How to Fix the US Open Cup

The US Open Cup isn’t really broken.

At least not in the respect where it once was a noble or popular thing and is now in tatters compared to its past glory. It’s never been all that massively popular (the 1920s may have actually been its finest hour), and US Soccer even divested itself of the trophy in the 1950s, only taking back control when the fledgling MLS agreed to participate.

But since then, the Open Cup hasn’t grown significantly, despite temporary bumps for the clubs who make it to the final. The latter rounds of the Open Cup have been contested in large part on practice and college fields to minimize the cost of small crowds. When there are cameras at the venue at all, it’s usually to provide a streaming feed of questionable quality on the home club’s website — famously, at one point the feed of the 2012 match between the San Jose Earthquakes and Seattle Sounders cut out completely, replaced with a red question mark.

MLS fans are usually ambivalent and often derisive, complaining that clubs like DC United and Seattle Sounders bought themselves an unfair advantage, or that many MLS clubs don’t take the competition seriously. In reality, a home advantage is only an advantage if you’re also playing to win, and with heightened importance of the CONCACAF Champions League and the expanded roster and additional salary leeway it brings, it’s not the brightest idea to simply let your club bounce out.

Problems Not Solved

In 2012 The US Soccer Federation added a couple of new wrinkles. Hoping to quiet the most vocal critics, the USSF established a new bidding format, in which clubs that both met a maximum bid amount would “flip” for hosting rights. Problem was, the “coin flips” were held in secret, and when Seattle lost every coin flip throughout the tournament (including an unexpected “flip” after an unexpected “tie” for hosting rights to the final), no one could be blamed for being suspicious. In addition, clubs could continue to buy hosting rights from their opponents, leading to a “respect the draw” movement that was strident but misguided, in that there wasn’t actually a draw.

The other wrinkle was TV rights — up to a week before the final there was no planned TV. Rights were sold at the last minute to GolTV, a network only available in a Spanish language package on many cable systems. Word was that there were other bidders, including the finalists’ over-the-air TV partners and Fox Soccer Channel, but none met the USSF’s fee demands. Using the federation’s desperation as leverage, GolTV swooped in and bought four years of US Open Cup final airings, ensuring only the hardest-core fans will see that match for years to come.

These aren’t really the primary issues with the tournament. The real problem is that the USSF simply doesn’t care enough to really push it or try to innovate in any way. The fans are little help — while they’d like the tournament to be more “pure” (read: more like the FA Cup), ideas like a true draw for home-field (or worse, forcing the lower-level club to host) or a neutral-site final would probably kill the tournament. No, we need ideas that, while not necessarily “pure,” will bring sustaining cash to the tournament while ensuring the fans and clubs who really care are able to show it.

Which leads me to my suggestions, ranked from easiest to “the USSF will never do it in a million years.”

1. Show the draw live.

This should be a no-brainer. If a visiting Seattle fan can stream a match from the stands with his iPhone, the USSF can hook up a camera to Ustream and let whoever cares to watch it, watch it. An unbroken camera shot of a guy flipping a coin, showing the coin to the camera, then flipping again. Cost: I bet someone at USSF headquarters has an iPhone. Or heck, call me, I’ll do it for you and it’ll be more verifiable and transparent than what you’re doing now. I’ll make a little show out of it.

2. Make Third Round travel equitable.

No one should complain about Seattle, Portland and Salt Lake “buying” home field when the alternative is to fly most of the way across the country to play their “regional” matches while other teams simply get on a bus a few hours before match time. Last year was a bit of an anomaly: few lower-level clubs from west of the Mississippi made it to the third round. But travel should be evened out. Have the northwest MLS clubs play the California PDL clubs, the California clubs play the Texas teams, and so on. Everyone travels a reasonable amount and no one is forced to go from Seattle to Atlanta (or vice versa).

3. True draw* from the Fourth Round onward.

This is the opportunity for some real excitement. In addition, with all 16 US MLS clubs now qualifying for the tournament proper, using the “regional” plan will result in the same clubs playing the same clubs almost every year. Get that bingo hopper moving and add the only real pizzazz the USSF could conceivably muster. Get some soccer-loving celebs or our more famous players to draw.

