In a modern American soccer landscape — where television viewership is key, attendance numbers are scrutinized, and growth, above all else, is everything — the US Open Cup carries on as it has for the last 105 years. Its matches are played in venues all across the board: from Merlo Field in North Portland, to Westcott Field at SMU in Texas, to the Banc in downtown LA. Its contestants range from MLS Cup contenders, to USL minnows, to amateur sides playing way out of their depth. You never know quite what you’re going to get with a US Open Cup match — and this, among other reasons, is why the competition has continued to capture my heart.
The Cup is never without drama. Remember 2015? Starfire Stadium, Tukwila, WA, 114th minute? Clint Dempsey let the world know what he thought of the referee by grabbing his notebook, ripping it to pieces, and throwing it to the ground. His subsequent red card was the third of the match for the Sounders, who would go on to finish things with only six outfield players, after Obafemi Martins was forced off with injury and the Sounders had already used all of their substitutes. 4,500 lucky fans got to witness some craziness they never would’ve seen in MLS, plus a USMNT legend and World Cup veteran lose his #$%! over a fourth round cup match. (Not trying to condone Dempsey’s actions in any way, but I mean ... Come on! That’s must watch TV.)
Dramatic theatrics aside, upsets abound in the USOC, and if there’s one thing American sports fans can agree on, it’s that we love an upset. There was Cal FC, an amateur side from Southern California, downing the Timbers 1-0 in the 2011 third round. There was 2017, when USL side FC Cincinnati made a run all the way to the semifinals. There was 2019, where first-year side New Mexico United took down two MLS clubs on their way to the quarterfinals.
The Cup affords an opportunity for clubs and players to go toe-to-toe with the guys making the (sort of) big bucks. It’s a chance for fans of smaller clubs to get a little recognition for supporting teams that most of us haven’t even heard of. Hell, it’s even an opportunity for a local broadcaster to continue making a name for himself. (Lookin’ at you, 2011 John Strong).
Then there are things you can’t even fit into a category because you never even considered they might actually happen. Take last night’s quarterfinal matchup between Orlando City SC and NYCFC. Orlando City Stadium wasn’t even remotely sold out. (Remember: It’s a USOC game.) The teams were headed for penalties, and NYCFC got to pick which goal they’d like to shoot on. Naturally, they chose the one with zero fans sitting behind it. What happened next? Pandemonium ensued: Fans sprinted across the stadium, overwhelmed the poor security guards until they were forced to let them through, and then flooded the section behind the goal.
It was a touching, heartfelt display of passion and affection shown from fans to their team, and again, something you’d never see on an MLS stage.
The point is: The Open Cup is wacky and weird. It’s poorly attended, it features limited broadcasts, and it sometimes feels more like a backyard brawl than a professional soccer match. But therein lies the beauty of the whole thing — the ugliness of it, the almost underground feel to many of these matches. As American soccer fans, these are our roots; this is what U.S. soccer was built on, and the USOC pays tribute to that background.
Speaking with friends and colleagues, I’ve heard the opinion expressed that the USOC should be scrapped, revamped, and reorganized. I disagree. Could it be marketed and promoted better? Sure, but that would change the feel of the entire competition. As fans, we’re inundated with networks and websites telling us to watch this superstar here and that marquee matchup there. But sometimes all you need is a scrappy, midweek matchup where anything goes.
No one is telling you to watch the US Open Cup. If you’re watching it, it’s because you care and you’re genuinely interested — and that’s what makes it so authentic.
Perhaps I’m just getting caught up in the magic of the Timbers making a deep Cup run. Perhaps I’m over-romanticizing an elderly competition sorely in need of a facelift. But I truly believe the tournament is an important historical reminder of where the game of soccer began in the United States — and just how far it’s come. The US Open Cup represents the past, present, and future of the American game. It should be treasured and cherished — not tossed aside and dismissed like some archaic relic of the past.
So with that said, bring on the semifinals. Let’s see what madness ensues.