The Evolution of the U.S. Open Cup. An American Soccer Story

The Lamar Hunt U.S Open Cup is the oldest soccer tournament in the United States as well as one of the longest running tournaments in the world. However, when faced with inconvenient scheduling and limited exposure, many wonder, what is the point?

Tradition: Noun. The handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, customs, or information from generation to generation, especially by word of mouth or by practice. Traditions manifest themselves in many ways, and the story of the Lamar Hunt U.S Open Cup is the definition of tradition. It provides somewhat of a unity between all levels of North American soccer. Quite frankly, the Open Cup invites players of all levels to dream of winning it all.

Seattle Sounders celebrate their fourth US Open Cup (2014) after a 3-1 victory over the Philadelphia Union. Credit: Seattle Sounders FC 

In 2015, the U.S. Open Cup (USOC) entered its 102nd year of tournament play. Going back to 1914 (formerly known as the National Challenge Cup), the USOC is open to all associated ameatur and professional teams in the United States. While cup competitions are distinguished tournaments in leagues such as the Premier League, Serie A, and the Bundesliga, the idea of a cup competition is foreign to American sports. This tournament runs alongside the regular season and the winner not only takes home the prize money, but is placed into yet another tournament, against the cup winners of other bordering countries*.

*(the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League)

Industrial Advantage

In the opening years of the US Open Cup, teams that were bankrolled by urban centers had a strong presence in the tournament. Bethlehem Steel FC, a Pennsylvania club made up of steel workers from Bethlehem Steel, dominated the tournament. Winning four Open Cup trophies between 1915-1919, Bethlehem Steel FC etched their names into Open Cup history. Other urban industrial teams such as Massachusetts’ Fall River F.C and Maccabees S.C. of Los Angeles have also had successful runs, being the only three teams, along with Bethlehem Steel, to lift the title five times.

While Urban teams in the East saw great success in the early years of the cup, Californian teams have also been dominant in the competition, winning 10 titles since 1973. Some Midwestern sides have also lifted trophies throughout the years.

Bethlehem Steel FC, one of the US Open Cup’s most decorated champions. Credit: Philly Soccer Page

Major League Soccer Presence

With professional soccer clubs entering the US Open Cup scene, amateur clubs have had little success in the tournament. No amateur club has won or been to the Open Cup final since the arrival of Major League Soccer. Starting in 1995, MLS teams have also won the tournament every year since they began playing in it, save for 1999, when the Rochester Rhinos defeated the Colorado Rapids with a scoreline of 2-0. Currently, the Chicago Fire and Seattle Sounders are all-time MLS winners of the Open Cup with both teams accumulating four titles.

In spite of Major League Soccer’s dominance in the US Open Cup for the last 20 years, the tournament has not been of importance to many participating MLS clubs and consequently, their fans. Often placed on weekdays with inconvenient times and lack of advertising, Open Cup games typically record low attendance and general lack of interest. However this lack of enthusiasm and awareness has been evolving over recent years.

While previous years have forced MLS teams to play their Open Cup games at smaller stadiums to create a more intimate crowd due to lack of attendance, the Open Cup is gaining popularity around the league. Teams are beginning to start their best players for these games and the fans are starting to notice. Over 42,000 fans came out to take in Open Cup quarterfinal action this year over four games with the semifinal matches predicted to have big turnouts also. As soccer continues to grow in the country, respect and admiration for such a historical tournament like the US Open Cup will increase in popularity also.

Soccer culture, the American Way

Credit: Major League Soccer

The United States and Major League Soccer are continuing to make their case as one of the top nations and premier leagues for soccer in the world. Whether it’s tuning in to watch the World Cup or playing FIFA with friends, many Americans are beginning to appreciate and cherish the beautiful game in ways never imagined.

But what makes soccer in America unique is that it is developing in a way that is very different than the rest of the world. Unlike many soccer traditions that have been shared throughout countries in South America, Africa, and Europe, the U.S. is creating a soccer culture of their own. While the new age of American soccer fans may not be familiar with cup tournaments such as the FA Cup and Copa del Rey, they have a chance to share in the excitement that is the US Open Cup. Soon, the Open Cup will be considered just as prestigious as those to the US soccer fan. All we need is time.

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