In October of 2015, 57 amateur teams kicked off the inaugural open division qualifying tournament for the 2016 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. When the plan was announced, the format called for eight teams to punch their tickets to the 103rd edition of the competition.
The United States Soccer Federation (USSF) created the qualifying tournament as a way for teams from the United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA), US Club Soccer, and the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) to determine which teams will join the Premier Development League (PDL) and the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) to round out the amateur portion of the US Open Cup field. The goal was to create a single, easy-to-follow tournament to streamline the process as opposed to holding state and regional competitions.
As with anything new, much less reorganizing a nationwide soccer tournament, there’s always going to be growing pains and tweaks that need to be made. The inaugural open division tournament was scheduled to be completed the first weekend of April 2016, but with the reduction in the number of professional teams entering this year, the final round was eliminated and the remaining 14 teams in the tournament were all entered into the Open Cup.
However, as the open division tournament was announced and played out over two rounds, there were plenty of skeptics among the amateur teams and state associations that were the previous caretakers of the qualifying system. The main issues with the new arrangements focus on challenges with travel, which led to three teams forfeiting games, and new roster rules that were implemented.
“I don’t see anything positive coming from this new format created by the federation,” said Tony Falcone, the President of the Maryland Soccer Association and deputy director of USASA Region I. “We are a big country and it is asking too much for a national organization to try to run competitions at the local level.”
Under the previous qualifying system, teams under the USASA umbrella interested in competing in the tournament would have to register through their local state soccer association. Clubs would pay an entry fee and if they advanced through the state tournament, they would advance to one of the four regional competitions. At a minimum, the winner and the runner-up would get into the US Open Cup. US Club Soccer and the USSSA are relatively new additions to the Cup, debuting in 2012 and 2013 respectively, and had been organizing their own qualifying tournaments.
Now, starting this year, any amateur team that wants to enter, assuming they are part of a large enough USSF-sanctioned league, just needs to sign up and pay the entry fee to the federation. All of the teams that register are separately regionally into a national tournament.
According to the USSF’s Open Division handbook distributed to participating teams, the reason for the changes is to help promote the qualifying element of the US Open Cup by giving teams and fans alike a “clear, identifiable path for reaching the Open Cup tournament proper.” They also aim to eliminate “a major burden from local, state, regional and national amateur administrators to organize competitions at multiple levels.”
Unfortunately, as is true every year with the Open Cup, there were teams that were the odd team out when it came to making the draw on a regional basis. For example, if there are five teams in a particular region, one of them is going to have to make a long trip to another part of the country. As a result, three teams had to forfeit games in the first two rounds of the competition after they had drawn road games against teams that were more than 850 miles away.
The Kansas City Athletics, who have been regulars in Open Cup qualifying since 2010 were in an unfortunate position because they were the only club in their area that registered for the tournament. As a result, they drew the Oregon-based International Portland Select (IPS) in the opening round. The roughly 1,800-mile trip to the Pacific Northwest was too much for a small club like the Athletics and player/manager Kyle Perkins didn’t want to put the club in financial jeopardy by making the journey, so they withdrew from the competition.
“We could have made the trip, but that would have bankrupted the club,” said Perkins, who has been a big part of the club qualifying for the 2010, 2012 and 2015 US Open Cups. “That meant we had to choose between the future of the club and playing in the first round of qualifying. The decision was very easy for us. There was no way we could risk the future of the club.”
The number of teams that register for the tournament in a given region is clearly not the fault of the federation, but there was no plan in place to assist with travel costs as there is with the tournament proper. Once the Open Cup begins, teams that have to travel are given a stipend between $8,000 and $10,000 to help ease the burden of making the trip. It certainly doesn’t cover all of the expenses, but often times can make a significant dent.
“US Soccer could offer some assistance to clubs that are traveling,” said Perkins. “Let’s say, for any club traveling over a certain number of miles, they get a certain amount of financial assistance.”
Another first round forfeit involved a new team, Tobacco Road FC. The club, who were making their first attempt to qualify for the tournament, were one of three North Carolina-based clubs that registered, but they were the odd team out when the draw was made as Queen City United FC and Charlotte Sporting Soccer Academy drew each other in Round 1. Tobacco Road found themselves scheduled to travel approximately 850 miles south to New Orleans to play CD Motagua.
The draw for the qualifying tournament was announced on Sept. 22, giving teams about a month to organize travel plans for the opening round in late October. Tobacco Road and the KC Athletics both decided to withdraw as a result, giving CD Motagua and IPS a free pass into the next round. Unfortunately, IPS, who are one of the most successful amateur clubs in the Portland, Ore. area, was the only team from the Pacific Northwest to enter the tournament, which created a similar travel problem in Round 2.
The closest teams to the Oregon club were Northern California clubs San Francisco City FC and the Davis Legacy, but those teams were scheduled to meet in Round 2, leaving IPS with a massive road trip ahead of them. The draw put them up against the North Texas Rayados, which is more than 2,000 miles away from the Rose City.
“There are a lot of other good teams up here (in the Portland area) and we were surprised to see that no others had entered,” said IPS head coach Harvey Hurst. “It was probably not well-advertised, because this is the first year under this format.”
IPS was eager to get a chance to qualify for the US Open Cup, but since they were unable to afford a trip to Dallas, they withdrew. According to Hurst, the club continued to try to find a way to compete in the tournament. One suggestion they made to the USSF was playing San Francisco City, the last remaining Northern California club, in the final round of qualifying. This move would have essentially given IPS (and North Texas Rayados) a Round 2 bye rather than a forfeit, and would have given San Francisco a Round 3 opponent, rather than a bye into the 103rd US Open Cup. According to Hurst, that proposal wasn’t entertained.
