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The USOC: Where Do We Go From Here?

Debriefing from the Fire’s loss in Cincinnati— and what this otherwise huge night means for American soccer

MLS: U.S. Open Cup-Chicago Fire at FC Cincinnati Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

If you have a fandom in any other league, you’d know that in whatever country, it is a real honor to be in the domestic cup. The cup itself is a spectacle, a draw that’s just as big as watching a top league match. There’s a saying about the “Magic of the FA Cup”, a place where a fifth league team with part time soccer players named Lincoln City could beat a top flight team. A place where the FA Cup champion is also a team that gets relegated in the same season. The history and prestige of the tournament draws the whole country, and even people outside, into the fervor. It’s on the highest networks, the attendance generally is the same, if you didn’t know any better, you’d think it was the same as the Premier League. The DFB Pokal, Copa Del Rey, and other domestic cups in the biggest leagues in the world are just as special in their own ways.

Yesterday’s U.S. Open Cup game between the Chicago Fire and FC Cincinnati was a proving ground for a lot of different things. Obviously FC Cincinnati was playing for an MLS Expansion, and another step towards their first trophy in their long history of 2 years. The Chicago Fire wanted to play for a chance to get their first trophy since 2006. The biggest win yesterday and this group of matches though is, oddly enough, for the Open Cup itself.

With such a big step in interest for the domestic cup and the various leagues of the United States taking place last night, it’s vital for the steps to keep being made for forward progress. Especially with all this spare money that the United States Soccer Federation has. I’m sure everyone is thinking of ways that the MLS and United States soccer can go from here, so I’m going to add to that list a bit. Here are some of the ways I feel that the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup can be unique, and shape itself to be able to be entertained by the masses.

Ain't No Vision Like Television

It was absolutely amazing to see the Chicago Fire/FC Cincinnati on ESPN. Not ESPN2, not ESPN3, not ESPN the Ocho, regular O.G. ESPN. That was huge for a lot of reasons, the most apparent being that since the game was moved UP from nothing to ESPN 2 and from ESPN 2 to ESPN, it shows that ESPN does care and knows people care. Hockey fans are having this problem right now of a disconnect between the network that owns their game, and the people watching. On the other hand, the most unapparent of one is that it allowed people who didn’t have a horse in the race to see the game. Right now, there seems to be an air of a bit of selfishness in investment for the Cup. The way the game is shown is generally either through a team’s individual team site, or on Univision, and doesn’t receive the same marketing attention. It’s really hard to watch a game you don’t know about, and it’s also really hard to find a game that you don’t have an interest in. If this is supposed to be a tournament for the entire country, it should be available to the entire country.

The beauty about the Chicago Fire game was that it was available for anyone to see, with the same quality as a real game that could be on ESPN. Say what you will about ESPN production value, but it received the same effort that they would give an MLS vs MLS game. The availability is also a big factor, ESPN’s brand of networks reach 92% of homes with cable so there’s no strenuous searching and perusing that you would have to do for most Open Cup games. The rise of FC Cincinnati is of course compelling, so compelling that it got the special treatment that other teams that night didn’t get. I made a very valiant attempt to watch the Seattle vs San Jose game that was after, and it did not go well because it was on no network. This is doubly rough for teams in the USL and NASL, who already don’t get much exposure as is. This cup can act as another way of getting people to know that soccer is in their own city.

The rights to the Open Cup fall under what seems to be nobody in particular, but since it seems like it’s ESPN territory, they do not utilize their WatchESPN platform as they should. Imagine if ESPN 1 and 2 were open for the two biggest matches of whatever round, and the rest could be viewed on WatchESPN. It would be a bit of a time commitment on ESPN’s part, but since most games are midweek, it would be fine to compete against ESPN’s rather thin programming on their Tuesday and Wednesday nights. Doesn’t even have to be ESPN, working out a deal with something like Twitch or another streaming service would certainly expand the visibility of the tournament since those things only require an internet connection. Which actually works into my next step for the US Soccer Federation to grow its domestic cup.

It’s All About the Timing

How in the world are the Open Cup games always during the middle of the week? Even the final? Who did this?

Why there’s not more weekend games is a mystery to me. Maybe it was people who were scared of going up against baseball, maybe the MLS had a conflict with games being played at the same time as when their league was supposed to be played. Whatever the reason, I don’t know if it should be applicable now, at least not if you want it to get bigger. Let’s be real, at the very least every game past the Quarterfinals should be on the weekend. That will create scheduling conflicts yes, but re-scheduling in order to make sure each game is well attended and deserves the attention that it deserves is a worthwhile sacrifice for the long term growth of soccer in America.

Midweek games are very hard to have a constant pull for, especially when lot of teams have stadiums that are far away AND compete against rush hour traffic. Even baseball has that type of problem. You should want to give your product the best chance to succeed, especially in an environment when you mainly only have to compete against baseball and part of the football season. It’ll take collaboration with the MLS too, maybe decrease the length of the playoffs to allow more of a chance for a game to be rescheduled. Maybe get rid of the playoffs entirely and have the MLS Cup be what the Supporters Shield is, and the Supporters Shield can be what it’s named for, an award to the most passionate supporters group as voted on by the players. This is where the federation can get creative, but the most important thing is that they’re creative.

Anything Can Be Treated Like Gold

It seems like the biggest motivator for teams to win the Open Cup is a rather shiny trophy. Rightfully so, but the pageantry behind the other domestic cups in the world not only draws players to play at a level they might not normally play, but it can be a draw for fans as well.

I thought it was a little odd that the final isn’t played on a weekend, and that it isn’t played at a neutral venue. Holding the game at a static neutral site can create some league tradition and history, a way to write a story that could tell something unique and make an atmosphere. Maybe it could be the Rose Bowl? Maybe it could be Atlanta’s new stadium? Maybe something in a historic city like St.Louis, which would help put another stadium in an MLS hopeful city. The U.S Soccer Federation could invest in making a special atmosphere for a special team

Maybe add something extra into the legacy of the champions. In a static venue, maybe the names of everyone on the cup winning team gets added in writing on the top of the stadium. Maybe have a special kit that is worn by the winning team in the last game of their season that is designed by that team’s fans. One of the things I don’t like about US Soccer as it stands right now is that it feels like it has to copy what other leagues do. This is a chance to make your own unique presence, and the United States should take it.

Final Word

You can’t artificially create history, with something like this, it’ll be so apparent if you try to be something that you aren’t (i.e. trying to be like the FA Cup). However, these domestic tournaments are all about the stories that come together and clash. It’s the only competition in American sports where people, all in the same country and of all walks of life and experience levels, compete against each other for the same prize. People like Mitch Hildebrandt rise from seemingly nothing to be their cities hero, teams that wouldn’t have a chance in hell suddenly make a chance. It’s an amazing trophy, with incredible stories. Only thing it’s missing is being treated like what it is, a captivating and interesting tournament.