Free for All
Why is US Soccer so reluctant to promote one of the oldest tournaments in the world?
It’s a warm early summer Wednesday night in the Queen City and it’s a perfect night to watch live action in one of America’s longest-running sporting competitions. Cincinnati, a quintessential Midwestern city, is alive with tens of thousands of men and women in their twenties and thirties on a night out to watch their team compete against a Midwestern rival. The game is broadcast live nationally, smack bang in the middle of the primetime window, on the nation’s number one sports network, ESPN.
The Cincinnati Reds are at home in the National League, founded back in 1876, but their Major League Baseball game at the Great American Ballpark, on the banks of the Ohio River downtown, isn’t what the city is buzzing about tonight.
The younger, far more raucous and vibrant crowd out in the city tonight is instead found a few miles north on the University of Cincinnati campus. While a crowd of 21,842 watches the Reds defeat the Milwaukee Brewers 4-3, it’s the evening’s soccer match that draws by far the largest crowd and leads the local news that night.
This is not a Major League Soccer (MLS) game nor is it one of the glamorous friendlies featuring high-profile European teams that pockmark the American soccer scene each summer – FC Cincinnati play in the second division United Soccer League (USL) and are only in their second season of play.
This is a Lamar Hunt US Open Cup round of 16 match: FC Cincinnati hosting the Chicago Fire at Nippert Stadium. The crowd of 32,287 in attendance is the second-largest in the tournament’s history. And contrary to what you may assume about American soccer, the Open Cup has a long, deep and largely lost history. In fact, it’s the second-oldest continuously running national cup tournament in world football, dating back to 1913.
On a night like tonight, when more than 30,000 fans live and die by every moment of a tension-wracked game that results in FC Cincinnati pulling off a true giant-killing act in defeating the Fire on penalties, the full potential of a knockout competition thrilling an American audience is on display. Tonight, the magic of the cup is alive in Midwestern America.
US Open Cup competition has not exactly been on ESPN’s radar in the past. In fact, for most of the history of the Open Cup spanning more than a century, the media interest in the competition has been marginal, bordering on the non-existent.
Such has been the paucity of tournament coverage that for the past two decades, it’s no exaggeration to say that covering both the past and present of the Open Cup has been close to the sole preserve of one man in his free time.
In the late 1990s, the teenager Josh Hakala was a casual fan of the Tampa Bay Mutiny, one of the founding teams in Major League Soccer. With no local team to root for in Lansing, Michigan – a solid 1,200 miles from Tampa – Hakala had little expectation of seeing his favourite team, featuring the likes of the Colombian legend Carlos Valderrama, play in person. Until, that is, the Mutiny were drawn to play against a local amateur team, the Mid-Michigan Bucks (now just Michigan Bucks), in the 1999 US Open Cup. All of a sudden, here were the stars of MLS, including Valderrama, suiting up against a bunch of amateurs at White Pine Stadium in Saginaw, Michigan. A sold-out crowd of nearly 5,000 fans saw the Mutiny edge the Bucks 2-1. And for Josh Hakala, sitting just a few feet away from the playing field, the romance of the cup swept him away with consequences that would change his life – and ultimately help lead to the education of a new generation of Open Cup aficionados.
It wasn’t easy to follow the Open Cup in the early years of Major League Soccer. Hakala searched a nascent internet for more information about a competition that had brought Carlos Valderrama’s world class talent to his doorstep, and found little to satiate his curiosity. The tournament’s governing body, US Soccer, didn’t do much to promote a tournament that had somehow survived so many decades and officially served as the nation’s national championship.
Unlike most other people who stumbled onto the Open Cup, Hakala didn’t abandon interest. Instead, Hakala created a media outlet for the Open Cup himself, and went about giving the tournament’s history its due.
It all started for Hakala with the Soccer Fanatics Radio Show, a wide-ranging internet programme that he launched from the radio station he worked at in college. The show increasingly honed in on American soccer and the Open Cup, providing coverage where none existed. The more of a niche Hakala dug into, the more he clearly offered something that was missing in the United States: some, any, coverage of the Cup. Others noticed: an ambitious web development company, Demosphere, offered to partner with him to launch USOpenCup.com, providing comprehensive coverage of the tournament that simply did not exist elsewhere. Hakala recruited other enthusiasts of the Open Cup and American soccer history, such as the resourceful Chuck Nolan Jr, to start filling in the gaping holes in the record of the tournament’s long and ignored heritage.
