The 2016 US Open Cup: What a Mess!
The 103-year-old US Open Cup is now in the 3rd round. However, it is challenging at best to follow this historic tournament. It is a snapshot of what is wrong with the US Soccer Federation (USSF). The problems evident in this year’s Cup stem from rule changes, lack of information about rosters and results, and more. Fans are left with the impression that the USSF could care less about the tournament and growth of lower league soccer clubs in the US. The 2016 Cup tournament is coming off as a joke. But I’m having a hard time finding it funny.
Using Cup-Tied Players
Arguably the biggest issue in the 2016 edition of the Cup is the use of ineligible cup-tied players. While it might seem straightforward for a team to use eligible players only, the new qualifying rules added this year have made this complicated. These rules are challenging to apply for lower division teams given that players can be registered in both the NPSL and PDL and another adult soccer association club at the same time (this is not allowed in other countries). Moreover, rosters and results of the qualifying rounds played last October and November are not posted on the USSF website, making it difficult for teams to have the information they need to determine eligibility.
Section 203. Player eligibility (cont.)
(c) Any player who plays in any part of an Open Cup match for a team, including any match in any Open Division qualifying round, may not be included in the Open Cup roster or play for any other team in the Open Cup competition for that competition year.
(d) If any team plays an ineligible player in an Open Cup match, that team is subject to fines or other penalties, including game forfeiture, as determined by the Adjudication and Discipline Panel.
The first publicized confusion arose after the 1st round of the Cup. Ventura County Fusion (PDL) was disqualified from the tournament for using a player who played for Cal FC (USASA) in the qualifying rounds 7 months ago. Their opponent, the LA Wolves (UPSL), noticed the ineligible player and protested their loss of the 1st round match to the USSF. The Wolves won their case and moved into the 2nd round.
However, USSF had approved the roster for Ventura before the match. So either US Soccer did not check the roster carefully, or worse, they did not know that Ventura had an ineligible player on the roster. It would have been challenging for Ventura to know, given the paucity of information about the qualifying rounds. While the player could have declared that he had played for another team, he might not have known the new rules. Even worse, to protest the mistake, the LA Wolves had to pay US Soccer to recognize their own mistake.
This was not the only instance of an ineligible player in a match in the 1st round. As reported by Evan Ream, CD Aguiluchos (NPSL), Burlingame Dragons (PDL), and Sacramento Gold (NPSL) all used ineligible players. However, none of these teams were caught by the opposing team, or by the USSF.
Ream obtained the information about the ineligible player for CD Aguiluchos because he attended one of the qualifying rounds for the Cup, between the Davis Legacy (USASA) and IFX Ballistic (USASA), last November in Livermore, CA. Aguiluchos fielded a player (Ahmad Hatafi) in the 1st round against SF City FC (PDL), who played for the Ballistic in the qualifying match against Davis. The only way for SF City to obtain the information about the ineligibility of this player would have been if they attended the game, but they had their own qualifying match on the same day. In addition, SF City did not receive Aguiluchos’ official roster until game time, leaving them with little time to research the eligibility of their opponent’s players. SF City FC protested the loss after finding out more than a week later. However, based on Cup rules, they needed to do it no later than the day after the match.
Section 306. Protests and General Discipline
(a) A protest related to an Open Cup match must be filed in writing with the Open Cup Commissioner not later than 5:00 p.m., CT, the day after the match, (faxed to 312-808-9295). A cashier’s check or money order for $500 made payable to “USSF” must be received by the second business day after the match. The Commissioner shall immediately refer the protest to the Adjudication and Discipline Panel for decision.
It is challenging at best for a team to keep track of who is and isn’t eligible on the rosters of opposing teams. And just like Ventura County, the Burlingame Dragons received approval from USSF for their opening round roster, according to Evan Ream’s conversation with the Burlingame President. Burlingame included an ineligible player who played with SF City in the qualifying round in their 1st round match.
The problem continued in the 2nd round. Aguiluchos did not put Hatafi on the roster in their match against Sacramento Republic FC (USL). However, they fielded a second ineligible player, Arthur Bahr, who played for SF City in the qualifying round. Sac Republic beat Aguiluchos so it was of little consequence.
The Villages United SC (PDL), however, were not as lucky. Dirty South Soccer reported that they used an ineligible player against Charleston Battery (USL). Villages’ upset and place in Round 3 were subsequently taken away. When registering for the Villages United team, their ineligible player (Paulo Vaz) did not include the team he played for in the qualifying round (Boca Raton FC) in his paperwork. Thus, the club had no way to know he was ineligible.