*Of course, home pitch will be subject to bid, but since bids are blind it makes no difference whether opponents are drawn or predetermined.

The more I think about this low-hanging fruit, the more I can’t believe I have to spell this out for you guys.

4. Go back to the highest-bidder system for the Third and Fourth Rounds.

WHY?? OMG SO NOT FAIR TO CHIVAS USA!! Well, as long as USSF won’t use a red cent of USMNT rights money to help out the Open Cup and no TV partners will bid for it, hosting fees are the major revenue source. In addition, maybe the clubs that don’t care and can’t draw flies to their matches don’t deserve to host. Yes, the club predominantly playing its matches at home has won the Cup all but 3 times since 1996. Sorry, that’s kind of real life right there.

No MLS club owner is a poor man, and if someone believes bidding high to host will grow the event in their city or boost their club’s profile it’s not like they have to mortgage their house to do it.

5. Mandatory live broadcast.

Anyone bidding for home-field must also offer a live Internet or satellite feed of the match. No broadcast, no home field. Both clubs can use this feed and add their own commentary to it at their discretion, but there must be a feed that meets quality standards, with a financial penalty if it falls short. (How high must the quality be? Higher than the San Jose-Seattle quarterfinal match, I’d say.) Again, if a dude with an iPhone can do it…

6. Hire a leader.

One move that would boost the US Open Cup’s media cred in a heartbeat would be to appoint someone the tournament’s czar. This person will be the point man for the press. He will be the one with a measured response to criticism, sparing us Sunil Gulati’s nose-out-of-joint “why, I never,” which is likely preceded by his asking an assistant, “so what’s this ‘US Open Cup’ again?” The Cup needs a leader who makes decisions, announces rule changes and flips the coin or pulls the balls out of the hopper — a consistent and persistent face for the tournament. It will be a thankless job, but someone’s gotta do it. I nominate Grant Wahl, just so he’s forced to pay attention.

7. Adopt a new final format.

No, not a two-leg final. A first leg isn’t very exciting, and it would undercut the ability of USSF to maximize those home-pitch bids. What I’m suggesting is a replay format: If both clubs are tied at the end of regulation, the match is replayed at the other club’s pitch. Only if the match is tied at the end of the second match does extra time and a shootout take place. Or use extra time in the first match as well, I don’t care that much.

Home-pitch for the first match is still paramount for both advantage and ticket-revenue reasons, so there will still be bidding. However, if there’s a replay, the “losing” bidder still pays the USSF. It’s a win-win! Imagine if this year’s match had been played up to extra time at a packed and rocking Livestrong Sporting Park, then replayed at a packed and rocking CenturyLink Field. Two incredible atmospheres, the added incentive for KC to win in regular time at their house…and a title more likely to be won without a shoot-out!

8. Marketing deal with SUM.

The marketing arm of MLS already promotes the h-e-double-hockeysticks out of the US National Teams and big-time international friendlies. Why not see what they can do to hook up the Open Cup with sponsorships and TV? Shove the final into the USMNT TV rights deal (you want US vs Mexico, you agree to air the Open Cup final). You’d think two MLS clubs playing for a trophy would be sexy to ESPN or NBC Sports on some level. With Don Garber and company to strong-arm them, I don’t see how networks won’t pay more than GolTV does now, while actually making the match available to the general public.

Which leads me to the ultimate fix:

9. Divest the USSF of the tournament.

It’s no secret that the USSF holds the US Open Cup at arm’s length. The tournament already has to sustain itself with no help from the giant pots of sponsorship cash the national teams bring in; it’s got zero synergy with any other USSF initiative. They won’t even give it a section within their own website. So why not get out of the domestic cup business entirely? Spin it off into a self-contained non-profit organization whose charter is to constantly improve and grow the tournament and the domestic game. Put people in charge who are doing their jobs because they love this tournament and want it to grow. People whose thoughts aren’t otherwise occupied by the next World Cup or even whether USL and NASL officials can sit in the same room together without fighting.

If a self-contained US Open Cup committee ever got to the point where, say, its executive director makes as much as USSF CEO Dan Flynn, we’ll know the tournament is finally the success we’ve wanted it to be. At which point we’ll have a whole new set of problems to solve.

Got an opinion? What else would you do?