Since 1914, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup has annually presented potential Cinderella stories, David-and-Goliath matchups, and just about any underdog theme you can imagine. And now, 105 editions later, you can throw steadily growing crowds into that heady mix.
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Until recently, supporters have seldom embraced the tournament on a large scale. Cincinnatians have been getting into the Cup spirit, becoming the first to break the 30,000-attendance barrier for non-title match U.S. Open Cup games last year. FC Cincinnati, the city’s second-division United Soccer League (USL) pro team, attracted three 30,000-plus crowds – surpassed only by Seattle Sounders’ U.S. Open Cup record of 35,615 at CenturyLink Field for the 2011 Final.
(The crowds started big for Atlanta United - and they've stayed big)
Now, Atlanta United of Major League Soccer (MLS) looks likely to go one better. Well, a lot more than just one better. The Georgia-based club’s Round of 16 match against four-time Open Cup champs Chicago Fire at their Mercedes-Benz Stadium on June 20 is expected to break all previous Open Cup records. “It’s a fantastic competition, so different than American sports,” Atlanta United president Darren Eales told ussoccer.com. “Everyone has a chance to be a Cinderella story, even if they’re an amateur club. We’re pleased we’re a small part of building it.”
Big Crowds to the Cup
Atlanta United is taking Cup interest to a new level, and that’s without having yet experienced significant success in the competition. Last year, Atlanta United exited with a loss to second-tier pros Miami FC (then of NASL) in their second match of the competition. This time, Georgia’s MLS club opened with a 3-0 win over 2008 runners-up Charleston Battery (USL) before a capacity crowd at Fifth Third Bank Stadium in Kennesaw, Ga., on June 6. “We had [nearly] 10,000 at Kennesaw, a sellout,” Eales said. “It was jam-packed, great atmosphere, so we decided to take a chance on Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Hopefully, we’ll have a record attendance.”
Atlanta’s Cup interest follows the city having become enthralled with United’s MLS campaign. Unlike the regular season, though, the knockout nature of the Open Cup means there’s been no long-range planning in the run-up to the next game. “We’re in our second season, and it’s been unbelievable, the level of support,” added Eales. “We’re averaging 48,500 and we’re projected to average 53,000 this season, which would be 15th in the world. The level of support is incredible. Last year, we averaged 47,000 and some people said it was a flash in the pan, that attendance would drop this year. Instead, it’s been the reverse. People are bringing their friends, and they’re getting bitten by it and becoming season [ticket] holders.
“We were hopeful and optimistic it would be a success, but never to the level it has been. I was [hired] in November 2014 and we expected Mercedes-Benz to have 29,000 for soccer matches, which was the lower bowl,” admitted Eales about the relatively humble early expectations. “Now, we’ve capped it at 42,500 and we’ve opened the whole stadium five times this year. I’d be kidding you if I said we expected that.
(Atlanta United won their first 2018 Open Cup game on the road against Charleston Battery)
“But it’s not only the numbers, the atmosphere is incredible,” he added, citing wild scenes from the stands in Atlanta, in only the club’s second season. “I would hold it up to anywhere in Europe or South America for excitement and energy. That’s what has impressed me about the fans. With soccer fans, there is a big difference between them and other sports. With the chants and tifos, it’s different than other American sports, and that’s part of why it’s successful in Atlanta and in America. Fans can feel they’re a part of the [team].”
For most of the history of MLS, even the best-supported teams have often staged Open Cup matches at small stadia. But interest has grown as American soccer supporters seem to be catching on to the romance and magic of Cup play. Eales, 45, grew up with the FA Cup and clubs competing in promotion and relegation situations in England before going on to play at Brown University.
“In England, you’ve got [lower] division clubs with construction workers playing for them,” Eales said. “This gives a chance to tell stories like Christos’ [the Baltimore pub team who reached the Fourth Round of the Open Cup last year and lined up against D.C. United of MLS]. It’s a chance to compare teams. Everyone loves speculating, can a Cincinnati or Louisville compete against an MLS team?”
When the tournament was known as the National Challenge Cup, the greatest crowd had been 21,583 for the 1929 final, New York Hakoah taking a 2-0 win over St. Louis Madison Kennels at Dexter Park in Brooklyn. That attendance might have been higher, had the match been staged at its planned site, the Polo Grounds. Scheduling of the Final had been interrupted because of a dispute involving the American Soccer League and U.S. Soccer, according to the Boston Globe. Several ASL teams proposed either skipping participation in the Cup, or delaying the tournament until after the regular season had been completed, in defiance of U.S. Soccer.
Echoes of Open Cups Past
According to a story in the April 5, 1929 Boston Globe: “The National Cup Final would have been possible at the Polo Grounds had the present mess been cleaned up yesterday. Now it will be forced to a ground far out of the city and, therefore, not desirable for such an important game.”
The 1929 mark stood until the 2010 final, when the Seattle Sounders took a 2-1 victory over the Columbus Crew before a crowd of 31,311 at Qwest Field.
(With the roof open or closed, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium is something to behold)
Atlanta United, though, could be just getting warmed up. A win over Chicago Fire this week would mean another home game in the Quarterfinal (against USL sides Louisville City or Nashville SC). Cup fever would likely continue to spread. A key will be maintaining the standards set by Tata Martino, the former Barcelona and Argentina national team coach who guides Atlanta United.
“I agree, Tata has been a game-changer,” Eales said. “He’s enjoying it and loving life in America. No different than players, at some stage they may leave. That’s the nature of a global game. Look at Spain [Julen Lopetegui left the national team on the eve of the World Cup]. These things happen. We don’t believe a player is ever going to leave us, or coach. You have to have contingency plans in place. And the great thing about Atlanta leadership is [owner] Arthur Blank wants people to succeed, and because we’ve been successful, people want to take some of that magic dust and take it to their club.”
Results on the field and a party in the stands – seems like a recipe for success anywhere in the world. And Atlanta United is surely bringing that winning formula to MLS and the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.