This past week has been a whirlwind for Fire fans. We had the MLS SuperDraft hoopla last week with a couple of new player signings sprinkled in (Robayo and Puppo). On the heels of that we had a sponsor announcement and new jersey unveiling. Somewhat lost in the shuffle was the announcement of the changes to the U.S. Open Cup tournament. Follow me after the break for a recap of how the new look USOC is shaping up, as well as what needs to still be fixed regarding bidding in the final 2 rounds...
The biggest change is of course how many teams will be vying to lift the USOC trophy above their heads at the final. The number of teams is jumping up by the large number of 24, going from 40 teams last year to 64 teams this year (39 if you don't countas being a part of the tournament in 2011 and I think they might be just fine with that actually). The tournament will consist of teams from Divisions 1, 2, and 3. Division 1 teams would be the 16 American MLS teams. Division 2 consists of the 6 NASL teams. 10 USL Pro teams make up Division 3. It's pretty cool to have all professional teams vying for the trophy, so it will definitely bring a fresh facelift to the competition. Last year's USOC did not include NASL/Division 2.
The other 32 teams consist of U.S. Adult Soccer Association squads (USASA). These squads can hail from a few different leagues, all of which are affiliated with USASA. The teams will enter the USOC field from USASA regional qualifying, the USL Premier Development League (PDL), the National Premier Soccer League, as well as US Club Soccer. I for one think the addition of the additional teams is definitely an improvement. It gets more teams involved, doesn't affect the Fire since they enter the tournament at a later round (which I will touch on momentarily), and it almost takes on a NCAA March Madness feel. While we won't have a few days in a row chock full of soccer matches like the NCAA Tournament, I think putting it in that style of format could help outside observers relate a bit more to the tournament. If this helps get the tournament the visibility it deserves and should have, I am all for it.
The format for the matches is also changing up a bit too. All matches will take place on a Tuesday, except for the final, which will be either August 7th or August 8th. One thing that should immediately stick out is how much sooner the final is this year than last year. In fact, it's almost 2 entire months sooner. That certainly bodes well for the weather in most places, not including Seattle and their 365 day rainy forecast.
The first round of games will consist of the 32 amateur teams, and the games will be paired up geographically. Teams from the same qualifying pool or league can't play each other in the first round. The Round 1 winners will then face Division 2 and Division 3 teams in the next round, again based on geography. MLS teams then enter in Round 3, as they did last year, again paired geographically with Round 2 winners. The nice thing to take out of this new format is the geographic pairings. It should really help with travel concerns, reducing distances traveled, wear and tear, and especially reducing costs. Last year Colorado had to travel to Peoria to play the Fire. When Chicago won, they had to travel to San Jose just to get into Round 3.
Despite the increase in teams, the action will be hot, heavy, and quick. The first four rounds will happen in just a 3 week span, from May 15th to June 5th. The quarterfinals then take place on June 26th, with the semifinals occurring on July 10th, and culminating with a very early final: August 7th or August 8th.
If you have read about the changes before, you probably heard the biggest change was on the hosting of games and who got home field opportunities. Previously, it was based upon a sealed bid process. Teams interested in hosting a game submitted a bid, so essentially the team that wrote the biggest check won the right to host the game. For a great in depth read on the previous bidding process, take a look at this article from the indispensable 'The Cup'. It should be mentioned that other things, such as promises of percentages of gate receipts, pledges of cash to US Soccer, as well as other means, can be used when trying to secure a match, as the article I linked to mentions. While it's fun for big market teams to always be able to outbid other teams, it's certainly not fair to smaller market or less fortunate teams, financially speaking. The new guidelines set forth a random draw process for any teams wishing to host a match at their venue. This evens the playing field, so both teams have a chance to host.
The one big caveat is this only applies through the quarterfinals. So the semifinals and final still have the bidding process, and therefore still have a problem with teams with excessive resources making it impossible for another team to host. While this is a boon for teams with rich owners or a huge fan base, it still is not fair to the teams that want to host but can't bid as much for one reason or another. While every team likes playing at home and would play every match at home if they could, is any team really proving they are the best if they get to play every or almost every match at home and don't have to be tested on the road?
