When I talk to my friends who know little about soccer and don't understand how a knockout competition like the FA Cup or Copa del Rey can happen at the same as the league season, I say it's like playing in the NCAA Basketball Tournament while playing a concurrent NBA season at the same time. But in fact, I should be saying it's like how American teams play in the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup at the same time as competing in MLS, NASL, or USL action. American soccer fans tend to forget that we have our own FA Cup. In fact, our version is more than 100 years old. And it's time that we give it what it deserves; proper recognition.
The US Open Cup was first contested in 1914 as the National Challenge Cup, back when our national soccer governing body was called the United States Football Association. They issued a nationwide challenge cup, therefore the United States Football Association National Challenge Cup, which was smartly shortened to the National Challenge Cup.
There was no nationwide league for all of the professional or semi-professional clubs that had popped up all over the country. Instead, they were divided into several regional leagues, each claiming that theirs' was the top flight of association football in America. So to truly decide who the best team in the land was, the United States Football Association proclaimed there would be a challenge cup. Any professional team would be eligible to compete, and here would be a real way to set the record straight as to the national champion.
Readers who know about the history behind domestic cups will know that this is precisely the reason why most domestic cups came into being. Regional Leagues would spring up, each declaring themselves the country's top flight, so a challenge cup would be staged. In fact, the proper name of the FA Cup is the Football Association Challenge Cup.
The 1914 cup final was contested between the Brooklyn Field Club and Brooklyn Celtic. The Field Club won 2-1 on a late goal before an enormous crowd, and it was the start of a tradition that would go on for a long time.
Even as the popularity of association football waxed and waned in America, the Open Cup continued. It tended to draw players from the regional leagues around St. Louis and in the Northeast, traditional hotbeds of American soccer. This plucky little tournament, one of the oldest in the world, is never given its due. As the popularity of both MLS and the United States Men’s National Team have skyrocketed, the popularity of the Open Cup has not. And that is because they have been relegated to weeknights.
Open Cup ties are never played on weekends, they are always on either a Tuesday or Wednesday night and one could be forgiven for not even knowing that they're happening at all. There is no national contract to broadcast the matches; no the way to get them is through the tournament's website: thecup.us
Now is the time for this tournament, older than the Super Bowl, almost as old as the World Series, to be given its due. If there is one thing that March Madness has shown us, it is that Americans love a knockout tournament stocked with underdogs. There are few better than upsets than you will see in the US Open Cup. This year we've seen upsets like the Rochester Rhinos beating holders D.C. United, the New York Cosmos annihilating the New York Red Bulls, and the Carolina RailHawks beating the LA Galaxy.
It's time for this tournament to step into the spotlight and this writer has a plan to do it. The MLS teams don't come into the tournament until the fourth round, so it could stay the same through the first three rounds: weeknight games so it won't interfere with the schedules of the leagues. Then, set aside four weekends of the year with no domestic league play.
The fourth round, fifth round and the quarterfinals should be scheduled on weekends where they're the only action and stick them on TV. ESPN and Fox just worked out a nice deal to air MLS rights, why not let them co-air US Open Cup games? Once you get to the semi-final stage, one on a Saturday, the other on a Sunday but let league play commence.
Finally, pick a Sunday near the close of the MLS season and let it be Cup Final day. Play it up as the big event it was always meant to be, give it the air time it deserves and the dignity of being the only game of the day across all the professional leagues.
This tournament is a part of US Soccer history, and it's time for us to treat it as such.