Thursday, August 17, 2006

What to do about the US Open Cup?

As next week we enter the Quarter Finals of the US Open Cup (USOC), it is worthwhile to discuss how the tournament and championship can be improved or if it should be done away with.

The USOC is a really funny thing here in America. It is the official championship of the USSF, yet it really means nothing, other than the title. What I mean is, in other countries, the club that wins the national Cup, The FA Cup, German Cup, things like that, they are also rewarded with entry into a larger knock out tournament, in UEFA's case, the UEFA Cup. The USOC winner just gets the trophy. I am not saying that this is that bad a thing, but I feel that if the tournament and the Cup itself would become more important if USSF would allocate a tournament berth or something for its winner.

CONCACAF Champions Cup Berth
As of right now the USSF has ties to the CONCACAF Champions Cup tournament. The CONCACAF Champions Cup has two USSF slots, both designated for MLS clubs, the MLS Cup winner and now the Supporters Shield winner (club with the best regular season record). It used to be the two MLS Cup finalists. I believe that the USSF should allocate the second slot to the CONCACAF Champions Cup to the USOC Champion. With there being only one larger tournament to provide entry slots, this sort of limits the options of the USSF to award the USOC Champion.

If the USSF were to allocate the USOC Champion the second slot in the CONCACAF Champions Cup tournament, I think that it might provide a boost to how MLS clubs and fans approach the tournament. It would mean that if a club's season is going down the tubes, yet they are still alive in the USOC, as MLS clubs never have to worry about relegation, they can rest their main players during MLS matches, giving new players some looks, and have them ready for the USOC.

A better way of providing a better motivation for the USOC is to tie it in with the rumored CONCACAF Champions League. Assuming that the CONCACAF Champions League is an expanded version of the CONCACAF Champions Cup, then we should assume that MLS/USSF will get more than the 2 berths it currently has. If CONCACAF grants MLS/USSF 3 berths, then the current formula of having the MLS Cup Champion, the Supporters Shield Champion and add the USOC Champion as the third participant. MLS/USSF can always sub in other teams based on previous qualifications, so if the USOC Champion gets to the MLS Cup final, then the other finalist will get the MLS Cup berth.

Proper scheduling and promotion
Looking at the USOC from a club supporter’s standpoint, one way that the USSF could raise the profile of the tournament is to get the matches scheduled in advance. If you check Manchester United’s website, you can download their entire season schedule. That schedule has all of their EPL dates, along with every UEFA Champions League match date listed, as well as Carling Cup Match Days as well as the FA Cup match days, starting with the round that they will be entering the tournament. Manchester United doesn’t know who it will play in the 4th round of the FA Cup, but it knows that it will be entering the tournament on Saturday, January 27th. They also do not know how far into the tournament they will be advancing, but they have every round from the 4th round to the final match scheduled ahead of time, to ensure for no scheduling problems. This also allows for the Supporters groups to plan out the entire season.

USSF and MLS could sit down at the beginning of the season, along with the USL and PDL and everyone else who takes part in the tournament and schedule everything in advance. MLS clubs should put these events on their season schedule, at the beginning of the season. Doing this allows the club’s supporters groups the ability to plan for the USOC matches and for the club to start promoting their matches ahead of time. DC United announced their match with the Columbus Crew less than 3 weeks out of hosting the match. Unless one of the participants in Real Madrid, having less than a month to promote a non-season match is not that easy.

A different part of the scheduling that would help the promotion of the USOC is to have the matches played on the weekends rather than Tuesday and Wednesday nights. If they are played on the weekends, the attendance would be better, as the clubs could market the matches more towards the season ticket holders and to casual fans. Week night matches run the risk of eliminating the fans that work weekday evenings and those who live too far away to make it to the stadium by the 7:30pm kick-off after work. Working this out with MLS will become a lot easier as more MLS clubs move into their own stadiums. Until all MSL clubs are in their own stadiums, scheduling issues will continue to be a major concern.

Global Positioning
The USOC should remain in use for two reasons: history and practice.

The History aspect is that this is the oldest running soccer tournament in the United States and tossing that history out the door is something that should not be done lightly. As we can take from other countries that have Federation wide knockout tournaments, clubs that might be floundering in their league season can focus on the Cup tournament as a method salvaging their season. As most US soccer leagues do not have a relegation system in place, this is the only other way to offer a chance for a goal at the end of a clubs season. If the Columbus Crew is 30 points out of first in the East and have no hope of making the playoffs, yet they are still alive in the USOC, it still gives the players and the organization a light at the end of the season. They will no longer be retooling for next season, much like many other teams in American sports leagues do.

The Practice aspect is that if we are to align ourselves with the practices of the other soccer playing countries in the world, then we need to have a national champion, much like in Spain, Germany, England and Scotland. Having a national knockout tournament provides for competition across all levels of the sport, which as in the case of Dallas Roma FC this season, is a good thing.

The Final
The final match of the FA Cup, England’s equivalent to the USOC is held every year at the same venue. Historically it is held at Wembly Stadium in London, as Wembly is the official home of the FA. When Wembly was torn down to make way for the money-pit that is now the New Wembly Stadium, the FA moved the FA Cup final, as well as the Carling Cup Final to Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales. As this is a cup final, the neutral ground for the event makes the playing field, “level.”

The USSF should do something along the same lines as what the FA does. Have the USOC final be held in a neutral location, hold it on a weekend, and have it in a location that will make it user friendly for the two clubs and their supporters. Having it in non-MLS cities would also generate a certain amount of buzz for Pro Soccer in the US. Las Vegas comes to mind, as they have a stadium in Sam Boyd Stadium that holds 40,000 (which is comparable to MLS sizes) and airfare and hotel rates make the trip very easy for having supporters fly in for the event. Orlando could make a good location as well, considering that they have the Citrus Bowl. Granted that the Citrus Bowl has a slightly larger capacity at 65,000 seats, it is still in a neutral location and Orlando has low airfares and plenty of hotel space for this event.

Having the event on a weekend, one that can become a target destination for supporters groups would definitely increase the interest and profile of the USOC. Making a weekend out of going to Las Vegas or Orlando gives the fans a Championship final as well as plenty of other things to do before and after they attend the match. It would be a win/win situation for USSF/MLS/and the host city.


Blogger The Manly Ferry said...

Good post on a nettlesome topic. You've given this more thought and, as such, came up with a better solution. Absent an expanded CONCACAF Champions Cup, your idea of letting the Open Cup winner qualify for the current tournament seems smart.

As for me, I think the tournament could improve if MLS took the simple step of reducing the number of teams in the playoffs. This would create just a little more desperation for teams to find anything to point to as success for a season. If fewer teams made the playoffs, I think they'd be more likely to try to make serious runs at the Open Cup.

Even if they did that, though, they'd still be smart to take up your suggestion to coordinate and announce the schedule well in advance.

12:10 PM  

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