I can see the argument from both sides. With a team like Seattle for instance, they get a huge fanbase that shows up, which gives them financial resources beyond what other teams have. Their argument is that they show up in droves, should be free to spend the money they have however they want, so therefore should be able to host any big game they are involved in. While the argument for their fans and resources is understandable and credible from their point of view, it still is an unfair advantage for any team to always be able to host at home. As much as I would love for the Fire to get to the final and host every year, I can understand how other fans would look at this with disdain. Chicago has certainly taken advantage of this bidding process in earlier rounds throughout the years. It's easy to say that if these "big market, big spending" teams get eliminated before the final, you don't have to worry about them. Well, that works unless you are the team that has to face them on the road in the final and didn't get the chance to eliminate them earlier.
Deeper Issues & Thoughts
1. Part of the issue is that the final is a 1 game affair. Thus only one team can host with either the previous or new format. It's not like some of the other major US sports. There is no best of 7 game series like baseball or basketball. I realize the Super Bowl is a one game affair, but those two competitions are in a slightly different stratosphere. The Super Bowl is also always in a pre-determined and usually neutral site. The best teams in the MLB, NBA, or NHL don't get to host every game in a final series. The games are split between the two teams. Obviously the USOC isn't going to go to a best of 3, 5, or 7 series, so another way must be found.
Other leagues tackles this by having the final in a neutral site, like the Super Bowl or some European Soccer finals, like the UEFA Champions League. While it is nice for one team to be the home team, a neutral site takes home field advantage out of the equation. The downside to this? Travel distance. While loyal Fire fans will travel anywhere, it's a bit hard to take 10-15 thousand people halfway across the US. Thus fan turnout might be stifled if one, or both teams are nowhere close to the neutral stadium. It is also essentially still home field advantage for one team if the neutral site is close to where one of the teams calls home.
2. Going back to the Sounders, part of the pull they have is the field they call home, CenturyLink Field. Seattle is a bit different than say, Chicago. There are 5 major, professional teams in Chicago (Cubs, White Sox, Bulls, Blackhawks, and Bears). Seattle is not so congested in terms of that many big, professional clubs outside of the Mariners and the Seahawks. The pro Chicago franchises all have their own stadiums, with exception of the Bulls and Blackhawks, which share the United Center. The Fire did share Soldier Field with the Bears at one time, but have since moved to their own soccer specific stadium, Toyota Park.
The Sounders have the fortunate situation of operating under the same umbrella as the NFL's Seattle Seahawks. CenturyLink provides them with a much bigger facility than any other MLS team enjoys. They didn't have to spend money out of pocket to build their own home, and when I researched this, they don't even pay any rent to use the stadium. Sounders minority owner Paul Allen, who happens to be the Seahawks owner, allows the team to use the facilities for free. E-mails from the Sounders front office will get you replies from 'JohnDoe@seahawkssoundersfc.com'. Imagine if the Fire were not viewed by the Bears as some kind of red-headed step-child renting out Solider Field but rather shared everything right down to fan E-mails, ticket databases, regional market research, anything you could imagine.
While it is impressive how the Sounders fanbase shows up in great numbers, I can't help but feeling that most of the leverage they have in winning hosting bids is due to essentially a free lunch, so to speak. I am sure some percentage of their gate, concessions, etc. goes back to the Seahawks/building itself, but they have larger amounts of money to host USOC games than other teams due to this. If they had to go out and finance and keep up their own stadium/club, I don't think they would have quite the financial clout. Just imagine the price of building a 40,000 seat stadium in downtown Seattle, let alone the costs of being self sufficient without a mega rich owner taking you along for the ride. Certainly credit can be given to the Sounders for finding a sweet deal like they have, but it still doesn't mean it is fair for the rest of the league.
