US Open Cup Round of 16 features a record 14 MLS teams: Should other teams be given more opportunities to compete?

The culmination of this week’s midweek U.S. Open Cup matches ensured that 14 of the teams in the tournament’s Round of 16 will be from Major League Soccer, equalling a record set in 2015, 2016 and 2019 for the most MLS representatives at this stage of the competition. The two non-MLS representatives are USL Championship sides Birmingham Legion FC, who beat fellow USLC side Memphis 901 FC 3-0, and Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, who pulled off the round’s only “cupset” as they knocked off Bruce Arena’s New England Revolution 1-0.

Along with the 24 MLS teams, eight second-division sides participated in the Round of 32 but only Birmingham and Pittsburgh advanced. Last year, three teams from lower divisions made it to the Round of 16, including USL League One side Union Omaha and Championship side Sacramento Republic. They advanced to the semifinals and final, respectively.

With tomorrow’s draw looming large, and the very real possibility that the remaining representatives from the rest of the U.S. soccer pyramid will go no further, it’s worth exploring why the tournament turns out the way it does, especially when compared with similar tournaments. 

For starters, midweek soccer has a complicated relationship with MLS. Whether it's the CONCACAF Champions League or U.S. Open Cup, MLS sides rarely put out competitive squads until winning the tournament becomes a serious possibility. Just this past week, LAFC advanced by the skin of its teeth over Monterey Bay FC despite sending up what was effectively the club’s U-21 team. 

Earlier this season, Austin FC humiliated itself with a thoroughly deserved loss to Violette AC in the CCL, when Josh Wolff put out a weak lineup that lost the first leg 3-0 in the Dominican Republic. Despite putting out a better squad and winning the second leg, Austin was sent packing as the Haitian champions advanced 3-2 on aggregate. 

These tournaments, which should bring prestige and give American clubs the opportunity to show their gall outside domestic matches, are typically reduced to an afterthought or a speedbump to be avoided. Recently, even the league’s commissioner Don Garber voiced his displeasure with the U.S. Open Cup while speaking with U.S. Soccer Federation chief commercial officer David Wright, who was giving a presentation at the open session of the USSF board of directors meeting. 

"I would say that they're not games that we would want our product to be shown to a large audience," Garber said. "So frankly, I'm not all that disappointed that the audience is small. So I appreciate the enthusiasm about it, but we need to get better with the U.S. Open Cup. It's just not the proper reflection of what soccer in America at the professional level needs to be."

While many in the USSF would agree that the Open Cup is not where it should be, Garber’s sentiment should be reconsidered, especially as the closed system of MLS plays a key role in the continued stagnation of clubs not associated with the league. Without anything to play for, fans are far less incentivized to support lower-league teams. Obviously, some clubs do a better job of creating and cultivating a sustainable fanbase than others, but in general, these organizations typically struggle to survive financially in the American soccer market. 

For these clubs stuck in soccer’s purgatory, the Open Cup presents the opportunity to earn some extra prize money, attract more fans and get some brand exposure that it wouldn’t get otherwise. Unfortunately, measures have been taken to ensure that MLS teams do not face each other until the round of 32 at the earliest. 

This means MLS clubs almost always put out youth or weakened squads for these Third Round games against lower-league opposition, and while this sometimes opens the doors for a “cupset,” they're much rarer than advertised. 

Only Monterey Bay and Memphis beat MLS opposition in the Third Round and combined with Pittsburgh’s recent win, lower league teams have gone a combined 3-21 against MLS opponents. Just a reminder, MLS teams fielded weakened lineups in the majority of these games. 

While far from a perfect comparison, the FA Cup in England regularly sees lower-league clubs feasting on the nation’s elite. Just this year, non-league side Wrexham AFC advanced all the way to the Fourth Round Proper (Round of 32), while fourth-division side Grimsby Town beat Southampton FC en route to the quarterfinals. 

So what needs to change for the U.S. Open Cup to become as unpredictable as it likes to pretend it is? 

Firstly, stop protecting the big boys. If two MLS clubs draw each other in the Third Round, so be it. There’s a draw for a reason, embrace it. This will allow more routes for lower league clubs and even if they don’t win the tournament, they’ll advance further on average purely based on the fact that they won’t be playing the MLS clubs as early. 

Next, invest in broadcasting. Ensure that the games are streamed professionally and get a solid streaming partnership solidified so fans can find and watch the games with regularity. Obviously, it would take more effort and funding as many clubs don’t have the equipment or facilities to provide streams for themselves, but in the long run, these costs would be worth it. 

It would also be great to see the lower-seeded side host the match, but I recognize that there’s something to be said for a semi-professional team getting the opportunity to play at Children’s Mercy Park or SeatGeek Stadium, as we saw this year. 

Finally, increase the prize money for lower league clubs who advance furthest. Right now, the team from each division that makes the deepest run is rewarded with $25,000, but maybe adding in a guaranteed reward for an upset or for a certain amount of tournament wins would incentivize teams to push themselves more than they already are. 

Without promotion and relegation, the U.S. Open Cup is the next best thing for fans of American soccer. It gives the underdogs a chance to have a crack at the clubs they can never catch, and while it’s far from perfect, the good news is that it can get absolutely get better. 

We’ve seen the recent growth of MLS and soccer as a whole around the country, proving that there are fans to be reached. To help the oldest ongoing national soccer competition in the country thrive, it's crucial for the right people to step up and make the necessary changes.

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