The US Open Cup 2016 rules state clearly that a player who played in the qualifying round can’t play for another team in later rounds. Using a cup-tied player in a Cup tournament is forbidden nearly everywhere in the world, so the rule seems reasonable. But the fact that so many teams are making this mistake indicates that the qualifying rules added this year may not be widely known, and/or that keeping track of player eligibility is nearly impossible for individual clubs to do on their own. It seems nearly impossible to keep track of this if USSF can’t keep track of it themselves. Players who are ineligible must know the rules and speak up for the good of their team, or opposing teams must go out and watch dozens of qualifying matches to know who is and isn’t cup-tied. It is clear that USSF needs to provide better information and oversight for this new rule.
While the name of the tournament is the US Open Cup, the Cup is not truly an open tournament. The qualification process rules have changed, not only year to year, but in the middle of a tournament. An open tournament should allow any team the opportunity to qualify. This isn’t true in the US Open Cup because certain NPSL and PDL clubs can’t enter the tournament on the basis of their results from the previous year.
Teams in the 4th tier do not apply, the USSF invites them. In addition, the Open Cup added a qualification process this year for adult soccer association clubs and other clubs in the 5th tier of the US Soccer pyramid. However, this new process did not roll out smoothly.
For starters, there were 3 qualifying rounds planned. This became 2 rounds after the USSF decided to revoke the right of MLS B sides in the USL from playing in the tournament. While a reasonable rule, one might ask why it took so many years of allowing B-sides to play before the change was made, and why the change was made in the middle of the tournament.
This rule, however, only affected the USL teams tied to MLS Clubs. It did not include NPSL and PDL teams tied to NASL and MLS teams. For example, the NY Cosmos B team (NPSL) decided to pull out of the tournament on their own, to keep the integrity of the tournament. But the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timber, and New York Redbulls, all U-23 PDL teams, did not pull out their affiliated sides. This seems unfair.
Section 202. Team eligibility (cont.)
(d) Any Outdoor Professional League Team that is majority owned by a higher-level Outdoor Professional League Team, any Outdoor Professional League Team whose player roster is managed by a higher-level Outdoor Professional League Team, or any team that is (1) majority owned by an Outdoor Professional League team, (2) registered with any Open Division League, and (3) registered as a professional team, shall be ineligible to participate in the Open Cup. The Open Cup Commissioner shall circulate a list of proposed ineligible teams for review by the Open Cup Committee. The Open Cup Committee shall review and determine team eligibility annually pursuant to this provision and report its decisions to the National Board of Directors.
As well, the open division clubs (5th tier) had to submit official rosters of 22 players by August, while NPSL and PDL teams didn’t have to do this until April. The August deadline is before many of the 5th tier leagues begin their season. The rosters of amateur clubs are in constant flux because the players have real jobs, or move up to higher-level teams mid season. This makes an August roster deadline for a May tournament essentially impossible to maintain. There is a chance that a qualified team may not even have 11 available players left from that initial roster come May.
The travel in the new qualification process also makes qualifying difficult for amateur teams. For example, if 3 teams from one region enter the qualifying tournament, 1 of those teams will be drawn against a team so far away that the travel expenses might exceed what the club can afford. Consequently, some teams that entered the qualifying rounds forfeited their match, because they got an unlucky draw that would require expensive travel.
The qualifying process for the NPSL and PDL also seems to change yearly based on the number of teams needed for that particular year. NPSL and PDL sides are determined by results from league play in the previous year. For example, teams making at least the quarterfinals of the NPSL playoffs were granted a place in this year’s tournament. But these were not the only teams accepted into the tournament from the NPSL this year. Eight more NPSL teams were included in the 2016 field based on “at large” berths. How these “at large” berths are decided is unclear. If there are rules, they are not anywhere obvious in the 2016 US Open Cup Handbook. There appears to be a random number of “at large” teams selected each year based on the number of teams needed by US Soccer for the tournament.
It would be helpful if USSF revised and clarified the rules surrounding qualification so that every team that wants to participate can have fair access.
The Cup Draw
In England, the excitement of watching the Cup draw is almost as fun as the matches themselves. Getting drawn against your rivals or against a famous club is a big part of the excitement. However, USSF changed the dates and times of these draws. Both the 3rd and 4th round draw dates were changed from the listed times without any warning to fans.
Moreover, USSF did the draw for the 4th round before the 3rd round has taken place. With some teams willing to host and others unable to do so, this means that multiple scenarios for potential match ups are released after the draw takes place. For example, if team A beats team B they will host the winner of C vs. D, but if team B wins, they will only host team D if they win, but will travel to team C if they win. This is very confusing.
The Cup draw is also not a completely random draw. The USSF has set it up in a way that prevents MLS clubs from playing each other (for the most part) when they first enter the tournament. What makes Cup tournaments in other countries so fun is that a 4th tier side can make the final based on a lucky Cup draw, facing only other 4th tier sides the entire way. The same can be said for unlucky draws too. If two MLS sides get drawn together in the early rounds, one of them is going down early.
