With dozens of amateur and professional teams battling for the United States’ true national championship, every Lamar Hunt US Open Cup creates numerous storylines.
Whether it’s the 1999 Rochester Rhinos doing the impossible of becoming the only lower division side to win the final since the introduction of MLS teams, or amateur teams Cal FC and the Michigan Bucks both upsetting MLS teams in 2012, every Cup is usually remembered for at least one or two moments.
The early part of the 2016 edition of the tournament has featured three disqualifications, the most of any competition in the Modern Era (1995-present). And those three disqualifications were just the ones that were caught in what appears to be a combination of spotty rule enforcement from the United States Soccer Federation and a lack of rule awareness by teams and players.
Section 203. Part (c) of the 2016 US Open Cup handbook is pretty clear:
“Any player who plays in any part of an Open Cup match for a team, including any match in any Open Division qualifying round, may not be included in the Open Cup roster or play for any other team in the Open Cup competition for that competition year.”
This rule is new for 2016 as the federation kicked off its inaugural open division qualifying tournament, a single-elimination competition made up of any amateur team that does not belong to the Premier Development League (PDL) or the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). Prior to this year, players were only cup-tied if they played for a team in the Open Cup proper.
The reason for the ruling was to keep players from jumping from team to team. Occasionally players would play for one team during qualifying and if they got eliminated, sign with a team that qualified.
At publishing time, TheCup.us is aware of at least five teams who broke this rule by fielding or including on their roster cup-tied players in the first or second rounds of the tournament. However, only two of the teams were discovered in time to file a protest and have the result of the match overturned. [Note: The third team, North Texas Rayados were disqualified prior to Round 1 for not participating in their local league this season]
1. In their Second Round penalty kick upset victory over the Charleston Battery (USL), the Villages SC of the Premier Development League (PDL) started Paulo Vaz, who had previously played for Boca Raton FC in the open division qualifying tournament that took place last fall. The Battery discovered this after the game and immediately filed a successful protest which eliminated the PDL side and pushed Charleston into the next round.
“We were unaware of Paulo Vaz playing for another team in the qualifying rounds of the Cup,” said Alex Perez, a spokesperson for The Villages SC. “In all of his registration paperwork with us that we filed with the PDL, Paulo listed his last club as Floridians FC. It’s an unfortunate situation.”
Villages SC defeated Kraze United in Round 1 with that same ineligible player, which led Kraze United to file a protest after the Battery match in Round 2 was complete. The protest by Kraze United was denied due to the rule that states that “official match protests are required to be submitted by 5:00 p.m. CT the day following the match. (Section 306. Part (a) of the 2016 US Open Cup handbook.)
2. In a 3-1 First Round loss to the Sacramento Gold, the Burlingame Dragons started Gabe Silveira, who had taken part in the open division qualification tournament for San Francisco City FC.
According to the Dragons, they were told by US Soccer that Silveira was cleared to play. This was not discovered in time and no protest was filed.
3. In that same game, the Sacramento Gold included Andre Brown on their bench, who played for Davis Legacy in the qualifying tournament. While he didn’t appear in the match, just having him on the gameday roster is a potential violation. The USASA has disqualified teams for such a violation during qualifying, however, there is no precedent in the US Open Cup proper in the Modern Era.
4. CD Aguiluchos USA fielded ineligible players in both their first and second round matches. In their 3-0 Round 1 win over San Francisco City, substitute Ahmad Hatifie was cup-tied to Ballistic IFX. CDA also subbed on a cup-tied player in Arthur Bahr in their 5-0 loss to Sacramento Republic FC. Bahr played for San Francisco City in qualifying.
San Francisco, like Kraze United, submitted a protest, but it was also denied since it was filed long after the deadline.
5. Perhaps the most notable protest involved the Ventura County Fusion’s use of Gabe Gonzalez, who had played for Cal FC in qualification, in a 2-1 First Round victory over the LA Wolves FC.
According to the Fusion, the club was aware of Gonzalez’s participation in the qualifying rounds, but were told specifically by USSF that Gonzalez was cleared to play for the Fusion. How did the Wolves know he was ineligible? Because he played against them in qualifying for Cal FC. The Wolves edged Cal FC 2-1 to clinch their first-ever Open Cup berth.
The Wolves protested the decision and the Fusion were disqualified from the tournament.
“Rules are in place for a reason and they must be followed by all teams,” said Skwara. “The new rules for 2016 may not be perfect, but all teams still have to follow the rules or risk the repercussions.”
Ventura County then filed an appeal on the decision, which was denied by the USSF and the Wolves advanced to Round 2 to face the Orange County Blues of the USL.
According to Fusion media coordinator Polo Ascencio, the Fusion were never given a reason for the denial.
“The reply [from the USSF] was a very simple, ‘your appeal was not successful,’ Ascencio told TheCup.us. “They just said, ‘no.’”
The federation has yet to confirm why the appeal was denied or if informing teams of the specifics of the decision are a common practice.
Ascencio said decisions like these only hurt the credibility of the tournament and the amateur teams participating in it.
“It needs to change,” Ascencio said of the roster rules. “The teams, the amateur teams, and you guys know this, in the lower levels, they take this very, very seriously for many reasons … it gives you exposure. [Although] it’s given us exposure that we didn’t want, not this way. It gives you exposure. It gives your players a chance to play against higher competition as you move on and on and on.”
With the forfeit, the Fusion’s Modern Era record streak of six consecutive First Round victories came to an end.
“We have really good, young talent looking forward for a chance and to have the chance taken away by a system that is broken,” Ascencio said. “But at the end, we did nothing wrong. We asked our players, the players that came forward didn’t play, we thought we were good. But obviously we were not good.
“We asked US Soccer for a list before the tournament started … of players who have played [in qualifying]. Give us rosters of the teams that have played so we know,” he added. “To this day, it’s been already a couple of weeks since the [US Open Cup] started the first round, we don’t have any of those lists.
Ascencio believes the federation must have too much on its plate.
“Either they’re too busy doing something, MLS or Copa America-related, or the US Open Cup doesn’t really matter until you get the big teams in the Cup,” Ascencio said. “It’s a chance for our players to succeed, to put a spotlight on them. It’s a chance for our teams to bring our fans an experience that they might not get with our local, amateur team.
For the Fusion, Ascencio says its a missed opportunity for the team and the players.
“And obviously there’s money involved there,” he concluded. “The more you advance, the more money you can make. For some of these amateur teams … $15,000 [prize money awarded to the amateur team that advances the furthest] could be a lot of money. It could be a couple year’s worth of attendance. It hurts for all the reasons, but at the end of the day it hurts because we won, but at the end, somebody said, ‘no you guys didn’t because you used a player that we said was okay to play. But, guess what, he’s not okay to play.”
Ascencio said that the Fusion plan to participate in future tournaments due to the opportunity it provides but maintains that the kinks need to be worked out.
“There has to be [reform], there has to be,” Ascencio said. “Because if they’re not gonna change it, then things like this are going to keep happening and the teams that are going to be affected are going to be the amateur teams, not the professional teams. This is a cup that is made so that the amateur teams can flex their muscles or go on to face top competition. To have something like this happen, not only to us, but a few other teams around the nation…I feel bad for all those teams,”
None of the other teams involved in the situation that TheCup.us reached out to chose to comment on the record. The US Soccer Federation did not respond to a request for comment.
TheCup.us senior editor Josh Hakala also contributed to this report