The U.S. Open Cup May Have Met Its Match

The longest continuously contested annual sports competition in the USA is the U.S. Open Cup, but the coronavirus pandemic's impact on the sports calendar–and certain participants' priorities–puts its 2020 standing in peril.
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It’s endured two world wars (actual) and the “soccer wars” (administrative) of the 1920s and ‘30s, plus a depression and then decades of public indifference. It even survived a previous pandemic—the Spanish flu of 1918-19 that killed more than half a million people in the USA and many more around the globe.

Through more than a century of obstacles, the U.S. Open Cup has represented American soccer’s sturdiest, deepest stake in the soil. The sport’s history here can be charted via its list of winners. And the tournament’s durability should serve as an unabashed point of pride. Launched in 1913, the Open Cup is the longest continuously contested annual sports competition in the country and, incredibly, the second-oldest on the planet. Only the Irish Cup, Northern Ireland’s knockout tournament, has enjoyed a longer sustained run.

Now comes the Open Cup’s highest hurdle. The coronavirus pandemic has shut down sports, and the fate of the 2020 U.S. Open Cup—the 107th edition—hinges on whether leagues and teams from across American soccer can return to the field in time to save it. This year’s Open Cup was supposed to kick off March 24-25 with matches featuring 38 of the 100 entrants. But leagues were already suspended by then, and on March 26, the fourth-tier NPSL announced the cancellation of its 2020 season. That decision removed 14 clubs from the Open Cup.

This week, USL president Jake Edwards told Sports Illustrated that his organization, which governs three leagues, doesn’t expect to participate in this season’s tournament. He didn’t rule it out entirely, but was clear that for the USL Championship (second-tier pro), League One (third-tier pro) and League Two (amateur), saving as much of the 2020 regular season as possible had to be the priority. There are 42 USL teams entered in the Open Cup.

“The compression of the schedule when we return to play this year is going to be significant, and that presents huge challenges for our league. And our league, as we’ve said, is match-day revenue dependent,” Edwards explained. “We need to focus on the league matches, the regular season and postseason, as the priority for the health and long-term well-being of our clubs.”

At this point, the USL is modeling a return to play in July. League Two would have to finish up in early August so college players could return to school. And Championship and League One teams would have to schedule as many games as possible to maximize that match-day revenue. The one-and-done nature of the Open Cup is what makes it so much fun, but the format doesn’t lend itself to compiling a reliable fixture list.

“We’ve expressed our concern [to the U.S. Soccer Federation] that we won’t be able to accommodate participating in the competition,” Edwards said. “You’re looking at a lot of Tuesday-Saturday games for the vast majority of the season. So where would you fit in Open Cup games? And the additional travel and burden on the players to do that would be significant.”

The Athletic first reported the possibility of USL’s potential withdrawal. This week, the U.S. Adult Soccer Association canceled the National Amateur Cup, which has been staged annually since 1924, and the Steinbrecher Cup, which brings together clubs from the USASA, NPSL and USL League Two.

U.S. Open Cup rules require the participation of the 62 eligible pro teams in the U.S. (MLS-owned affiliates in the USL can’t enter). But those rules don’t account for something like the coronavirus and its impact on so many segments of society. Assuming the USL officially pulls out, the U.S. Soccer Federation would then have to decide whether to reconfigure the Open Cup to include only MLS teams, the eight NISA (third tier) sides if they’re able, and perhaps some independent amateur outfits, or whether to end the streak and scrap this season’s tournament.

There’s no rule stating that the 2020 Open Cup has to conclude in 2020. But a pretty strong case can be made that absent the USL and NPSL, the Open Cup wouldn’t be the Open Cup. It’s the upsets and runs by lower-tier sides that infuse the competition with its excitement and romance, and which bring different segments of the American soccer community together. It’s likely that more fans recall the Rochester Rhinos winning it all in 1999, Cal FC shocking the Portland Timbers, or FC Cincinnati’s march to the 2017 semifinals, then which MLS team won the Cup in a given year. That’s the tournament’s value.

“The U.S. Open Cup means more to USL teams than most leagues in this country,” Edwards said. “It’s important to our clubs and we’ve taken it seriously.”

But the USL isn’t prepared to leave open potential match dates for multiple clubs just in case one goes on a run. And the price to pay for a chance to pull an upset in an MLS stadium may be too high this year.

In a statement provided to SI.com, U.S. Soccer said, “At this time we are hoping we can figure out a way to still play the 2020 Open Cup, but we’re in the same wait-and-see situation as everyone else in the sports world. We won’t know what’s possible until there’s clarity on when the professional leagues are coming back and they’ve determined their schedule.”

Edwards said the USL continues to communicate with the USSF and that, “They understand the extraordinary nature of this year. They’ve told us that they’re going to to do everything they can to help us navigate and get through this.”

The USL returning to the field in July, and fans returning to stadiums, would represent a best-case scenario on a lot of levels. Perhaps MLS, which hasn’t declared its long-term intentions, could kick off at around the same time. The race would then be on to play as many games as possible and to crown legitimate league champions. Under those circumstances, U.S. Soccer would consider different Open Cup formats—maybe playing with a reduced number of qualifiers if the USL can reverse course and send a handful of teams, or by doubling up league and cup matches. Or there could be some other creative solution.

But the USSF also has to be wary of damaging the Open Cup by trying to save it. It’s not the Open Cup unless it’s an open cup. And while nobody wants to see the streak end, the integrity of the competition might be more important. It’s yet another challenge during difficult times, both at U.S. Soccer and in the country. For organizations like the USL and NPSL, these challenges are existential. The Open Cup, meanwhile, has survived war, infighting and economic upheaval. It now may have to survive a year off.