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Josh Hakala proposes an image most American sports fans could conceive seeing only in movies.
“Imagine a tournament,” he said, “where the New York Yankees are forced to play a minor league baseball team in a game that really matters — and they lose.”
That, for him, is the appeal of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, a tournament that not only brings together American soccer amateurs and pros but has done so in various guises for a century. Hakala is so intrigued by the relatively little-known tournament that he founded the TheCup.us, a website dedicated to news and the history of the competition.
Tuesday night’s final of this year’s cup, between the MLS teams Real Salt Lake and D.C. United, is the climax to the 100th edition of a tournament whose continued existence is a triumph in itself, given the waxing and waning of U.S. soccer’s fortunes.
Soccer in America, let alone the Open Cup, was a fragile proposition for much of the last century. Despite the chaos, infighting and logistical challenges that have at various times threatened to overwhelm the sport as it has struggled to establish itself in a huge country, the Open Cup has persisted to become the third-oldest continually run challenge competition in world soccer.
In doing so, it has offered a kind of relief portrait of the sport’s progress — and often the lack of it — in America. The cup has survived the rise and fall of the factory teams of the 1920s and 1930s and the dominance and fragmenting of postwar organized immigrant teams, and in recent decades it has weathered the indifference of the briefly dominant North American Soccer League teams like the Pele-fueled New York Cosmos and even the dark age that followed that league’s collapse, before the resurgence of the U.S. national team and the advent of Major League Soccer.
Despite what has at times seemed ceaseless tinkering with the format, the competition has settled on a round-by-round single-game bracketed tournament that starts with amateur teams, then adds higher-level sides in later rounds.
In the closed-league system of U.S. soccer, in which teams don’t move in and out of the top-level league — as they do in the English Premier League, for example — the tournament represents the only version of at least temporary upward mobility available to the vast majority of players in the country, hence Hakala’s Yankees analogy. Should an amateur team somehow make it to the third round of the Open Cup, its members may get to play what for them constitutes a final: a game against an MLS team.
“For these lower-league players, this could be their championship game — the game of their life,” veteran New York soccer writer Michael Lewis said, “to show that they can play at this level at least for one day.”
Lewis noted, though, that the upsets are fewer these days. The last non-MLS side to win the cup was the Rochester Rhinos in 1999, and the likelihood that a non-MLS side will repeat the Rhinos’ feat of beating three MLS teams en route to the final, where they bested a fourth MLS team for the title, is just not likely at this stage of the senior league’s development.
“We went on a run that started with two home games,” said then-Rhinos coach Pat Ercoli, who now serves as the team's president. “Matter of fact, one of the coaches in this year's final, Jason Kreis, was part of the Dallas team we beat in one of those games, and he said something to the effect of ‘Wait till they get on a big pitch,’ doubting us. Well, we got on a big pitch and won the whole thing. It put our community on the map ... Could it happen now? It would be difficult. There are many more MLS teams, and more talent gets directed toward them — but it’s not impossible.”
The Richmond Kickers did beat three MLS sides in the 2011 tournament, but that was good enough to see them only to the semifinals of the tournament.
“Our target each year is to get at least one MLS team at home in front of our fans,” says Kickers coach Leigh Cowlishaw. This year they took the eventual finalists, D.C. United, to penalties in front of those fans before bowing out.
Nonetheless, upsets still happen. Last year the MLS’s Portland Timbers were stunned by losing at home to Cal FC — a team formed expressly for the purposes of playing in the tournament as its players, cast off from other pro and semipro teams, and coach Eric Wynalda put themselves in the proverbial shop window. This year the reigning team, Sporting Kansas City was dumped out of the competition by its own lower-league affiliate side, Orlando City, which did its bid for MLS status no harm in the process.
Adrian Heath, a former English soccer player who won a league title with Everton in the 1980s and now coaches ambitious Orlando City, said of that game, “It was a really big result, something the players and organization could be proud of. Sporting Kansas City is one of the best-run MLS clubs, and obviously we have a lot of respect for them.” Orlando went on to build from that result and win a USLPro league title a few weeks ago.
For aficionados, the third round of the cup, like its more famous counterpart in the English FA Cup, offers the most possibilities of romantic upsets by the underdogs. And just like the English version, a good cup run can create a distraction from an otherwise poor season.
D.C. United has been in wretched form in the MLS and is at the bottom in the standings this year, yet just as relegated Wigan did in last season’s FA Cup, it has somehow made a run to the final and has a chance to salvage its 2013 season.
D.C. coach Ben Olsen was a player when D.C. last won the cup in 2008, though injury kept him out of much of the run, including the final.
“It was the club that won that cup, not me,” he said.
Lost and found?
His respect for the competition goes beyond the desire to win a trophy to a recognition that the continuity of the Open Cup in some ways stands for all the unsung players, coaches, fans and administrators who somehow kept the idea of soccer alive in America, even during the dark times. When he became a coach, many of his new coaching colleagues were old enough to have been players when soccer’s top-level prospects in the United States looked remote.
“My peers, so to speak, are part of that so-called lost generation who played on that indoor circuit, who took that bus to Albany, who took that bus down to Florida, sleeping on the bus, eating at Denny’s,” he recalled. “I hear that from the coaches I interact with day to day, and I respect that and realize how fortunate we are for all the steps, leagues and players that have helped us get where we are with MLS. I’m excited about our cup run, and as a coach, I put out my best team for it, and I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for this tournament.”
Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis said he sees room for improvement in how the tournament is “formatted, treated and viewed” but is a fan of the cup.
“I think the idea of the U.S. Open Cup is a great one. I love that it’s all levels of the game, starting from the amateurs to the semipros,” he said at a press conference Monday. “I love that we have that trophy, and I think it’s a great one.”
The question of how to follow the tournament is a vexing one: The final will be broadcast on the cable channel Gol TV, but most earlier rounds can be found only by watching local online streams of wildly varying quality or following on Twitter.
Still, “even the worst streams are better than it was 10 years ago when I started the site. We’d literally be calling clubs up two days later to ask, ‘What was the score?’ because there was so little coverage,” Hakala said. “But it would be great if someone had the vision to see what’s unique about this tournament and could step up with a TV deal. In time, it really has the potential to capture the nation’s imagination like a March Madness or something like that. It’s an amazing tournament. It’s survived every attempt to kill it, and it’s still going after 100 years.”
Looking ahead to the next century of tradition, Salt Lake’s Kreis hopes to see the tournament take a more prominent position in American soccer.
“When you look at the FA Cup and the history that it has over in England — I think we should be doing everything to emulate that trophy and impart importance to the tournament,” he said. “But we need the leadership to do that. We need the people that put on the tournament from Round 1 to the final (to do it)because, honestly, it feels to me that it’s just now that we’re in the final, now it’s a real game.”