Seeing the U.S. Open Cup as half-full

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

FRISCO, Texas – It began as an offshoot of the most storied knockout competition in world sports and boasts 93 years of history. So how is it possible that the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup registers little more than a blip on the North American soccer calendar?

Even since 1914, when British whiskey tycoon Sir Thomas Dewar decided to promote U.S. soccer by donating a trophy for a tournament to be run along the lines of the famed FA Cups held in England and Scotland, clubs from across America have conducted a yearly battle for U.S. Open Cup silverware.

Yet while the English FA Cup is watched by an international television audience of half a billion people in more than 200 countries, its American cousin struggles to get even hardcore soccer fans to raise an eyebrow.

The latest Cup final took place at FC Dallas' Pizza Hut Park on Wednesday night in front of a crowd of 10,418, less than the Texas club averages for a normal Major League Soccer game.

Don't feel bad if you missed it. Media indifference made information on the championship game about as hard to find this week as a smile on a New York Mets fan.

The game itself was actually a pleasure to watch. The fiercely fought contest ended in a 3-2 victory for the visiting New England Revolution, whose cork-popping celebrations in the locker room afterward were genuine and justified. Yet it is a little sad that the fine efforts of coach Steve Nicol and his players will go largely unnoticed, except by the small posse of loyal supporters who made the trip from the East Coast.

On the face of it, the competition – named after late pioneering soccer promoter (and Kansas City Chiefs owner) Lamar Hunt in 1999 – has many components working in its favor.

Sports fans in this country love tradition, longevity and continuity, and the Open Cup has all three. It even has a bracket, albeit not one that is photocopied and stuck on the wall of offices for gambling purposes.

But what the U.S. Open Cup does have are heart-warming David vs. Goliath stories when semi-pro and amateur teams from the minor leagues tackle the best MLS has to offer.

This year, the Harrisburg City Islanders and Richmond Kickers from the third-tier United Soccer Leagues (USL)-2 knocked off D.C. United and the Los Angeles Galaxy, respectively, on their way to the quarterfinals. USL-1's Carolina Railhawks and Seattle Sounders both went down only after extra time in the semis.

Perhaps the Open Cup's history is also part of its problem. Whereas MLS is a relatively young product that is confident in its future prospects, the Cup dates back to an era where there was little interest in the game.

Even though that ambivalence is gradually eroding, a widespread feeling seems to be that the Open Cup is redundant. To be brutally honest, those naysayers just don't "get it."

In Europe and many other soccer-obsessed nations around the globe, the magic of a Cup competition is ingrained into the sporting psyche, the national culture and the calendar. In France seven years ago, fourth-division Calais' collection of painters, shop assistants and school teachers made it all the way to the final and only lost to Nantes thanks to a penalty kick in the final minute. Calais' extraordinary efforts in defying the odds gripped the nation and were further romanticized by politicians who had found their perfect poster boys for underdog spirit.

However, most of those countries where the Cup is a big deal use a system where the overall title is won by the team who finishes first in the standings instead of a playoff champion. MLS already has its showpiece event – the MLS Cup final – and there is only so much room at the top table.

"It is still hard to get the fans to understand what this is all about," said U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati. "It is easy to convince someone why it is interesting that amateur players are competing with MLS teams in the earlier rounds. Trying to explain why New England and Dallas are playing each other again during the regular season is a little trickier.

"We want to get behind it. It is a bigger event than 12 years ago when there were no MLS teams in it – in the old days the NASL clubs never played – but there are challenges."

Suggested ideas aimed at increasing the Open Cup's popularity have included playing the latter rounds at the end of the MLS season. However, by then, many USL clubs would be nearly two months into their offseason and some players would already be involved in indoor soccer.

The tournament is not profitable for U.S. Soccer due to a lack of commercial sponsorship, and the desire of the sport's hierarchy to increase its profile is somewhat less than overwhelming. So it looks as if the Cup will simply plod along under its own steam. It will continue to be quickly forgotten by those who lose in the early stages, and it'll grow in importance for those who progress through the rounds.

But if it can survive two World Wars and decades of soccer apathy, the U.S. Open Cup can survive being ignored by even soccer's loyal followers.

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