914.
Open Division Amateur Qualifying
September 23-November 18 2017
108 Amateurs Start, 13 Survive
It was still 2017 when 2018 U.S. Open Cup qualifying began. A record-high 108 amateur clubs entered and were eventually, over the course of three single-elimination games, whittled down to a lean 14 to represent the United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA) side of the American amateur game. These teams fall outside of the national structure of the Premier Development League (PDL) and National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), who qualify to Open Cup’s First Round based on their league standings from the previous year.
(Christos FC - in yellow/green - beat USL's Richmond Kickers in #USOC2017 & lost to D.C. United of MLS)
The 14 Open Division Qualifiers:
Christos FC (Md.)
Kendall Wanderers (Mass.)
Lansdowne Bhoys FC (N.Y.)
Rochester River Dogz (N.Y.)
FC Kendall (Fla.)
NTX Rayados (Texas)
Red Force FC (Fla.
FC Denver (Colo.)
Azteca FC (Colo.)
Sporting AZ FC (Ariz.)
El Farolito (Calif.) – disqualified *
La Máquina FC (Calif.)
L.A. Wolves (Calif.)
Santa Ana Winds (Calif.)
*El Farolito of San Francisco were later disqualified for switching leagues while participating in Open Cup play. As a result, the team that won the Open Cup in 1993 under their then name C.D. Mexico, will take no further part in the Finals of #USOC2018.
An Extra Wrinkle
The Open Cup doesn’t always move in a straight line. The 2018 competition had a wrinkle at the front end that ended with Jacksonville Armada, New York Cosmos B and Miami FC 2 being invited by the U.S. Open Cup Committee to take part in the tournament after initially being excluded. The change in numbers from the original 94 to 97 requires a Play-In Round and a Play-in Draw to accommodate the invited teams into the final field. The Villages SC (PDL), Brooklyn Italians (NPSL) and Miami City FC (PDL) were forced to step back after having already qualified and will face the invited trio in single-elimination games on May 5-6.
Brooklyn Italians v. New York Cosmos B
Miami City FC v. Miami FC 2
Villages SC v. Jacksonville Armada
Finals Begin; Who’s in?
The First Round Draw of the 2018 edition of the U.S. Open Cup took place on Wednesday, April 4 with 52 teams from the Amateur ranks drawn in head-to-head competition. The winners of the 26 First Round games on May 9, contested by Open Division Amateurs (13), Premier Development League (PDL) sides (20) and National Premier Soccer League teams (19) move over in the bracket with a chance to play the first professional teams into the competition (United Soccer League – USL) in their next game.
The Open Division Local Qualifying teams (USASA) come from local leagues all over the country, and all of them have played three qualifying games so far. Among them are Christos FC, Cinderellas of the 2017 Open Cup who reached through to the Fourth Round and earned the right to play MLS’ D.C. United. Also involved from the Open Division are double National Cup holders Lansdowne Bhoys, based out of Yonkers and playing in NYC’s fabled Cosmopolitan League (once known as the German-American League). Kendall Wanderers, Massachusetts’s oldest amateur club, are in the Open Cup for the first time while Pacific powers LA Wolves, coached by Eric Wynalda last year, are back for a second straight.
(Michigan Bucks - In white - of the PDL have a history of 'Cupsets' & play their home games indoor)
The PDL is a league of 72 teams, sponsored by the USL, and comprised primarily of college players who want to keep playing at a high level in their off-seasons and eventually carve out a #PathToPro (the league’s unofficial hasthtag and slogan). Among some reliable Open Cup shockers from the PDL ranks are Michigan Bucks, who in 2000 became the first PDL team to beat an MLS side in Open Cup play. Ocean City Nor’easters and Reading United, who knocked out the New York Cosmos (then of the North American Soccer League – NASL) to reach last year’s Third Round, are also teams to watch out for.
