The Other US Opens and marketing the ‘US Soccer Majors’

Posted by | September 25, 2011

Every year when the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup tournament rolls into the lights shining down onto the stadium pitch, the inevitable comparisons to the FA Cup in England come into play as part of the explanation to what the tournament is for journalists. And often times it’s followed by the unfortunate analogizing of the event to minor and major league baseball teams playing one another in a single-elimination tournament.

But perhaps the better comparisons we should all be making is to the other Opens in which the American media already treat as serious events. These events also pit amateurs versus professionals on an open entry basis, and are also among numerous events within the specific sport. These events, of course, are the US Open tennis tournaments held annually in New York and the US Open golf championship held in a different location each year around the United States.

Each fall, the world’s best tennis players convene on the hard courts of the USTA’s Billy Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, NY for the tour’s fourth and final major of what the sport considers the Grand Slam. Those top-flight professionals are joined by winners of an open playoff system that is comprised 16 sectionals and a national playoff event in which only USTA members may participate. In the end, 128 participants each take part in the men’s and women’s brackets (64 for doubles).

Last year, over 1,200 players took part in the USTA’s National Playoffs for a chance to compete in the singles events at the US Open. Unlike US Soccer’s Open Cup, only one male and one female earned qualification spots to compete against the world’s best in the tournament.

The Chicago Fire have won six majors, including four US Open Cup championships | Photo by Brian Kersey/

The US Open golf tournament, held in June, is comparatively more open with approximately half the participants advancing from qualification play to join the world’s top players who are automatically in the field through 17 exemptions categories via such things as being tournament winners or holding a certain world ranking.

At the 2010 tournament, 75 of the 156 participants were non-exempted players who qualified through the two-stage process to reach the famed Pebble Beach Golf Links for the championship. The process begins with Local Qualifying, a series of over 100 18-hole tournaments held around the country. Many top players not already qualified through full exemption are, however, exempt from local qualifying and join the process at the Sectional Qualifying stage where they participate in one of several one-day, 36-hole tournaments in the United States. There is also a Sectional tournament in both Europe and Japan where 11 and 4 individuals qualified, respectively, in 2010.

The major difference between the US Open Cup and the US Open tennis and golf duo is that the US Soccer Federation event is the only one that is a championship tournament for Americans while the other two are open to foreign participants. The only clubs eligible for the US Open Cup are American-based teams that are affiliated through the USSF; however, for argument’s sake it does still feature a foreign component as teams are comprised, in part, of players that are not American.

The Los Angeles Galaxy have won eight majors, and are one of only two MLS clubs to win the CONCACAF Champions Cup (DC United). They won the Champions Cup in 2000 | Photo: Los Angeles Galaxy

Continuing on the golf tangent, another significant open tournament American media and sports fans are very familiar with and follow every July is the British Open (officially known as The Open Championship), which is the oldest of the four golf majors and is the only one held outside of the United States. Similar to the US Open, the majority of the 156 participants are automatic entrants through exemption with the remaining players advancing from a two-stage qualification process.

Through 2004, players from around the world were only able to qualify through 18-hole Local Qualifying events held around Britain and Ireland within two weeks of The British Open followed by 36-hole Local Final Qualifying tournaments a few days later. International Qualifying events, 36-hole tournaments, were added in 2004 to assist foreign professionals wishing to participate, holding qualifiers in Africa, Australia, Asia, America and Europe with more stringent entrance standards than Local Qualifying.

Packaging & Marketing US Soccer Majors

The golf and tennis tours are lengthy seasons that run from January to the fall with tournament events nearly every week, but it is the majors where media coverage amps up and fan viewership heightens. With the similarities of the American Open majors to the US Open Cup, perhaps there are other lessons to be learned from the golf and tennis tours, such as the incorporation US Soccer Majors as a marketing tool for the sports’ leading championship events for American clubs.

A matching structure of four championships already exists with the US Open Cup joined by the MLS Cup, MLS Supporters’ Shield (regular season championship) and the CONCACAF Champions League.  Currently, the MLS Cup is the leading championship, but by creating a platform that raises the perception of the other three events to a comparable level to the league’s championship playoff, it will increase awareness among the media and fans while also, hopefully, creating a greater sense of seriousness and urgency to win the other events among the clubs and coaches.

Bringing these four championships together into one packaged series allows for a greater ability to compare the success of clubs beyond just winning MLS Cup as though this was the NFL and the Super Bowl while clubs around the rest of the world are evaluated on all the various events in which they participate. It would be similar to how tennis players and golfers are measured by majors won.

DC United lead all MLS clubs with 11 majors, including the 1996 US Open Cup championship | Photo: DC United

For instance, the Los Angeles Galaxy and DC United are the only two clubs that have won all four majors (dating back to the CCL precursor CONCACAF Champions Cup). In fact, the two also hold the most total majors with DC boasting 11 (4 MLS Cups, 4 Supporters’ Shields, 2 Open Cups and a CCC) and the Galaxy having eight (2 MLS Cups, 3 Supporters’ Shields, 2 Open Cups and the CCC).

