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Five Things To Know About The US Open Cup

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. Division GP W L T Pct. Adv. Pct.
vs. 2nd Division 67 36 20 11 .619 43 .642
vs. 3rd Division 49 31 14 4 .673 33 .673
vs. Amateurs 17 14 2 1 .853 14 .824
TOTALS 133 81 36 16 .669 90 .677

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:

Lower-Level Club #
Rochester Rhinos 9
Charleston Battery# 9
Seattle Sounders% 5
Harrisburg City Islanders 5
Minnesota Thunder* 4
Richmond Kickers 4
Carolina RailHawks 4
Mid Michigan Bucks# 2
San Francisco Bay Seals* 2
Wilmington Hammerheads# 2
Orlando City SC 2
Cal FC# 1
Charlotte Eagles# 1
Chicago Sockers* 1
Chicago Stingers* 1
Connecticut Wolves* 1
Crystal Palace Baltimore* 1
Dallas Roma FC# 1
Dayton Dutch Lions# 1
Long Island Rough Riders# 1
Milwaukee Rampage* 1
Minnesota Stars 1
Nashville Metros* 1
Pittsburgh Riverhounds 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.

US Open Cup Attendance Since 1996
Year GP AF Total Avg. High Low
1996 15 10 50,497 5,050 12,428 783
1997 31 23 83,993 3,652 13,470 300
1998 31 25 77,466 3,099 18,615 121
1999 31 28 118,453 4,230 20,376 60
2000 35 32 111,891 3,497 19,146 272
2001 35 31 113,671 3,667 9,339 70
2002 31 22 84,606 3,846 8,485 200
2003 34 34 100,933 2,969 7,542 150
2004 40 33 91,518 2,773 10,622 27
2005 39 25 98,735 3,949 11,121 254
2006 40 24 106,598 4,442 10,428 524
2007 39 32 96,336 3,011 10,618 248
2008 39 27 85,586 3,170 8,212 483
2009 39 39 109,076 2,797 17,329 94
2010 39 23 89,831 3,906 31,311 500
2011 39 22 101,850 4,630 35,613 702
2012 63 45 196,881 4,375 18,873 150
2013 67 42 208,321 4,960 17,608 420
2014 46 15 28,869 1,925 9,181 80
TOTAL 733 532 1,955,111 3,675 35,613 27

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.

17 Responses to Five Things To Know About The US Open Cup

  1. It’s too bad that the 4th round (when MLS teams enter) isn’t on a single night this year with the World Cup break funking everything up (not a criticism of USSF or MLS). It’s always fun when a couple of upset bids happen simultaneously. Hopefully we can have that again next year.

  2. It just makes people lose their minds on consecutive games and builds the ridiculousness with morons tweeting how badly MLS sucks and how there should be pro/rel and blah blah blah blah.

    In this case, the chance to get some weekend dates for the first time was compelling. Three lower-level teams will have MLS teams visiting them on a Saturday night, which doesn’t happen.

    I’ll take that. More opportunities for people to see what’s going on. I don’t need it to be on the same night.

  3. Sorry to say their are more teams in U.S. that don’t exist due to not having relegation than any other league. Show me proof of any league that has more teams that don’t exist than U.S.

    about 412 clubs:

  4. lol – teams don’t exist due to not having relegation???? Maybe they don’t exist due to not having funding.

  5. Hey, Idiot Boy is back!

  6. What about all the amateur teams that have ceased to exist who didn’t HAVE a lower league to be relegated to? How would relegation have saved them?

  7. If you’re curious, the game that drew 27 people was a 2004 first-round tilt in Cocoa, Florida between the PDL Cocoa Expos and the Dallas-based USASA side, Azzuri SC. (Good match, too: Cocoa won, 3-2, on a goal in penalty time.)

  8. well done Kenn! I like this tourney more and more each year, and I think the attendance will grow a tad here and there as we go along especially with world cup and soccer on the TV and brain. In the end, money teams should and will continue to shine. I recognize for what it is…

  9. Last I heard England has pro/rel.

  10. U.S. still has more.

  11. Can’t argue with that logic, folks!

    No promotion and relegation kills teams….except promotion and relegation does, too, just fewer.

    Scientific Method, that is.

  12. two big upsets today! working on 3!!

  13. Any chance you have the attendance figures for the Portland Timbers – Seattle Sounders game from July 12, 2005 played at PGE Park?

    • I do not. I wish I did.

  14. “…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.”

    I believe I had that one.

    Final tally: 12-3-1.

  15. Hey Kenn,

    Thanks for another great rundown. Do you happen to have scorelines for the MLS upset losses? I was wondering how remarkable the Cosmos 3-0 margin of victory over the Red Bulls was.

    Take care, and thanks again.

    • Excellent question.

      The record is Seattle’s 5-0 win over Colorado on 8/7/2007 in the quarterfinals.

      There have been, now, three 3-0 scorelines. (Rochester d. Colorado 3-0 on 10/12/1996 in the semifinals, Richmond d. Colorado 3-0 on 6/14/2000 in the 2nd round – boy, Colorado is on the wrong side of these things a bit, aren’t they – and the Cosmos beating the Red Bulls.)

      There have been four other three-goal margins, all 4-1. There have been 12 two-goal margins, 26 one-goal margins and eight games decided in penalties after a draw.

      Unless I’m missing something. I think that list is comprehensive. I’ll re-run it after the tournament.


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