The third faction of the First Round trio is the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), founded in 2003 and growing fast. Pulling in large and spirited crowds in many of its markets, the league operates regionally and boasts 98 member clubs and counting. Some of the NPSL teams to watch out for in 2018 Open Cup play are New Haven Express from Connecticut, who won the 2017 NPSL national title in their first year of existence. Brooklyn Italians, who won the Open Cup as a semi-pro club in in 1979 and 1991, and Detroit City are also on the hunt.
First Round Matchups:
AFC Ann Arbor (NPSL) vs. Ocean City Nor'easters (PDL)
Western Mass Pioneers (PDL) vs. Elm City Express (NPSL)
Long Island Rough Riders (PDL) vs. Kingston Stockade FC (NPSL)
FC Motown (NPSL) vs. New York Red Bulls U23 (PDL)
Reading United AC (PDL) vs. Christos FC (Md.)
Erie Commodores FC (NPSL) vs. Rochester River Dogz
Seacoast United Phantoms (PDL) vs. Kendall Wanderers (Mass.)
Detroit City FC (NPSL) vs. Michigan Bucks (PDL)
New York Cosmos B (NPSL) vs. Lansdowne Bhoys FC (N.Y.)
Brooklyn Italians (NPSL) vs. Lansdowne Bhoys FC (N.Y.)
SIMA Aguilas (PDL) vs. The Villages SC (PDL)/Jacksonville Armada (NPSL) winner
Charlotte Eagles (PDL) vs. Inter Nashville FC (NPSL)
Myrtle Beach Mutiny (PDL) vs. South Georgia Tormenta FC (PDL)
Miami United FC (NPSL) vs. FC Kendall (Fla.)
New Orleans Jesters (NPSL) vs. Mississippi Brilla FC (PDL)
Red Force FC (Fla.) vs. FC Miami City (PDL)/Miami FC 2 (NPSL)
FC Wichita (NPSL) vs. OKC Energy U23 (PDL)
Duluth FC (NPSL) vs. Dakota Fusion FC (NPSL)
Midland-Odessa Sockers FC (NPSL) vs. Lakeland Tropics (PDL)
NTX Rayados (Texas) vs. Fort Worth Vaqueros (NPSL)
FC Denver (Colo.) vs. Azteca FC (Colo.)
Portland Timbers U23 (PDL) vs. Kitsap Soccer Club (NPSL)
CD Aguiluchos USA (NPSL) vs. San Francisco City FC (PDL)
FC Golden State Force (PDL) vs. L.A. Wolves FC (Calif.)
Orange County FC (NPSL) vs. Santa Ana Winds FC (Calif.)
FC Arizona (NPSL) vs. Sporting AZ FC (Ariz.)
FC Tucson (PDL) vs. La Máquina FC (Calif.)
Enter USL pros
The 26 winners from the First Round move on to the Second Round, which will consist of 24 games. This is the point where United Soccer League (USL), officially recognized as American soccer’s second professional division comes on board. The Second Round is renowned for consistently producing so-called ‘Cupsets’ – like Christos’s slim win over 1995 champions Richmond Kickers last year. Most of the First Round winners will play against USL teams like FC Cincinnati, who were a hair away from reaching the Open Cup Final last year.
Some other USL teams to look out for this time around are Phoenix Rising, where Ivory Coast and Chelsea legend Didier Drogba is playing out his final season as a professional. Sacramento Republic and the ever-dangerous North Carolina FC will surely be up for the Cup. Tampa Bay Rowdies boast former England international Joe Cole in their squad and the Richmond Kickers are making the Open Cup a priority in 2018, according to coach Leigh Cowlishaw (who ran the wing when the Kickers won the Cup in 1995).
The 24 winners of the previous round’s games will clash at this point, with those winners from the previous round bracketed based on geography. With a date against a Major League Soccer side on the line in the next stage, the Third Round always smells of sweat, strain, and a palpable desire not to miss out on a chance at history.
