The U.S. Open Cup: A history of broken leagues and false dawns

When it comes to football competitions that have lasted for more than a century, tournaments such as the FA Cup or Scottish Cup will certainly come to mind for many. The United States may not be thought of immediately, considering the relatively young lifespan of Major League Soccer (MLS) thus far, but the history of the sport can be traced as far back as 1914 thanks solely to the U.S. Open Cup.

The origins of the game came about in similar ways to other countries throughout the world, as British and European immigrants brought football with them as they began life in a new setting. Cities such as New Orleans and Boston were initial areas of popularity in the late 1800s, while several Native American tribes played versions of the sport even before those years.

MLS is now in its 23rd season, making it the longest-running professional first division in US history. Leagues have come and gone, with failure eventually arriving each time for different reasons. Finances, fan interest, players and infrastructure have all played a role in the demise of what had seemed promising at one point or another. Through it all, there has been the U.S. Open Cup, and its history tells a unique tale of rises, falls, and missed opportunities.

The preeminent online source for coverage of the competition can be found with TheCup.us, which provides an excellent balance of statistics and stories from the past and present. Compiling information from prior decades about the tournament can be difficult, as the U.S. Open Cup takes as many jagged and mazy turns through its life as the leagues that operated around it.

As can be the case for numerous forming aspects from people to locations, the beginnings of the U.S. Open Cup are seen before the first final took place in May 1914. Conducted mostly at a regional level beforehand, America’s first true organisation of a collective body for football was seen in 1884 with the establishment of the American Football Association (AFA). The AFA was affiliated with England’s FA, and had the lofty goal of bringing together one set of standard rules for the game.

The AFA encompassed clubs throughout New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. A year after forming, the country’s first non-league cup was created, known as the American Cup. While initial elements seemed promising, a decline in popularity and issues within the AFA led to the competition being abandoned for seven years, eventually returning from a hiatus in 1906. When it did come back, it also came with a desperate need for a better structure from the AFA.

Competition would materialise from the American Amateur Football Association (AAFA). With a greater national reach and drawing members away from the AFA, the AAFA became the United States Football Association (today known as the United States Soccer Federation) and was granted FIFA membership in 1913. The next year would bring the National Challenge Cup, which would evolve into the U.S. Open Cup. As of 1998, the official title is the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, in recognition of a key figure in the growth of the sport in America.

The first final featured two New York teams, as Brooklyn Field Club earned a 2-1 victory against Brooklyn Celtic in front of 10,000 fans at Coates Field in Rhode Island. Clubs from the Northeast of the US would dominate the early years of the tournament until Missouri side Ben Millers (named for their hat company sponsor) lifted the trophy in 1920. Squads participating in the Open Cup would typically be from regional leagues, until the formation of the American Soccer League (ASL) in 1921.

The pioneer in terms of a relevant and financially viable football league in the US, the ASL would produce dominant teams both within their own league and in the Open Cup. Fall River Marksmen and Bethlehem Steel, two clubs that would combine for nine Open Cup titles, were two of the best teams in the country. Able to offer competitive pay and a thriving atmosphere, the ASL was becoming a destination of choice for European footballers as well.

A battle between the US Football Association (USFA) and the ASL not only was the ultimate death knell for the ASL, but the reverberations from their issues would also have a massive influence on the sport’s place in American society. The root of the disagreements came from the perception of which entity held the most power, and the schedule of the USFA’s Open Cup. ASL clubs boycotted the competition at several stages. But the Open Cup’s popularity was significant, so much so that the American Cup faded away after the 1924 season.

ASL owners were under fire from FIFA in regards to signing European players already under contract overseas, as well as operating a “closed system” league. In a move to break away from the USFA, the ASL created their own play-off system that would essentially rival the Open Cup’s overall concept. In response, the USFA suspended the ASL, and began a period of time referred to as the “American Soccer Wars”.

The USFA and the ASL were able to come to an agreement, but different types of problems were on the horizon just weeks after their settlement. The US stock market crashed in 1929, and destroyed any chance of economic success for the ASL. After 13 years, the league folded in 1932. With that drop of financial muscle came a tumble in popularity, both for the sport and for the Open Cup. While the ASL would re-form in 1933, professional clubs became a rarity and it was never again at the same level of its previous incarnation.

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From the 1940s until the 1990s, the Open Cup featured only amateur sides. American sports culture was at a critical point also, and the game became anonymous in the national landscape. Major League Baseball was in a golden era in the 1950s, with players like Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial becoming heroes to a generation. The National Football League’s Super Bowl would help launch American football to new heights in the 1960s and 1970s, with the National Basketball Association becoming a mainstream force as well.

In comparison, the American national soccer team did not qualify for a FIFA World Cup between 1950 and 1990, with the Open Cup simply an obscure competition without a top-flight professional league around it.

