The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup has been around since 1914. And through those many years is woven the story, always changing and often bizarre, of soccer on American shores. Equal parts circus and showpiece, there’s a lot to love about this old tournament and its many distinct eras.
Here’s a rundown of 20 fun facts from the good old days when there were laces on the ball to today, the eve of the 108th Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup which kicks off in earnest on March 21.
Oldest in the Cupboard
The first Final was played in May of 1914. The venue: the now-defunct Coats Field in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Approximately 8000 people paid 25 cents each on that warm spring day to watch Brooklyn Field Club beat borough neighbors Brooklyn Celtic 2-1 and lift the Dewar Cup for the first time. The Open Cup is the oldest soccer competition in the United States. It’s also the country’s oldest annual tournament for team sports. Professional soccer came and went through the 20th century, but the Open Cup – known early on as the National Challenge Cup – crowned a champion for each of the last 106 years (save a two-year pause between 2020 and 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
Winners from 18 States
Clubs from 18 different States have hoisted the U.S. Open Cup through the years. New York has the most titles with 26, followed by California’s 15 and Pennsylvania’s 14. Teams from 14 other states (and the District of Columbia) have also put up the Cup, with Florida joining the party – via defending champions Orlando City SC – in 2019.
Two (Maybe Three) with Five
Bethlehem Steel and Maccabi Los Angeles share the bragging rights for most titles with five Open Cups each. There’s a debate to be had over whether the Fall River Marksmen also warrant inclusion in the Five-Time Club. They changed their name and home city to become the New Bedford Whalers in 1932 before winning that year’s title (which would be their fifth). This is sport, and the Open Cup after all, so feel free to debate.
A Day Better Not Remembered
Darren Sawatzky is head coach of 2023 hopefuls (and 1995 Open Cup champions) the Richmond Kickers. He was also on the wrong side the last time an MLS team lost in the Final. “I don’t remember a damn thing about it,” he told usopencup.com, after playing 90 minutes of his Colorado Rapids’ loss to the Rochester Rhinos in the 1999 Final. He suffered a concussion early in the game and remembers not one thing of the day. Having since seen the game on video, he was surprised by how well he played -- considering.
Maccabi’s Star (of Stage and Screen)
Maccabi LA are, without question or debate, the only champions to boast a fullback who’s starred on The Young and The Restless and once watched a Spanish Copa del Rey final from the VIP seats at the Estadio Bernabeu flanked Burt Reynolds, Jim Brown and Generalisimo Francisco Franco. Actor Eric Braeden was known by his birth name, Hans Gudegast, when he won the Open Cup in 1973 in a tight-fought win over Cleveland Inter. The Daytime Emmy winner, known best for his turn as Victor Newman on the long-running soap, scored a penalty on that day he calls “one of the great moments in my life.”
- READ MORE: Maccabi LA – Hollywood’s Five-Star Dynasty
Amateur Bhoys back with slingshots loaded
The underdog runs are a mainstay of any U.S. Open Cup. Lansdowne Yonkers FC (aka Lansdowne Bhoys) are back for their fourth Open Cup tilt after debuting in 2016 -- and beating the all-pro Pittsburgh Riverhounds en route to the Third Round. Coached by one-time Arsenal academy hopeful Sean Kelly, a construction worker by trade, the Bhoys – five-time winners of Metro New York’s historic Cosmopolitan League (formerly the German American Soccer League) are back with their crew of hugely talented part-timers and taking aim at the big boys.
“We’re all amateur. All the guys work, sometimes seven days a week,” said club president William McGrory. “They have to train on their own time and at our training too – it’s a big effort on their behalf.”
And the Bhoys aren’t alone – all 28 teams in the First Round hail from the amateur and semi-pro ranks.
- READ MORE: Wembley to Yonkers – Meet Shamir Mullings
PLACEKICKER FOR A YEARBig Ronnie Simmons, from Trinidad and Tobago, won the Open Cup in 1987 with Club España of Washington, D.C. He also played one season as place-kicker for the Howard University Bison football team in his collegiate days. “I had to learn on the job and the first time I kicked an American football, it went ten feet and I thought the other players were going to kill me,” joked the former Baltimore Blast defender, now a housing inspector for the City of Baltimore.
