With the opening rounds of the United States’ oldest soccer competition opening this weekend, I began wondering why this tournament isn’t a bigger deal. After all, in a country that goes mad for college basketball every March, don’t we want to see that same insanity, at least some form of it, in soccer?
The U.S. Open Cup is always ripe with upsets, storylines, and emerging young stars, however with television ratings in the tank for the last few years, its clear that this competition is in many ways broken. Thus, in an effort to fix one of my favorite tournaments in all of North America, I have come up with three suggestions to remedy our greatest American soccer tradition.
Let College Teams Play
One of the biggest shortcomings for the U.S. Open Cup is the restriction by the NCAA regarding college teams participating in the tournament. Because the tournament has prize money attached to it, teams are not allowed to participate, as the NCAA views that prize money as an improper benefit.
I say let the kids have their cash. Who wouldn’t want to see a matchup like Jordan Morris (who has played for the senior national team) leading his Stanford squad against the San Jose Earthquakes? How about UCLA against the Galaxy? Heck, even a game between Notre Dame and the NASL’s Indy Eleven is sure to spark some interest in the Midwest. The U.S. Open Cup, like the NCAA Tournament, is meant to be a regional competition. Without college teams, fans are forced to watch lower division sides they’ve never heard of, rather than the intriguing matches we all want to see. Adding in college teams could change all of that in an instant.
Broadcast Over the Internet
While the new deal to broadcast the final on Fox Sports’ family of networks is certainly a step in the right direction, the broadcast of U.S. Open Cup games over the past few years has made it nearly impossible to watch. From 2006-2011, games were shown on the now defunct Fox Soccer Channel, only to move to GolTV from 2012-2014. Neither channel garnered a large viewership, thus moving the tournament back to Fox Sports.
However, in this heyday of internet television, I think it would be a great idea to simulcast opening round games over internet TV providers (think ESPN3, YouTube, and Fox Sports Go) in order to gain steam with early teams in the opening rounds of the cup. After all, NBC has seen huge gains from their streaming platforms for EPL games and teams like Georgia State seem to become national darlings for winning just one game in the NCAA Tournament. Lower division sides could easily gain a bandwagon if their games were broadcast in early rounds, utilizing the internet television at our disposal.
Publicize the Champions’ League Berth
While victories in MLS Cup are nice, if the United States’ domestic league wants to take the next step in its development, they need to start regularly winning the continental championships. One of the ways to earn a berth in this championship is by winning the U.S. Open Cup. As the desire for a Champions’ League trophy grows in MLS, so too will the desire to win the Open Cup. More and more teams are taking Lamar Hunt’s competition seriously, which will only lead to a growth in attendance, and eventually, television ratings.
While the CONCACAF Champions’ League has been dominated by Mexican sides in the recent past, this year’s edition of the tournament signals a changing of the guard. Three out of the four Champions’ League semifinalists come from outside Mexico, and Montreal Impact, an MLS side, will take on Club America in the final. The Impact’s success shows the volatility of the new Champions’ League, and should drive more interest in winning the Open Cup amongst MLS teams and the fan bases that support them.