May is here, and for soccer fans, that means one thing: the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
The U.S. Open Cup has been running for over a century and has grown since then into the behemoth it is now: the first edition in 1913-14 had 40 clubs participate, while this year’s competition will see a record 99 compete for the Dewar Challenge Trophy. While it doesn’t have the glitz and glamour that its counterpart across the pond, the FA Cup, has, there’s still that opportunity for that underdog to get that unexpected win and advance through the tournament.
Basically any sanctioned soccer team in the United States, ranging from lower-division sides all the way up to big-budget first-division MLS clubs. USASA clubs claim their spots in the tournament through a series of local qualifiers and are paired with NPSL and PDL teams in the first round (who qualify based on their league standing in the previous year). U.S.-based teams in the NASL, USL and MLS automatically qualify and enter in the second (NASL/USL) and fourth (MLS) rounds. (Lower-division teams majority owned by a MLS club, like New York Red Bulls 2 or Seattle Sounders 2, do not qualify, along with Canadian Teams.)
What’s at stake?
The winner of the tournament wins a quarter of a million dollars and earns an automatic bid into the second phase of the 2018-2019 CONCACAF Champions League. Last year’s winners were FC Dallas as they defeated the New England Revolution 4-2 at Toyota Stadium. FC Dallas could only advance as far as the CCL semifinals as they fell 4-3 on aggregate to Pachuca despite holding a 2-1 lead after the home leg.
Who/when/where will Atlanta United FC play?
That’s not know yet and won’t be known until after the second round is finished in a couple of weeks (May 17), after which U.S. Soccer will conduct a draw to determine potential fourth round matchups. We do know it’s likely to be somewhere nearby, although there’s a chance it could be a little farther away; however, U.S. Soccer likes to keep the contests as regionally based as possible. We also know that a pair of MLS teams are likely to play each other since the number of U.S. based sides in the league (19) is an odd number. (Selfishly hoping Atlanta United and Orlando City are paired.) As for where the matchup will take place? While we aren’t guaranteed to see Atlanta United host, some (not all) MLS teams opt to play at a smaller stadium than normal if they’re against a lower-division team for practical purposes. (As far as a precedent for Tata Martino when it comes to domestic competitions, he led Barcelona to the Copa del Rey final against Real Madrid in 2014.)
However, several lower-division teams of local interest will also be participating: the Atlanta Silverbacks and Chattanooga FC from the NPSL and the Charleston Battery from the USL, Atlanta’s affiliate team. We will have a chance to see Atlanta loanees Mikey Ambrose, Jeffrey Otoo, Alex Tambakis, Romario Williams and the rest of the Battery travel to take on the Silverbacks at Silverbacks Park if the Silverbacks are able to take care of SC United Bantams at home on Wednesday.
Our good friend Andrew Bresee will be dropping a preview of Chattanooga FC’s opening round tilt with the Charlotte Eagles in a few days, so be on the lookout for that. We’ll also have coverage of the Silverbacks and Battery’s path through the competition as well.
What strategy do coaches employ as they try to balance league play with Cup play?
While, on paper, there are several benefits to winning the U.S. Open Cup, those benefits admittedly look sweeter for a lower-division side than they do to a MLS club with a large budget. For one, $250,000 is a drop in the bucket. Second, there are three other ways U.S. based teams can qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League: through the Supporters’ Shield, as the MLS Cup champion, and as the top finisher in the conference opposite the Supporters’ Shield winner. So, for a side in great standing on the league table, they may not be as motivated to give it their best effort and may just throttle down to focus more on league competition and improving their standing there. It echoes my point about the Open Cup not having the same “glitz and glamour” the FA Cup does (so does this piece over at our sister site, Once a Metro). However (thanks to one of our commenters, Zontar, for noting this!), in 2017 and 2018, only the U.S. Open Cup and MLS Cup winners will qualify for the CCL due to the new two-phase CCL format, so that might change the players’ and coaches’ perception of it knowing that the Champions League bids have been halved temporarily.
What are your thoughts? Will you be paying close attention to the U.S. Open Cup this year? Let us know!