The regional nature of the draw is something that is necessary for amateur sides to help keep travel costs down. The problem is that it gives benefits to certain teams. With the lack of NASL/USL west coast representation, Sac Republic gets to play multiple rounds vs. amateur sides, while other USL clubs have to face another pro team in every round. This doesn’t seem fair. The regional nature also prevents the possibility of a major MLS rivalry, like Seattle and Portland, from ever playing in a final. A matchup like this would hugely increase the popularity of the Open Cup.
The allowed venues are another contributing factor to the quality of the Cup. Every league has a minimum standard for eligible stadiums for use in league play. In the English FA Cup, a stadium must be FA certified, meaning some “minimum requirement is met.” For one of the Division 4 leagues in the US soccer pyramid, the PDL, two of the stated minimum requirements for a stadium are 1,000 seats and a working scoreboard. There were multiple accounts in the 1st round of the Cup that these requirements were not met. USSF should not have lower standards for the US Open Cup than the PDL has for its league. To make this tournament great, any venues used should have adequate seating and a working scoreboard, as well as locker rooms and a PA system, at a minimum.
The record keeping for this tournament is also in disarray. In the 1st round match between SF City and Aguiluchos, the official records had credited the wrong goal scorer for the 3rd goal. After checking with the manager of Aguiluchos, I called US Soccer to get the goal credited properly. This makes me wonder how many goals have been awarded to the wrong player over the 103-year history of the tournament. In order to raise the level of importance of the Open Cup, it is important that USSF keep accurate official records of the grassroots teams and make them available online.
I used to bowl in youth leagues and tournaments in northern California. This is now about 15 years ago, but I can still to this day look up my scores from every regional youth bowling tournament I ever entered, and in what place I finished. I can’t even look up correct scores from last week’s US Open Cup, let alone know if any of the records are correct. But I know my bowling history from age 12 is correct.
Cheaper to Play on the Road
This year, the OKC Energy (USL) chose to not apply to host any of their early matches at home. In any other Cup competition in the world, the goal is to draw another team at home. For example, the best way to win the English FA Cup is to be lucky enough to draw all of your games at home for home field advantage. As well, for the small clubs, the hope of making Manchester United travel to your small home field is a dream.
The US Open Cup isn’t this way, the likely reason being that the cost of travel will be a smaller net loss than the cost of hosting a mid-week game. The cost of stadium operations and everything that goes with it for a small crowd is not cost effective even for some pro level clubs, including some MLS clubs. Choosing to play on the road shows the lack of value in progressing in the tournament for professional teams and indicates that hosting matches in the Cup isn’t important.
The longest running problem is the coverage, or lack of coverage. The potential coverage of the Cup could be huge for US Soccer. Soccer fans in England love the FA Cup because of the story lines it creates. People especially get drawn into stories of the rise of teams from small towns. This is why many non-sports fans love the Olympics, because of how it’s covered. This is also true for the coverage of March Madness. New fans emerge, enticed by stories of underdogs and Cinderella teams. The actual level played on the field is of less importance.
A key issue with the US Open Cup is that unless you are an avid American soccer fan, you would not know what the Open Cup is. Fans must search YouTube for low quality streams or try to find a radio broadcast. Some matches don’t even have a radio broadcast.
The USL has the ability to stream games on YouTube, as they do it for every USL league game. However, in Round 2 this year, the USL teams chose to not send out any video feed for their games. Since they have the equipment already in place, it would have only cost them for the manpower to provide the live stream. I find this a sad lack of respect for the 103-year-old US Open Cup. Since the USL is tied to the MLS who control the USSF board, it gives the appearance that the USSF is trying to prevent grassroots soccer growth.
The money from coverage is something that could be vital to smaller clubs. In the English FA Cup, when a small club hosts a larger club, and that game is televised, the smaller club can receive club-changing money, many times saving a small club from bankruptcy. If a similar system was put in place in the US, it could similarly change the futures of small clubs. The money potentially involved with a TV deal could help a small club fix their facilities or maybe begin to start to build a small permanent stand or buy their own land. For example, Aguiluchos’ home field, Raimondi Park, could use an upgrade.
This 2016 Open Cup has become the example of much that is wrong with US Soccer. In my opinion, the MLS top-down system is only hurting the growth of soccer in this country. The USSF (MLS) has control and the money they need for their own growth, but I believe that everyone will gain if they rethink the management of the Open Cup (qualification rules, the timing of the draw, venues, record keeping, and media coverage) and provide more resources towards the Cup. There could be so much more in terms of soccer growth, community, and fan engagement if USSF provided better support for the Open Cup and grassroots soccer efforts.