Only five clubs have won all three of the domestic majors with the Chicago Fire, Columbus Crew and Sporting Kansas City having won everything but a CONCACAF championship at least once. The Fire are third in total majors (6) and the Crew are fourth (5).

Only three American MLS clubs are without a major championship, excluding expansion Portland. The New York Red Bulls, Chivas USA and Philadelphia Union have yet to claim one of the big prizes.

In the last five years, the most successful clubs in the United States have been Columbus and DC, each having won three majors. The Crew have won the Supporters’ Shield twice and the MLS Cup once. DC also has two Supporters’ Shields, but has a US Open Cup championship to round things out. Houston and Seattle each have two titles with the Dynamo winning MLS Cup twice in a row and the Sounders taking the Open Cup title back-to-back. Five other teams each have one major as nine clubs have won the 15 possible domestic majors while coming up empty in the Champions League, which is completing its third run with Real Salt Lake still in the hunt for a second major in the same cycle in which it won the MLS Cup title and qualified for the event.

All-Time ‘US Soccer Majors’ Winners List

11 – DC United (4 MC, 4 SS, 2 OC, 1 CCC)
8 – Los Angeles Galaxy (2 MC, 3 SS, 2 OC, 1 CCC)
6 – Chicago Fire (1 MC, 1 SS, 4 OC)
5 – Columbus Crew (1 MC, 3 SS, 1 OC)
3 – San Jose Earthquakes (2 MC, 1 SS)
3 – Sporting Kansas City (1 MC, 1 SS, 1 OC)
2 – Houston Dynamo (2 MC)
2 – Seattle Sounders (2 OC)
1 – Colorado Rapids (MC), FC Dallas (OC), Real Salt Lake (MC), New England Revolution (OC), Rochester Rhinos (OC), Tampa Bay Mutiny (SS), Miami Fusion (SS)

(MC – MLS Cup, SS – Supporters’ Shield, OC – US Open Cup, CCC/CCL – CONCACAF Champions Cup/League)


  • David Rolph says:

    A great idea to raise the profile of U.S teams by calling attention to all the trophies collectively. In the SF Bay Area, where I live, media awareness of these 4 majors is almost nonexistent. Coverage of the Earthquakes in the SJ Mercury News is inconsistent, and in the SF Chronicle it’s even worse. And this is in the 5th sports market in the country. The sports media are the first ones to get on board, and they need places to get good information so they can find good ideas for stories.

  • Chuck says:

    Very good ideas. It is, as you probably know, a little deceptive. The Crew, for instance, are historically a better team than the Fire. Some cups are just more difficult (more “major”) than others. Maybe it’s the same in golf and tennis, I don’t know.

    Regardless of how MLS markets things, the Supports Shield is the best. I say that because it is the most difficult prize to win and, at least now-a-days, all clubs play each other home and away; thus its winner has the most legitimate claim to be best team. (If MLS’s owners want to award their title not to the best team but to the winner of some short cup, fine, but it’s stupid to me).

    You can make a good argument that winning the CCC Champions League is more difficult for MLS clubs. The main reason being that the Mexican clubs (and to lesser extent, the top Central American clubs) are far superior to MLS clubs. Additionally, there is a level of qualification that ferrets out most clubs.

    For MLS, winning the Open Cup is by far the easiest of the 4 “Majors”; clubs only have to win 4 straight (or 5 for those having to play the ‘play in’ game), MLS clubs don’t field a first 11, and often one or two of the opponents are lower division. This is still a difficult task (and, to me, a very unique and exciting cup), but hardly of the same value as winning the Supporters Shield.

    For me, the MLS Cup is the least interesting and least valuable of the trophies. Certainly it is more difficult to win than the Open Cup – some ties are two-legged (though not enough of them), only the top half of the league competes (“only,” ugh), squads are full strength, and the winner is declared MLS Champion. But by this point in the season the best team in the league is decided; so MLS Cup is like the icing on the cake, only it’s the icing you don’t really like and you’d rather just scrape it off and eat the cake.

    Its great to keep tabs like the suggestions above, but mentally we should weight the “Majors” differently.

    All this is good, though. In the NBA, NFL, NHL, and in the modern era even MLB, the best teams from a season are forgotten because they did not win the playoffs. One of the interesting aspects of soccer from an organizing standpoint is the different competitions – pitting teams of different countries, divisions, and professional statuses against each other – and the various trophies available. Efforts to promote these and use them to compare clubs useful.

  • Gerald Barnhart says:

    I agree with a lot of your thoughts Chuck. That is why I think that by packaging the titles together into a group, you can raise the profile of all the events. I think there are a lot of people who vary on which they think is the most important, just as is the case for golf and tennis.