Another change that was implemented this year was that the federation will also approve rosters through the qualifying process which they hope will minimize disputes regarding player eligibility. Some might say this is the “Des Moines Menace rule,” but we’ll come back to that.
|2015/16 Open Division qualifying schedule|
Source: 2016 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup Open Division Handbook
|Aug. 24: Fall roster submission deadline (22 player limit)Sept. 12-20: First Round of qualifying*|
*Round eliminated due to number of teamsOct. 17-25: Second Round of qualifying
Nov. 14-22: Third Round of qualifying
Feb. 29: Spring roster submission deadline
Teams may add up to five new players to their Fall roster who are not cup-tied; 22 player limit remainsApr. 2-3: Final Round of qualifying*
*Round eliminated after USL teams were removed from USOC
July 1-15: Summer roster changeover period
Teams may add up to five new players to their Spring roster who are not cup-tied; 22 player limit remains
Teams that signed up for the open division qualifying tournament had to submit a 22-man roster prior to fall qualifying. The roster deadline for this year’s competition was Aug. 24.
“The roster deadlines set by the Federation are difficult,” added Falcone. “Many teams will still be forming their rosters in August [of the previous year]. Naming 22 players by mid-August will be a challenge as many do not commit until the league season actually starts in early September.”
The new system requires that any club that enters will stay intact through three rounds of qualifying in September, October and November (due to limited numbers of entries for this year’s tournament, the September qualifying round was eliminated). Then, the teams that advance to the final round in April will be able to make five additions to their roster prior to the Feb. 29 deadline, while maintaining the 22-man limit.
(UPDATE: The final round was eliminated after multiple USL teams were removed from the tournament field)
The teams that qualify for the US Open Cup proper will have to continue with that same set of players through July 1, which, based on the 2016 format, would be after the Round of 16. It’s worth noting that in the Modern Era (1995-present), an amateur club has never reached that far.
One of the motivations behind this could be because of the Des Moines Menace. They aren’t the only team to enter a second team into the USASA’s Open Cup qualifying tournament, but they are the team that has come the closest to having both teams qualify. The team entered into the USASA tournament, the “Iowa Menace” qualified with a 7-1 win over the KC Athletics. About 10 days later, the PDL team needed a win over another KC team, the Kansas City Brass to qualify. They fell short with a 2-1 loss to the Brass. Since the PDL team didn’t qualify, according to the roster rules at the time, the USASA team was free to use any eligible player in their Open Cup run. The USASA team, which was largely veterans mixed with some PDL players, became essentially the PDL team by the time the tournament started.
This was well within the rules, but one would assume that the organizers frowned upon a team essentially getting two bites of the apple. (Note: After the PDL team failed to qualify based on the previous year’s league results, the Menace entered the 2014 USASA tournament and qualified again.)
Under the current rules, players register with one team for the qualifying tournament and are cup-tied to that team for not only the remainder of qualifying, but for the tournament proper.
PDL, NPSL TEAMS HAVE UNFAIR ADVANTAGE
Multiple amateur clubs that were spoken to for this story brought up another concern as it relates to fairness with the US Open Cup qualifying roster process. The PDL and NPSL clubs, who both receive automatic berths based on the previous season’s league results, have a distinct advantage over their open division counterparts.
As mentioned, the open division clubs that enter start with a 22-man roster that has to be constructed by late August. They can make limited changes (five additions) one time before the tournament starts, but that change needs to happen in February, almost three months before the Open Cup begins. Since they must set the roster in August (during the college soccer season), and can add five players in February, the clubs are basically excluded from using current college players in the tournament.
On the other side, the PDL and NPSL teams have no such roster deadlines until late April, a few weeks before the tournament is set to begin. Those clubs will have their pick of all of the available college players and don’t have to set their rosters until eight months after the open division teams are required to.
“It is believed that a 22-player roster [for open division teams] should be large enough to deal with eventualities like long-term injuries, players leaving the team for various reasons,” said US Soccer spokesperson Neil Buethe. “Open division local qualifier rules are written with the intent that the squad at the end of its Open Cup run should be largely the same as the one it began with, with a reasonable amount of player turnover accommodated.”
In Region I, where Falcone is based, the first round of open division qualifying was originally scheduled to start the weekend after Labor Day. Many local leagues begin play on Labor Day weekend, so there would be teams and players that may not be complete, but also, in some cases, not in their best competitive form.
“We’ve never had to lock in 22 players for more than one round of any cup competition,” said Jon Knight of the Dulles Sportsplex Aegean Hawks, a regular participant from the D.C.-area. “It’s a bit daunting to go with [the same] 22 [players] for 3 months when you’re in preseason.”
Halfway across the country, the KC Athletics have similar problems with the lack of roster flexibility.
“It makes no sense,” said Perkins. “We are an amateur squad and we have real jobs [so] roster flexibility is what makes it possible for us to fill out our roster when players miss due to their personal lives, work and family.”
The near impossibility to involve college players on open division rosters is the main reason why the PSA Elite did not enter this year. PSA Elite are the Southern California-based club that has qualified for the last four US Open Cups. During that run of four straight, PSA Elite upset a pair of professional teams and became the first amateur club in Modern Era to reach the Fourth Round in consecutive years. However, with the new roster rules, it appears they won’t be adding to that resume anytime soon because their team has always relied heavily on current local college players.
Most open division teams play year-round and don’t rely on college players to compete in their tournaments and leagues. However, for those that do, this new system creates a significant obstacle. The way it’s currently set up, if an open division team that relies on college players wants to enter the US Open Cup, they will have to either join the NPSL or the PDL or overhaul their approach to forming a team.
Expecting a new tournament to be perfect the first time around is asking a lot. However, unless the travel and roster challenges can be ironed out, it could discourage more teams from entering the competition.