And holes there were. Researching the history of the competition, Hakala and Nolan found – oddly enough – that the further back in time they went, the easier it was to find information on results and details in newspaper archives. Founded in 1913 as the “National Challenge Cup”, the Open Cup rode an early wave of soccer’s rise in the early decades of the twentieth century when there were moments it seemed briefly plausible the sport could spread nationwide alongside other team sports following in the footsteps of baseball’s growth. Works teams like Bethlehem Steel of the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania, won five Open Cup titles, lifting the three-foot tall trophy donated by the Scottish whisky baron Thomas Dewar.
The Open Cup was the 14th national cup competition to be founded worldwide. Its roots stretched back even further: the tournament’s precursor, the American Cup, had been founded in 1885 – only 14 years after the FA Cup and before most of the world had equivalent tournaments.
Unlike the American Cup, strictly restricted to the Northeastern seaboard, the Open Cup developed in the 1920s and 1930s with a wider geographic reach – teams from eight different states in the Midwest and Northeastern United States won the title between 1920 and 1930. Coverage of the competition was substantial, with match reports from the latter stages featuring prominently in metropolitan newspapers of competing teams. Crowds of 20-30,000 were not unusual for finals in this era.
Yet while the Open Cup survived two World Wars, an administrative spat among competing professional soccer bodies wrecked the sport’s chances of competing with the rising games of American football and basketball. By the 1950s, Hakala explains, the ‘Dark Ages’ of the Open Cup and American soccer had arrived. Professional teams largely disappeared and so did much of the professional media coverage of the sport and its national championship. Results became footnotes in the major press.
But the Cup still survived, year after year after year. Passion for the sport remained strong in areas such as the industrial Northeast and Midwest, with the likes of the Philadelphia Ukrainian Nationals or the New York Greek Americans competing for the national championship every season with fierce pride and determination. The Greek Americans, for example, often featured former professionals and national team players from Greece and attracted strong local support and media coverage in New York’s growing Greek immigrant community. Crowds of several thousand regularly attended their Open Cup games, and cheered them on to victories in the national championship in 1967, 1968, 1969 and 1974.
For the mainstream media, though, such fantastic amateur exploits did not earn many column inches. Soccer thrived in marginalised immigrant communities but was generally only covered in the mainstream media in the early postwar decades as a topic for mockery: it was a game for foreigners, not true, red-blooded Americans. The magic of the Cup, as of the game more broadly, remained confined to pockets of passionate teams and fans in America’s immigrant industrial regions.
The 1970s should have changed everything for the Open Cup. It could have been Pelé versus George Best in a knockout championship final. It could have been Franz Beckenbauer playing against plucky amateurs on bumpy pitches in hostile territory. But the North American Soccer League (NASL) ignored America’s national championship, its teams such as the New York Cosmos never entering the competition, and with US Soccer not forcing the issue, the tournament missed the opportunity for the spotlight thrown on the game by the league’s ageing global stars.
The NASL imploded in 1984, having at least helped take the sport to a broader audience alongside the sport’s critical explosion at the youth participation level in suburban America that bred new generations of potential fans for a sport that now had no first division league. The Open Cup continued to endure despite being unloved and unappreciated even by the sport’s governing body, US Soccer, who had passed off administration of the tournament to the United States Adult Soccer Association (Usasa).
The formation of MLS in 1996 gave, for the first time in generations, the Open Cup what it needed: participation of professional teams that raised its profile nationally. The tournament offered the media the romance of giant-killing stories and Cinderella runs from lower-league teams taking on the stars of MLS. In 1999, the Rochester Raging Rhinos played the part to perfection, as the second-division team took the trophy, triumphing over four MLS teams on their way to the title.
Still, though, even in the MLS-era the sport’s hardcore fans struggled to find the most basic information about the Open Cup: current results, schedule and history. US Soccer didn’t provide this service for their own national championship; so Josh Hakala did it himself on USOpenCup.com.
“We didn’t have a real solid plan for the site,” Hakala recalls of the homespun effort. “But since we were the only ones covering the Cup, we wanted to do it as professionally as possible.”
Hakala’s efforts were appreciated. Fans curious about the Cup finally had a resource to follow and understand the tournament. MLS teams that took the tournament seriously and took the trophy home regularly, like four-time winners the Chicago Fire, developed fan bases passionate about the competition. It might have remained a niche, but it was now one with a burgeoning group of enthusiasts spreading the gospel about the magic of the Cup online.