Brooklyn Hispano captured two titles in 1943 and 1944. The Philadelphia Ukrainian Nationals would win four Open Cups in the 1960s, followed by three consecutive triumphs from Greek American Atlas Astoria. Maccabi Los Angeles appeared in a record seven Open Cup finals, finding victory in five (level with Bethlehem Steel for the most championships in tournament history). Teams throughout those decades did not often feature American internationals, an aspect that helped to build a destructive narrative amongst many in the national media of football being an “un-American” sport.

But popularity levels would change in the 1970s, as the North American Soccer League (NASL) was able to capture the attention of the country with big-name signings and a blistering style of play. Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Eusébio, Johan Cruyff, George Best and others helped push football to an exciting new era. Eventually, wild spending and over-expansion led to its demise in 1984. Despite the interest surge, the Open Cup was not able to benefit from it.

NASL teams viewed the Open Cup as nothing more than an amateur competition, something that would take away the lustre of their league season and play-offs. If they had been a part of the tournament, things certainly could have been very different for the cup’s name and prestige. Ironically reminiscent of the ASL’s perspective, the competition would change forever with the launch of MLSoccer in 1996.

When the United States secured the right to host the 1994 World Cup, FIFA mandated that a new first division was created. MLS started two years later with ten clubs, and they would be playing in the Open Cup also. Since that point, the league has been dominant, except in 1999 when the Rochester Raging Rhinos knocked off the Colorado Rapids of MLS in the final. The Rhinos were in the short-lived A-League, which would become United Soccer Leagues (the current second tier of US football).

The tournament was re-branded in 1998, adopting the Open Cup name from the previous National Challenge Cup moniker. A driving force for growth in both the NASL and MLS (along with the NFL), Lamar Hunt’s name was deservedly attached to the trophy also. MLS sides have a considerable financial advantage against lower-division and amateur teams, typically leading to smaller crowds than what is seen for league matches and play-offs (mid-week games do not help either). This brought about a lazy attitude from some teams, viewing the cup as more of an annoyance than a priority.

One such example was seen in the 2011 edition. New York Red Bulls manager Hans Backe thought so little of his club’s quarter-final match against the Chicago Fire that he not only sent a squad of only reserve players, but he and his assistant coach did not make the trip for the game. New York fell 4-0 in an overall embarrassing showing. However, that has become more of an outlier than the norm.

Chicago Fire, Sporting Kansas City and the Seattle Sounders have each captured four Open Cup titles, and proven that fans care about the history involved with the competition. Chicago enjoyed crowds of just under 20,000 at Soldier Field when they lifted the trophy in 1998 and 2000, while Seattle’s CenturyLink Field saw more than 30,000 supporters in each of their back-to-back triumphs in 2010 and 2011. Last year’s final in Kansas City had an announced attendance of 21,523. But it is the mixture of different levels of the game that truly gives the Open Cup its charm.

Amateur club Cal FC pulled off a tremendous Third Round upset in 2012, defeating MLS side Portland Timbers 1-0 to reach the next stage. Christos FC, an amateur squad from Baltimore named after a local liquor store, made a run to the Round of 16 in 2017. In this way, one can find a similarity to the “giant killers” of the FA Cup and League Cup in England. With no promotion and relegation utilised to reach MLS, the Open Cup stands as the best way for American clubs to make an impact on the pitch and beyond.

Beginning in 2008, the winner of the Open Cup earns a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League, with an opportunity to reach the FIFA Club World Cup as a confederation representative. The re-launched version of the New York Cosmos had just that as their main goal earlier this decade, as they added the likes of Real Madrid legend Raúl González and former Villarreal midfielder Marcos Senna despite not being in the top flight. They would make promising runs in 2014 and 2015, but were ultimately unable to reach the final.

After witnessing the collapse of the ASL and NASL, the Open Cup’s (and the US Soccer Federation’s) relationship with MLS seems to be one of mutual progression. In terms of fully gathering the attention of casual American sport fans, that fight continues to be a long one. The 2018 final between the Philadelphia Union and the Houston Dynamo was broadcasted by ESPN in the United States, but it was also the only match of the tournament to be televised. Outside of attending at the grounds, most other fixtures for the 97 participants were available to viewers via an online stream through either a club’s website or YouTube.

In the national sense, there is much work to be done. US Soccer now has the final prize money set at $300,000, a significant increase over past amounts to go along with Champions League qualification. The Open Cup can truly be more, but likely must see the proper backing and platform to achieve that status.

The United States’ football history is a winding road, one that has not always been very stable during the past 100 years. Leagues and clubs have come and gone, but through it all there has been the U.S. Open Cup. It offers a wonderful glimpse of where the sport has been, and also where it is going in the future.

By Roy Emanuel

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