In our 2013 predictions article, we answered a number of questions about the new MLS season. But one of the questions veered off slightly: who will win the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup?
Of the predictions I made, this was the one I spent the least amount of time thinking about. I ended up writing that the Chicago Fire would triumph over the San Antonio Scorpions of the North American Soccer League. There was almost zero logic in that pick; I picked the Fire because I write about them and I picked San Antonio because...well, I'm not an expert on the club.
But my cavalier attitude here isn't due to me not caring about the competition. On the contrary, my favorite thing about the U.S. Open Cup is how incredibly random it can be.
Remember last year when SEVEN MLS clubs were knocked out in the third round? It was chaotic. It made almost no sense. It was awesome.
Because of this, picking who will win the tournament is kind of like filing out an NCAA Men's Basketball tournament bracket: anything could happen.
And on Tuesday, the tournament got even more unpredictable.
The United States Soccer Federation announced that the final and semifinals will no longer be determined by a closed bid process. Remember back in 2011 when the Seattle Sounders got the final against the Fire simply because they knew they could draw the most fans? Now who knows if the result would have been different had the final taken place at Chicago, but it definitely ended the tournament on a sour note (and yes, of course I'm biased).
This year, the final and semifinals hosts will be determined by a coin flip. Supposedly totally random. No more just throwing money at USSF. And from what we can tell, all of the rounds will be determined by random selection.
I hate to seem like I'm picking on Seattle (that's a complete lie), but I'll use them again. In the aforementioned third round last year, the NASL Atlanta Silverbacks initially held the home rights for their matchup for the Sounders. But in their quest for an unprecedented USOC four-peat, Seattle bought the rights to host the game from the Silverbacks. The Sounders went on to crush them 5-1 and make it all the way to the final (where karma prevailed as they lost in penalty kicks to Sporting Kansas City).
So it appears the days of "buying" the rounds are over now.
At that brings me to the newer financial numbers for the tournament.
According to the USSF release, the prize money for the tournament will increase:
"The amount of prize money distributed will also see a substantial increase, with the overall champion earning a total of $250,000 (up from $100,000 in recent years). The tournament runner-up will receive $60,000 (up from $50,000) and the team that advances the furthest from each lower division will win $15,000 (up from $10,000)."
It's nice to see the amount of money in the tournament go up. But I'm concerned about where a majority of it will likely end up.
That last part about the team that advances the furthest from each lower level going up is nice, but I'm concerned it isn't enough.
Let's go back to that Seattle-Atlanta situation. Atlanta is in the NASL, which is technically one level below MLS (I know someone in the United Soccer Leagues (USL) office who will dispute that, but I digress). And yet, NASL teams struggle mightily to stay afloat. With both that matchup and the Real Salt Lake-Minnesota Stars (now Minnesota United FC) match, you had two teams that basically needed the money so bad that they essentially gave up on the tournament (although Minnesota actually prevailed). The fact is, the American club soccer scene is very top-heavy.
Now I won't turn this into a promotion/relegation argument because, as I know from experience, no one ever wins those. But I'm saying that it ought to be possible to make the USOC a really big deal financially for lower division teams by sweetening the pot for them.
Now does this mean taking away money from the participating MLS sides? Not necessarily. First off, the winner already gets a place in the CONCACAF Champions League, which brings revenue to a club.
But the USSF needs to take the initiative to really bring this tournament up to the next level. Look at the English FA Cup. Wouldn't it be amazing for the USOC to one day be on that level?
Now, the big issue is still money. So why not open the cup to sponsors? The FA Cup is currently sponsored by Budweiser. No one seems to complain too much about that. Conversely, sponsorship can be overdone, as seen with the English Football League Cup, also known as the Capital One Cup (formerly the Carling Cup, named after a really crappy beer). But it'd surely be possible to find that balance here.
Another big issue is television rights. Last year, the final was broadcast on GOL TV, a channel that may or may not still exist. I know announcers are criticized during every sporting event these days, but these guys were legitimately bad. This competition can do better than simply relying to the respective clubs to air the games online in a manner similar to preseason.
The counter-argument to this is that no one wants to pay to air these games. But some of us remember a time when all World Cup matches weren't shown live stateside. It certainly took some investment, but now those rights are worth their weight in gold.
And as the battles between ESPN, FOX (Sky), NBC and Al Jazeera (BeIn Sport) continue around the world, each of them are fighting to grab any soccer rights they can. Surely the USSF can come up with an attractive package here, right? I hate to keep pointing to the FA Cup as the gold standard, but look at all the content they create not just from the games themselves, but from preview shows, review shows, other packaged highlights, etc. It's big money, folks. No, it won't happen overnight, but it's worth it in my opinion.
Overall, the tournament took a step in the right direction on Tuesday. But this can clearly become one of the best club soccer tournaments in the world. Why settle for just good enough when the ceiling is so much higher?
But this is admittedly just one person's opinion. What other changes should the USOC make? Or is the tournament already fine as is?