The USL Championship is the second tier of professional soccer in America, nestled just underneath the heft of Major League Soccer. And while it’s been 23 years since a team from below MLS’ all-conquering ranks has won the Open Cup, a few USL teams have given the big boys their scares. In 2008, the Charleston Battery – with a young Ozzie Alonso in the team – reached the Final (losing 2-1 to D.C. United). More recently, FC Cincinnati (before joining MLS) reached the Semifinal in 2017 while Louisville City (2018), New Mexico United and Saint Louis FC (2018) all reached the Last Eight.
And last year, in 2022, USL Championship Sacramento Republic followed the Battery’s lead by beating three MLS teams, including former champions LA Galaxy and Sporting Kansas City, to reach the Final – where they finished runners-up behind Orlando City.
It’s also worth noting that Union Omaha, from USL League One (the third division) beat two MLS teams in 2022 (Chicago Fire and Minnesota United) to reach the Quarter-final.
Rough Pitches of Old Gotham
1965 champions New York Ukrainians played on a pitch in Queens that was so beat-up, their star midfielder Walter Schmotolocha said it was “like running an obstacle course!” When they got to Chicago for the second leg of the ‘65 Final, it sure did make a difference. The New Yorkers won out 4-1. “We slaughtered them on that nice field, which was new and fresh with cut grass,” said Schmolotcha, now in his 80s and a proud granddad, from his home in the sleepy Hudson River Valley.
1923 and the Baseball Controversy
Only once in the long history of the U.S. Open Cup has a champion not been established on the pitch. That was in 1923, when FC Paterson became the first team from New Jersey to win the title. Scullin Steel of St. Louis were unable to field a side for a replay after the initial Final finished tangled at 2-2. In what might be the most American of soccer problems, Scullin claimed they couldn’t play again because many of the young men in their side were making preparations for the upcoming professional baseball season.
What’s in a Name?
The competition was known as the National Challenge Cup from 1914 to the early 1980s. In 1999 it was renamed and dedicated to MLS owner and American soccer pioneer Lamar Hunt. From then on it became the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. In 2016, FC Dallas, who are owned and operated by Hunt’s sons Clark and Dan, gave the trophy a homecoming of sorts when they defeated New England Revolution 4-2 in the tournament Final played at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. That same stadium is now home to the National Soccer Hall of Fame (opened in 2018) where the Dewar Cup lives in semi-retirement behind glass among the other artifacts and treasures of the American game.
Saint Louis Kutis = U.S. National Team
The city of Saint Louis (who make their Major League Soccer debut this year with St. Louis City SC) started making their mark on the Open Cup back in 1920. The Ben Millers – sponsored by a local hat company of the same name – picked up that year’s title. Since then, the Gateway City has produced seven winners including three-time toppers Stix Baer & Fuller and twice-champions Saint Louis Kutis, who were so good in their 1957 title run that then-US Soccer Federation decision-makers simply had them change their shirts and represent the USA in 1958 World Cup qualifying.
Richmond’s Kickers – The Last Great Amateurs
There was a ten-year gap between the collapse of the original North American Soccer League in the mid-80s and the start of Major League Soccer in 1996. Many see those years as dark days for soccer in America, but the Open Cup kicked on with the remaining semi-pro and amateur teams that played only for the love of the game. The Richmond Kickers, who are back for the 2023 tournament as part of USL’s League One, won the 1995 tournament with a college all-star team that included Rob Ukrop (chairman of the club to this day), three-time MLS champion Richie Williams, Jeff Causey – once an MLS topper with D.C. United – and Brian Kamler, who put in ten seasons in Major League Soccer. Cut this: after the league formed in 1996. Many others in the ’95 Kickers squad ended up in MLS, but they still speak with affection about that time, with bare pockets and big hearts, they caught what Ukrop calls “lightning in a bottle.”