Enter the Major Leaguers
This is the big one. The moment all Open Cup fans and lovers of underdogs dream about. 20 Major League Soccer (MLS) sides enter the fray, every team in the league save for Canada-based Toronto FC, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps. The last 17 Open Cups have been won by teams from this American first division, and the 2018 installment boasts 16 games in the Round with the 12 winners from the previous round all taking part. The last team from outside the top flight to win the Open Cup was Rochester Rhinos in 1999 who, unfortunately, will miss this year’s competition after halting operations for 2018. Defending champions Sporting Kansas City will be looking to take hold of their fifth crown this year, and the Fourth Round is where Peter Vermes’ and SKC’s hunt begins.
(Sporting Kansas City won a 4th Open Cup in 2017, surviving a tense shootout in the Semis against San Jose Earthquakes)
Last year, Christos FC – beloved underdogs from Baltimore – earned a Fourth Round clash with D.C. United after six wins (three Rounds in the finals and three more in qualifying). And in one of the enduring moments of #USOC2017, Mamadou Kansaye’s curling free-kick sparked off wild celebrations from the amateur side’s fans at the Maryland SoccerPlex. Christos’ 1-0 lead eventually turned into a 4-1 defeat, but it was a moment to savor and an example of the kind of magic only the Open Cup can conjure.
USL’s FC Cincinnati began their run for the ages in earnest at this stage last year, when they bested fellow Ohioans Columbus Crew of MLS with a goal from eventual (co) top-scorer Djiby Fall.
Round of 16
Back in the Hat
The Fourth Round winners will be divided geographically (regardless of league affiliation) into four groups at this stage. A random Draw will then determine the pairings within each group. And once those pairings are made, the bracket for the tournament is fixed all the way to the Final (via Quarterfinals and Semifinals).
One of the most memorable moments of last year’s Open Cup came in the Round of 16 when underdogs FC Cincinnati beat Chicago Fire in front of over 32,000 spectators in a nationally broadcast contest on ESPN. They would, in the end, fall to eventual Finalists New York Red Bulls in extra-time of the Semifinal at their Nippert Stadium, which will forever be marked in the legend and lore of the U.S. Open Cup. Worth noting, FC Cincinnati are back in the Open Cup again this year.
Last year’s Open Cup saw the last two remaining non-MLS teams cross swords in the Quarterfinal stage. FC Cincinnati eventually edged NASL’s Miami FC after a disruptive rain delay that forced the game to rescheduled. That 1-0 win was FC Cincy’s only victory on the road in their magical run.
Final in Sight
The Semifinal stage is always a bundle of nerves. Last year’s two games saw FC Cincinnati bounced by lethal Red Bull striker Bradley Wright-Phillip (#USOC2017 co-top-scorer), while Sporting Kansas City needed a penalty shootout and a heroic performance from goalkeeper Tim Melia to kill off a spirited Cup run by San Jose Earthquakes, who have never lifted American soccer’s oldest trophy.
Moment of Truth
You can forget your Cupsets and your moral victories, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final is about the two best teams. It certainly was last year when Sporting Kansas City picked up their fourth crown by barely edging New York Red Bulls, who have never in their history (as MetroStars or Red Bulls) won an Open Cup (or any Cup). The tension was huge and the celebrations of the field of SKC’s Children’s Mercy Park were as wild as you’d expect.
(End of the road - the 2017 Open Cup Final was played before a full house in Kansas City)
There have been some notable additions to the money rewards through the divisions ahead of the 2018 U.S. Open Cup that might just help to ratchet up the tension. This year’s winner will receive $300,000 (up from $250,000). The tournament runner-up will receive $100,000 (up from $60,000) and the team that advances the furthest from each lower division will earn $25,000 (up from $15,000).
ussoccer.com is the official website of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and will stream many games of the 2018 competition in addition to offering comprehensive video and written coverage of the tournament. You can follow the Open Cup on Twitter and Instagram @OpenCup and Facebook @OfficialOpenCup.