With the 2006 US Open Cup entering the Quarterfinal round later this month, Mike H over at My Soccer Blog wisely chose the USOC as the topic for the 4th American Soccer Carnival. Should it be kept or folded, and if kept, how could it be improved?

For those of you who aren’t well versed in the history of the USOC, there is a brief refresher over at Wikipedia. It is the oldest national soccer tournament in the United States, dating back to 1914 when it was known as the National Challenge Cup.

However, the USOC suffers in a constant state of irrelevance and lack of media coverage. Is it destined for the soccer dustbin? I don’t think so.

Regardless of its current appeal, the US Open Cup is a great thing. How cool is it that amateur teams, USL mid level teams, and other non MLS teams can compete against the top professional teams in the country? Twelve MLS teams, eight USL First teams, six USL second teams, eight USL Premiere Development League (PDL) teams, and eight US Adult Soccer Association teams qualify. This gives teams from every level of the ‘American Soccer Pyramid‘, plus some amateur adult teams a chance to shine on a national level. While it is true that MLS teams have dominated the USOC lately, it hasn’t been total domination. A look at the 2006 results so far show closer matches than you would expect. Sure, many MLS clubs don’t play their top players, but still. We had a USASA club, Roma FC, beat Chivas USA and then lose to L.A. 2-0. Other MLS teams in the 4th round advanced with one point wins, with New England needing a shoot out to advance. So I think calls to do away with the USOC due to it being irrelevant or lopsided are misplaced. One expects the professional teams to win, but the lower tiered teams have show they can compete.

Overall the USOC has a fair breakdown in terms of teams that qualify. One complaint is that the USL PDL only gets 8 berths with 59 teams. However, these are young teams so it makes sense to have only the best of the best in their division qualify.

The main problem with the USOC is it is an afterthought to the most MLS clubs and fans. Winning it gets you a trophy and bragging rights. Nothing rides on it. Other peer competitions overseas usually grant the winner a berth in a larger, more prominent tournament. Brian over at An American’s View on Soccer, thinks the USOC needs to up the stakes.

in other countries, the club that wins the national Cup, The FA Cup, German Cup, things like that, they are also rewarded with entry into a larger knock out tournament, in UEFA’s case, the UEFA Cup. The USOC winner just gets the trophy. I am not saying that this is that bad a thing, but I feel that if the tournament and the Cup itself would become more important if USSF would allocate a tournament berth or something for its winner.

The problem is, what tournament? Brian talks about maybe giving the MLS regular season champion berth for the CONCACAF Cup to the USOC winner. I’m not sure that would be wise. We want to send our two best teams to the CONCACAF Cup and I’m not sure a single elimination tournament is the best way to choose the second team. If we had more berths available, sure. But with only two available, I’m not sure that’s going to help the MLS bring home the CONCACAF Cup more often. But the idea that the winner should get more than a trophy has merit. While I’m still convinced that rumored ‘CONCACAF Champions League’ will be a MLS/Mexico 1st tournament, allocating a berth to the USOC winner makes a lot of sense. Of course that only make sense if the initial MLS berths are limited to less than 12. Be sure to read all of Brian’s post as he has a number of other suggestions that are excellent.

I think the main problem facing the USOC is exposure. If fans were watching and attending the matches in large numbers, the MLS teams might be more likely to field top lines. However, until the MLS clubs field top players in the USOC matches, the fans are likely to stay home. Gotta love Catch-22’s. First and foremost, the USOC needs to arrange for better TV coverage. GolTV broadcasts the final match. That’s it. Considering they show matches from all over the world, often in front of tiny crowds, why can’t they show more of the USOC, even if the crowd is a couple thousand? I think there is significant appeal in watching top tier USL clubs fight it out with each other, USASA clubs, and MLS teams. GolTV’s contract is ending soon, so I hope that the next agreement with GolTV, FSC, or some other network, will stipulate more matches be broadcast.

Daniel Feuerstein has a number of excellent articles up over at the USOpenCup.com (it’s a fan site – here is the ‘official’ site. HT D), including one that calls for expanded media coverage:

Fox Soccer Channel says they are the best when it comes to promoting the sport here in the USA on television, but now it’s time to put up that moniker and show the US Soccer faithful. Not just MLS & USL but every round of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup has to be included. It’s about time for Fox Soccer Channel and the US Soccer Federation to step up in their commitments to the cup. Right now this is the final year of a three year deal between US Soccer and Gol TV showing the US Open Cup Final. If Gol TV resigns then they are the ones who have to step it up and show more matches besides the final. If not them, then FSC has to reclaim the US Open Cup and do more than what they did before. There must be more publicity and information when talking about the clubs that will participate in the 2006 edition as well as the future of this cup competition in years to come.

Indeed. Daniel also has a number of posts up where he talks about the need to build a proper US Open Cup. Be sure to read all of them: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. They are excellent posts with a number of intriguing ideas. Daniel has big dreams including the idea that ALL clubs in the MLS, USL, and USASA be allowed to participate in the early rounds. However there are issues such as almost 60 teams in the USL PDL as well as most lower level teams not having their own grounds to play on. Once we find teams in the lower tiers playing on their own fields, then we might be able to have an expanded bracket. He also teases with the idea of using the USOC as a factor in promotion and relegation – that holy grail of incentive that many American soccer fans crave. (Trivia hint – did you know the USL has a promotion process? It’s just not used and requires that space exist in the USL 1st for the USL 2nd Champion to move up.)
The Part 2 post covers some possible alternatives for expanding the early rounds.

So I’ve spent a lot of typing talking about the ideas of other folks. What about my grand ideas? Good question. 🙂 I think expanding the tournament would be a smart move, giving more clubs a chance to reach the final rounds. But I’m not sure that’ll build the following of the USOC. There’s no question the stakes need to be raised so there is a real benefit to winning. The trick is what we can add given our meager ‘next level’ options currently available.

Hopefully the explosion of soccer coverage in the US will make USOC coverage more attractive to the growing number of stations carrying soccer matches. Building on the David vs Goliath theme in the 3rd and 4th rounds could bring in more viewers looking for the unlikely upset. American sports fans live for upsets and the USOC should provide more and more of them as the USL clubs improve over time.

I also think that the USL needs to step things up a bit in terms of marketing the USOC. Sure, MLS doesn’t do much marketing of it either, but the USL has three divisions playing in the Cup. A media blitz trying to psyche up the fans as their teams face the MLS teams would likely bring in more viewership and excitement. The USL is also present in many smaller markets where soccer fans crave big name teams and excitement. USOC matches should be a vehicle they exploit to bring in more fans or expose more people to soccer.

But beyond that, I’m not sure there is any magic bullet to drastically increase interest in the USOC. Soccer is gaining traction in the US every year. As more fans get hooked on both MLS teams as well as USL clubs, the USOC is bound to attract more viewers and hopefully that will nudge the networks to show more matches. It’ll take time, just like all things related to soccer in the US. Our top teams in the MLS are still on a razor’s edge financially. For the USOC to evolve into a bigger event, we also need to get more of our USL clubs stable finance wise and playing on their own grounds. Only then, as Daniel F noted in his posts, might we be able to implement the much needed promotion and relegation.

Don’t kill something just because the viewers haven’t flocked in yet. We’ve seen more and more people get turned on to soccer in the US recently with the explosion of televised matches. The USOC’s time will come. Just wait.