As the years passed, the curiosity that it was an independent amateur running the most comprehensive site about the Cup became a quandary for the tournament’s governing body, US Soccer. In 2004, Hakala reached out to US Soccer for financial support to grow his coverage of the Cup, but was politely rebuffed. Looking instead for funding from donors and sponsors to support the site and pay writers, an awkward situation arose: the federation became concerned that Hakala was trading off the competition’s name. US Soccer’s lawyers politely told Hakala that if he was going to continue to use the URL “USOpenCup.com”, which the Federation claimed they had a legal right to because they owned the trademark to the tournament’s name, then he would not be permitted to generate any revenue from it.
As a result, in 2009, Hakala decided to create a new website with a new URL: theCup.us was born and the USOpenCup.com domain passed to US Soccer’s control.
In reality, little changed for those who wanted to get to know the competition: Hakala’s revamped site remained the go-to for coverage and in the growing social media landscape, his channels the most active in reporting current results and the history of the tournament for fans to follow and understand the breadth and depth of the Open Cup.
With little time to chase sponsors and with donations only just covering the site’s hosting fees, each off-season Hakala questioned his immense investment of his free time into covering the tournament. “I can’t do this anymore,” Hakala recalls thinking year after year. But each season he did it again, patiently seeking out qualifying results and obscure nuggets of Open Cup history. Heritage requires storytelling and Hakala’s site helped provide the context that made the competition meaningful for the new teams and fanbases rapidly popping up nationwide. The profile of the competition steadily grew – helped by the Seattle Sounders focusing on the competition as a source of silverware, as the new MLS expansion team claimed three titles in 2009, 2010 and 2011, the latter in front of a record crowd of 35,615 at home to see their third triumph.
The potential for the tournament’s success shown by its popularity in a place like Seattle, when an MLS team benefited so obviously from taking the competition so seriously, combined with the stubborn efforts of Hakala, convinced US Soccer they needed to up their own game in covering the Open Cup. In recent years, ussoccer.com has finally become a helpful resource run by the governing body with fresh stories, live game streams and historical information giving the tournament a small but serious presence in the federation’s digital efforts.
Hakala is happy to see some real official coverage online, befitting the Open Cup’s continued growth. A record 99 teams entered the 104th edition of the competition in 2017, with 56 amateur teams and 43 professional teams competing. 17 of those teams had qualified from local competition for the tournament which is now, like the FA Cup, a near year-round affair from the preliminaries to the final. TV coverage is growing: in 2016, both Open Cup semi-final games were broadcast live on ESPN and the final between FC Dallas and the New England Revolution on both ESPN2 and the Spanish-language Univision Deportes Network.
“The Open Cup has not hit its peak,” Hakala says. Unlike other countries where the national cup competition has continued to slip down the priority list for teams and governing bodies, the Open Cup has stubbornly and slowly reversed this trend, thanks to the efforts of independent writers and broadcasters like Hakala. He believes the tournament is only one major sponsor or national broadcaster away from a serious jump in stature and prominence.
Just as crucial for the continued growth of the Open Cup will be greater investment from US Soccer, a body now flush with cash, boasting a nest egg well in excess of $100 million to pull from for investment in the game’s future. Despite its recent incremental improvements in coverage of the tournament, it’s disappointing that US Soccer still has no full-time staff dedicated to the Open Cup and that prize money remains as low as $250,000 for the winning team. The Federation can no longer use the excuse of lacking resources to increase investment in the Cup, and surely there are few possible better ways for it to meet its stated mission statement “to continue the development of soccer at all recreational and competitive levels” than by taking coverage of its open national championship tournament into the 21st-century.
Alongside key broadcasts on cable television, rich multimedia storytelling and streams of all Open Cup games online would ramp up excitement for the compelling clashes in each round. With an investment in growing awareness of the competition through such increased coverage, the Open Cup could help build exposure for teams at all levels who would each season have fanbases energised by the prospect of a giant-killing run. The tournament’s rich past should be explored and amplified so fans and teams understand its meaning and heritage. The strongest teams in MLS would surely respond to greater prize money as part of the quest to have their team’s name etched into more than a century of history on the Dewar Trophy.
In a rapidly growing soccer landscape with dozens of new amateur and professional teams starting up each year across the United States, what better way to develop the sport than an investment in promotion of the Open Cup so more fans can experience the kind of night FC Cincinnati’s revelled in when they beat a Major League Soccer team? On a warm summer night like that, in the midst of tens of thousands of fans wildly cheering for 120 minutes to support a second division team in only their second season of play, the potential for the Open Cup to inspire through its moments of magic could make you believe its second century is one of boundless possibility for the tournament.