- READ MORE: The ‘95 Richmond Kickers – Tell the Tale
American Soccer’s Babe Ruth
Few in Open Cup history have shone as bright as the mustachioed and lethally left-footed Billy Gonsalves, who won a record eight titles with four different teams. In 1931, Glasgow Celtic manager Willie Maley said, without hesitation: “This Gonsalves is the greatest player I’ve ever seen.” Sometimes called the Babe Ruth of American Soccer, this son of Portuguese immigrants and the seventh of nine children, Gonsalves lined up for the U.S. Men’s National Team in both the 1930 and 1934 FIFA World Cups.
Home and Away: The Ethnic Leagues
Ethnic teams have played a huge role in the romance of the Open Cup. Among the list of Open Cup winners are: Brooklyn St. Mary’s Celtic, Brooklyn Hispano, New York German-Hungarians, SC Eintracht, Philadelphia Ukrainian Nationals, New York Hungaria, New York Ukrainians, New York Greek-American, New York Hota, Los Angeles Maccabee, New York Pancyprian-Freedoms, The Brooklyn Italians, DC’s Club España and San Francisco Greek-American.
- READ MORE (+Video): Brooklyn Italians – More Than a Club
Old NASL Avoid Open Cup Stumbles
The glitz-and-glamor sides of the old NASL of the 1970s and 80s refused to play in the Open Cup. Most assumed the global stars of the New York Cosmos and LA Aztecs – the likes of Pele, George Best, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Neeskins – considered the rough-and-tumble of the Cup beneath them. But Dr. Joe Machnik – a pioneer of the American game and an Open Cup champion in his own right – has other ideas. “They were afraid of losing,” he said. “And they didn’t want to play on or bad fields! I’m sure of it.”
Rhino's Charge in MLS Era
Since the inception of Major League Soccer in 1996, teams from the country’s top flight have dominated the Open Cup. Only once since has a team from below the summit of the U.S. soccer pyramid won the competition, when the Rochester Rhinos beat four MLS teams to claim the crown in 1999. The Charleston Battery also reached the final in 2008, but fell 2-1 to D.C. United. With four titles each, Chicago Fire, Seattle Sounders FC and Sporting Kansas City lead the pack of MLS clubs, followed by D.C. United with three, FC Dallas and LA Galaxy (two each) and Columbus Crew SC, Houston Dynamo, New England Revolution and Atlanta United (one each).
One of the Best Never to Win
Willie Roy is a legend of American Soccer. Born in Germany, he lined up for the U.S. National Team for nearly a decade straddling the 1960s and 70s. He is a member of the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame and coached the Chicago Sting to great effect in the old NASL. But even with a list of credentials as long as your arm, he failed to win an Open Cup during his time with Hansa, Chicago-based giants of the post-War years. He did manage to reach a Final, however, scoring in both legs in a losing effort in 1965.
- READ MORE: REWIND – Chicago & Saint Louis Legacies
The Hard Life of a Trophy
The 63 winners of the U.S. Open Cup all have their names etched on the base of the Sir Thomas Dewar Cup. The trophy was donated by whiskey magnate and soccer promoter Sir Thomas Dewar in 1912. The original trophy was retired in 1979 due to the damage sustained over a long life of being grasped by grateful hands. But the Dewar Cup came back out of retirement for a brief revival in 1997 and was last awarded to the Chicago Fire when they won the 2006 tournament. A new trophy – the one still used today – first appeared on the scene in 2007.
MLSers on the Brink of History
Chicago Fire, Seattle Sounders and Sporting Kansas City are all on the cusp of equaling the record of most wins in Open Cup history (five). Another title for any one of these four-time champs would bring them level with Bethlehem Steel (possibly Fall River Marksmen) and Maccabee Los Angeles, a club formed by Israeli ex-pats, Holocaust survivors among them, who dominated the 1970s and early 80s with their five championship runs. Philadelphia Ukrainians and New York Greek Americans both have four titles to their names but are not among the 100 participating teams in 2020.