This obviously carries over to MLS play as well. More money means more signings, attracting players with bigger salaries, etc. For this reason, I see it being a very long time before Seattle moves to their own facility voluntarily, if ever. They certainly should feel fortunate for the situation they are in. You would think with all that money, they could at least put in a pitch with real grass.
3. Another option is to make the bids public from now on. It would give everyone an idea of what range they need to be in in order to host a final. Essentially, the pretenders would be separated from the contenders. I get that the whole idea of the sealed bid is to ensure teams' bids aren't leaked, thus enabling another team to leapfrog them. What harm is there in releasing the bids after the final though?
If this was strictly the MLS, I would understand the cult-like secrecy on financial figures. Since it's not, I think releasing the bids after the final could help everyone and hinder no one from where I am standing. If I make a bid of $200,000 for example, and don't win the rights to host, I can at least find out after the final where my number needed to be. Say the winning bid was $400,000. The next time I make the final, if I have the cash, then I know I need to bid, or exceed that, to truly have a shot at hosting. While some would argue that this takes out the secrecy of it, I would say that it doesn't matter in the end. Even if I am the winning/losing team and I make a final again in the future, I likely would know I may have to bid more than the winning bid in previous years to secure a home game. Costs go up every year, just like inflation. A $400k bid in 2008 isn't the same bid in 2011, for example. Likewise, if I am in a final against a smaller team, I may be able to bid the same as a previous winning amount, or even less, and still have a chance at hosting due to greater resources.
What I am getting at here is that revealing bids still doesn't remove the crapshoot element from the process. There are still many other intangibles that come into play that affect who ultimately wins the bid. While a team that won the bid may feel it is unfair to reveal how much they had to pay because it would give other teams a leg up in negotiating in the future, revealing the bid may help bring even more money into the USSF/USOC proper. One would hope that extra money goes to the clubs playing and building the tournament into a true spectacle. If a team that has money knows they might need to throw some extra on top and splurge, they can still win the bid. And the money could also go into extra prize money, which would go a long way for any team, but especially for the smaller/amateur teams. Even an extra 10k or 25k to a Division 2 or 3 team would be a huge boost.
I get that the point of the tournament is to win, not make other teams richer. But the point is also to turn the USOC tournament into something special, and money talks. The more money that rolls in, the bigger and more important it gets. And the more important, the more teams will spend to host it. Revealing the bids could help grow the tournament if the bidding action gets intense. Not to mention we are going to need extra money to truly try to implement Jurgen Klinsman's plan for the new look US Soccer pyramid (in terms of re-shaping the USSF in general). Extra bid money can go a long way in helping soccer in the US in general if allocated correctly. We are gonna need all the extra money we can get from any source imaginable if we want to truly make an honest attempt at changing how US Soccer works.
As you can see, there is a myriad of different ways to look at the semifinal and final hosting process. None of the points I mentioned above can be construed as ideal fixes from my view. I wanted to throw out some good food for thought. Clearly the best way to fix the problem is to have a final with 2 legs, home and away. Go by the good old aggregate method. That way, both teams have a chance to host a game. Both fan bases get to cheer their team on and try to prove they are the best fan base. Both teams obviously benefit from a home game with ticket revenue, merchandising, TV money, concessions, etc. and the USSF makes more money too. Certainly the drama can be just as intense, if not more intense when a team is down in aggregate and need to try for a miracle comeback, especially in front of home fans for example.
Are there downsides? Yes, one more game to play. A little bit of travel. More cost (which can be offset for the team that normally wouldn't have had a home game with the old format now getting revenue from a home game). That cost should also be helped by the fact that both teams would share revenue from two games instead of just one. The travel issue will also be greatly offset this year with the new unbalanced schedule anyway, so teams would still end up traveling far less than in previous seasons.. So overall it makes enough sense to me that the USOC committee needs to look at a 2 leg, aggregate final. This obviously cann't be done for every single game in the earlier rounds, but it could be done for the semifinal/final or just the final round. It makes sense, so why not I ask?