The nation’s longest-running soccer tournament, the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, is now down to its final 32 competitors and here’s where things really get interesting. The 16 US-based Major League Soccer teams join the fray in the fourth round, all competing against lower-division teams between June 11 and June 18. You’re going to read and hear a lot about “the magic of the Open Cup” and “plucky little lower-level clubs” between now and then, but here are a few things to keep in mind while pundits fill column inches and air minutes.
1. MLS Teams Do Lose Against Lower-Division Clubs, But Not That Often
In the last ten tournaments (2004-2013), MLS teams have played 133 Open Cup matches against lower-division teams. They’ve won 81 of those matches and tied 16 (a .669 W-L-T percentage) and have advanced in the tournament in 90 of those 133 instances (.677 percent).
|vs. 2nd Division||67||36||20||11||.619||43||.642|
|vs. 3rd Division||49||31||14||4||.673||33||.673|
At home, MLS teams are really successful against lower-division teams, going 56-10-5 and advancing 58 times in 71 matches (82 percent of the time). Given 14 of the 16 fourth-round matchups have the MLS team hosting (though Columbus is playing Indianapolis in Akron, two hours away from Crew Stadium), the draw favors the top flight in this round.
In 2013’s fourth round, MLS teams advanced past lower-division teams in 12 of the 16 matchups (going 11-4-1, officially, as DC United advanced on penalties). That was a bit higher than in years prior, but don’t be surprised if we see 11 or 12 of the 16 MLS teams advance this time around, just looking at history and home teams.
2. 28 Lower-Division Clubs Have Ousted MLS Clubs, But 20 Of Them Aren’t Here
In the Modern Era of the tournament (since 1996, when MLS began), a total of 28 teams in the lower divisions have knocked MLS teams out of the Open Cup. One of the co-leaders in upsets, the Charleston Battery, fell in the third round, so it’s left to Rochester to try to become the first lower-division team to knock out an MLS team 10 times (though six of Rochester’s nine happened before the turn of the century, when the Rhinos really were all the rage).
Of the 28 upsetters, 20 either no longer exist, aren’t participating this year or have already been ousted. Here’s the all time list:
|Harrisburg City Islanders||5|
|Mid Michigan Bucks#||2|
|San Francisco Bay Seals*||2|
|Orlando City SC||2|
|Crystal Palace Baltimore*||1|
|Dallas Roma FC#||1|
|Dayton Dutch Lions#||1|
|Long Island Rough Riders#||1|
|San Antonio Scorpions||1|
|Seattle Sounders Select#||1|
|Staten Island Vipers*||1|
|Tampa Bay Rowdies#||1|
|%Now in MLS|
|*No longer exist|
|#Not participating/knocked out|
That’s just more interesting than actually indicative or predictive of anything. There’s no reason any of the eight clubs left in the tournament who aren’t on that list can’t pull an upset. But the ranks of the usual suspects have been diminished a bit.
3. MLS Will Likely Be There In The End
Since 1996, 92 percent of spots in the final, 83 percent of spots in the semifinals and 75 percent of spots in the quarterfinals have gone to MLS teams. It’s very, very difficult for a lower-division side to make it to the round of eight (though in the last nine years, MLS’ dominance of the quarters has slipped to 60 percent from about 77 percent the first nine years).
The only three lower-division teams to make a final are Rochester (twice) and Charleston. Rochester won it in 1999, the only lower-division side to do so. In the last five years, only two lower-division clubs have made the semifinals. So this fourth (and, this year, fifth) round is where the NASL and USL Pro teams get to have their moment in the sun before reality (usually) sets in.
4. These Games Are Not Particularly Well-Attended
In the last 10 years, third- and fourth-round games (the rounds in which most or all MLS teams usually enter the competition have drawn an average of 4,640 fans. (I have figures for 130 of the 143 games – it’s not always easy to track these things down.) Given the tournament’s rounds are usually pretty tightly-packed and games happen on short notice (giving sales staffs little time to actually sell), that’s not entirely surprising. But whatever the reason (format, unfamiliarity, lack of promotion), this isn’t a tournament fans flock to stadiums to take in live, as a rule. (For what it’s worth, the 2013 tournament – for which I have about 63% of the crowd figures – had the highest average attendance since 1996, but only 4,960 per game.)
This table shows the combined attendance figures for each of the 19 tournaments to this point (with 2014 only through three rounds, obviously). For each year, the first figure is the number of total games that were played, the second figure is the number of games for which I have an attendance number, and the average, highest crowd and lowest crowd are based on those figures.
5. None Of This Has Anything To Do With Promotion And Relegation Or A Competing League
You will see a lot of social media activity with every upset or near-upset by People Who Only Peripherally Follow Soccer claiming that this one-off result or that one-off result makes the case for promotion and relegation between MLS and lower divisions or that someone could easily start a Division I league to compete with MLS (or raise the NASL’s stature to that point).
As the English say, “Bollocks.”
What happens on Any Given Tuesday in a one-off knockout tournament that not all MLS teams take completely seriously has absolutely zero to do with the economic realities that preclude promotion and relegation from being implemented anytime soon (if at all) in this country. Most lower-level teams simply could not afford to play at a higher level, and the prospect of relegation would completely kibosh public-private stadium partnerships (to say nothing of the havoc they would wreak on rosters, sponsorships and media agreements, etc.).
And the NASL is about a decade and a half in time and several billion dollars of investment (in players, infrastructure and stadiums) behind MLS. It’s highly unlikely they could or would find enough people willing to invest that money in making a challenge to the status quo when they could take the demonstrably-easier route to joining MLS via expansion.
The Open Cup is fun. My man Josh Hakala loves it a little too much, but there are worse things to love too much. The pressure of a knockout tournament and the sort of parallel-universe aspect of it (where even a last-place team can win the Cup) make for an interesting competition. And with MLS teams taking a break for the beginning of the World Cup, some weekend dates have opened up for the first time in modern tournament history. One of them will see the New York Red Bulls and New York Cosmos play on Long Island in what will surely be the jewel game of the fourth round.
So enjoy. Just don’t get too carried away. This is still a tournament dominated by Major League Soccer.