If you love soccer then you’ve got a lot this summer to keep you busy. The Women’s World Cup and Copa America are racing towards their dramatic conclusions, MLS is just about at the midway point in its season and across the pond, the transfer window continues to send Europe into a feeding frenzy. With all this going on, you might be forgiven for overlooking another ongoing competition, one renowned for its thrills and drama as it is for its history and tradition.
2015 marks the 102nd edition of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, the oldest soccer competition in America and one of the oldest in the world. It’s a tournament that tends to weave itself in and around the more well-known (or at least more hyped-up) competitions, with midweek fixtures to accommodate Major League Soccer’s weekend matches.
Yet the USOC- which has its Fifth Round ties scheduled to kickoff tonight and tomorrow- is worth making time for. Here are 10 reasons why.
1. The USOC showcases how diverse the American soccer landscape really is
Two years ago, writer Graham Parker penned a series for Grantland; in which he followed a team at the very beginning of that year’s USOC until they were eliminated, and then moved on to follow the victors. Parker tracked the scent of the Cup to Sandy, Utah, where DC United pulled out a surprise 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake to lift some silverware. Along the way, readers were treated to a panorama of American soccer, profiling the likes of Brooklyn Italians FC, Richmond Kickers, and RWB Adria. For those who might have been lulled into thinking there was no soccer in America before MLS’ inaugural season in 1996, Parker’s profiles and travelogue offered a glimpse into the thriving, largely overlooked landscape of the amateur and semi-professional game in the US.
2. The tournament is steeped in history
In the modern era, fans of the Seattle Sounders and the Chicago Fire snipe at each over which team can be rightfully called “Kings Of The Cup,” with both clubs boasting four Open Cup wins to their names. Yet they are not alone at the summit of USOC glory. Tied for four Cup titles are forgotten teams like the Fall River Marksmen and the Philadelphia Ukrainians, while the true battle for the “Kings Of The Cup” sobriquet was waged between two teams that no longer exist— Bethlehem Steel (pictured) and Maccabi Los Angeles, who both lifted the Cup five times before their respective demises. The story of the US Open Cup is the story of American soccer, and the story of American soccer is long, complex, and inspiring.
3. The in-stadium atmosphere is just as rich as it is for MLS games, sometimes more so
One of my favorite moments as a soccer fan came two summers ago. I was standing in the Harlem End at Toyota Park in Suburban Chicago, screaming along with a couple hundred others as the Fire took on (pre-MLS) Orlando City. As the Men In Red steamrolled toward an incredible 5-1 win;—and also left Orlando playing with nine men before the end—Section 8 lurched into a full-throated, slightly hysterical rendition of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” It was an amazing experience— one that the USOC seems to naturally foster. While attendances often fall far short of MLS matches, the supporters, keenly aware of how special this competition is, rarely fail to bring the ruckus.
4. The players are passionate about the cup, leading to short tempers and big explosions
Recently, there was some USOC controversy surrounding was the volatile matchup between Seattle and Portland, which saw the Sounders finish the game with only seven men en route to a 3-0 home defeat. The game was most remembered for the antics of Sounders and USMNT captain Clint Dempsey, who earned himself a red after tearing up the referee's notebook;. Yet those who follow the USOC are no stranger to these kind of games, where red cards are as plentiful as cheap beer in the pre-match tailgates. Last year's meeting between the Colorado Rapids and the Atlanta Silverbacks; produced four red cards and saw both managers sent to the stands— including Eric Wynalda, Atlanta coach and Fox Soccer's resident crankypants pundit. In short, the Cup brings the best- and worst- out of the players, leading to either excellent soccer, incredible spectacle, or (if we're lucky) both.
5. Travel for away supporters—and curious neutrals—isn't prohibitively expensive
Right up until the final—and maybe the semifinals—Cup ties are drawn geographically. For away fans and interested onlookers, that means reasonable drives or short, affordable airfares (relatively speaking) to get to the game. That helps keep costs low for both teams and fans, making USOC games accessible and affordable.
6. There's a pretty big prize for the team that goes all the way
For the most part, the clubs that survive to the latter rounds of the tournament aren't in it for the money. The winner receives a whopping $250,000— which would cover a week or two of Clint Dempsey's salary. The silverware itself is nice, but arguably not as cool as the old trophy;. But there's one incentive that makes winning it all worthwhile for the bigger fish— a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League. While not quite as prestigious as its European counterpart, the CCL offers its own rewards in the form of more prize money and bragging rights.
7. Upsets, Upsets, Upsets
Like the FA Cup in England, it's never a foregone conclusion that the the bigger teams will coast to victory over weaker opposition. MLS teams enter the fray in Round Four, and every year there are, without fail, at least a few top flight teams who get rocked out of the tournament by NASL, USL, or even NPSL sides. The big story this year (so far) was USL's own Charlotte Independence shocking the New England Revolution 1-0 to move on to the next round. Charlotte joins the New York Cosmos as only the two non-MLS teams in the last 16, and it's entirely possible that we'll see another giant-killing tonight or tomorrow. If you're a sucker for the underdog, or you just like seeing the big boys eat a hearty helping of Humble Pie, it doesn't get much better than the USOC.
8. Clubs offer tasty incentives for fans
With attendance figures not always lining up with hardcore supporter enthusiasm, clubs often try to get creative in order to put more butts in seats. This usually involves cheaper tickets, free or heavily discounted transport, beer specials, or discounts on concession items— including ice cream nachos, a Toyota Park delicacy so beloved by the Fire’s fans in Section 8 that they’ve been known to sing about the tasty dessert when the team’s fortunes turn south. With lower ticket prices, opportunities for gluttony, and the chance to take in America’s oldest soccer competition, there are definitely worse ways to spend a Tuesday night.
9. The Cup is where rivalries are developed and reinforced
The geographical pairing in the early rounds ensures that local rivals, across all levels, end up clashing with each other. For those with an established history of animosity, these ties end up taking on a life of their own, with the Cup’s own magic fairy dust amplifying an already raucous atmosphere. These games can also spark the beginning of new rivalries, as witnessed a few weeks ago in the first meeting of the East River Derby between the New York Cosmos and NYCFC. For all of Major League Soccer’s efforts to establish and gin up rivalries between teams in order to shore up its #brand, the USOC is really where history is made— and rivalries are born.
10. The games are streamed on YouTube— for free
While past editions of the Cup have suffered for want of exposure, 2015 will bring the tournament to a much wider audience. Every match except the Final will be streamed live on YouTube;, giving fans who can’t make it to the ground the chance to follow the action. The Final will be broadcast live on Fox Sports, bringing the climax of the tournament to millions of new viewers. The Cup’s newfound accessibility makes 2015 a great year to see what all the fuss is about.