  • KG says:

    When you say ‘marketing’ the Major Cups, does that mean that SUM is promoting them all within the same package? Does each cup receive an allotment of resources for makert promotion, ticket packages, travel deals for supporters? Bringing the mainstream media outlets up to speed about each one is great as the education of America’s sports landscape is necessary. But where is the synergy among the promoters to pool their resources and hype each one on it’s own merits? A great idea, now let’s see how this thing can run! Thanks

    • Josh Hakala says:

      This is purely Gerald’s idea of how to better market the sport of soccer in this country, there’s no plan in place. But maybe someone who can actually make decisions will read this and make it happen?

  • KG says:

    I say go for it. Make this a campaign, a grassroots effort from all corners of the nation. Send it to supporters groups, post it to discussion threads, make it a formal proposal to USSF, MLS, SUM, the entire pyramid. Sam Pierron in KC has done a great job in keeping the Supporters Shield legit. Use all and every media outlet and social network app to sound the alarm. PR folks in NY can wrap all these together in a bundle to get good press coverage. Soccer fans can get behind this and build a following. Thanks for putting it out there.

  • Poqui says:

    The US Open Cup is not a major tournament because most MLS teams use it as a chance to play their reserves. IMHO it should not even be considered a serious piece of hardware for any MLS team.

    MLS Cup, SS, and Champions League are the only ones that really count.

    Put the Open Cup to rest and return it to the minor leagues so they can battle each other out. The MLS does itself a dis-service by paying any attention to it.

  • Tim says:

    Poqui, so long as it gets you into the CCL, it is a major.

  • wes says:

    The US Open Cup is a top major trophy, weather we like it or not. Winning this trophy is like winning the FA in England. Teams have to play with the resources they have, and manage with the squad they have. That is not easy.

    Also, while Columbus and Chicago do have similar Cup tally’s, Chicago has been the more successful club over its history than Columbus which won in a spurt just recently.

    It may be the easiest to win, but it is no less prestigious.

  • Joah says:

    The U.S. Open Cup is just not taken serious enough for it to be among the four. The small crowds speak for themselves. And to promote it you need money. So where is the money coming from? MLS has to worry about its own league games and championship. The USSF is not going to provide any. The NASL couldn’t even play in the US Open Cup this year due to money concerns.

    It goes likes this.

    1. MLS Cup
    2. SS
    3. CCL
    4. US Open Cup

  • DCUDiplomat96 says:

    The problem with this ideas it further insinuates a european way against american sports culture. Soccer is a team sport. the golf and tennis most of the time are individuals. …. Also the NFL and MLB have other trophies, the NFC and AFC championships, but the most Important is the Super Bowl. in MLB you have the League Pennants, but the World Series is the most important. The problem with this proposed idea by the writer is that soccer in north america is and should be more adaptive to the sports culture in north america, and not of europe. who cares if europe wants to give out trophies like candy. Here in the US you earn your championship by making the playoffs and winning in the playoffs. Until the USOpen soccer cup reformats to where it more favorable to the sporting community where its more marketable, the US OC will still be just another tournement. Also i beleive that MLS and USSF doesnt have to immitate europe. the USOC should be a post season playoffs not some useless games played during the regular season.

  • Ronnie says:

    The supporters shield should be meaningless when MLS differs from the balanced schedule or almost balanced schedule from recent history. The league will be too big after the next round of expansion to glorify the best record during the regular season. By then, the best record won’t signify the best team in the regular season and thus, should not be considered a major.

  • KG says:

    Great discussion. Since the USOC originated before the modern era of soccer (professional players) and the Champions League in CONCACAF started in the 1960s (near the same time as Intercontinental Cup), I would think that the European imitation argument loses some favor. Looking through the soccer histories of each country, one is impressed with how the domestic champion has been contested. In the modern era, with corporate sponsors and media glitz, league championships have adapted a post-season playoff tournament to build ‘product’ consumption measured by tv ratings and merchandizing and naming rights. See the FIFA model. The USOC still awards the highest finishing non-MLS team with a handsome sum. If more sponsors could be found, then the prize money would surely increase. Let’s not let a league distinction muddy the waters of true competition. Imagine what it would be like of NAIA and NCAA decided to compete against the Major leagues of each sport within the season. That would be awesome and it is exactly what USOC offers: a chance for the underdog to triumph over (or attempt to defeat) a heavily-favored opponent. That is a high honor worth pursuing. The sport fan determines importance, not corporate media. Thanks

  • Andy says:

    I wont follow MLS until they get rid of the stupid playoffs. And there are hundreds of thousands of Americans just like me.

  • Kevin says:

    Andy wrote: I wont follow MLS until they get rid of the stupid playoffs. And there are hundreds of thousands of Americans just like me.

    Oh, get over yourself, Europoser. There are not “hundreds of thousands of Americans” just like you. The playoffs are not going away. I’m not wild about it, either, but they will be here for a long, long time…and probably forever. Just watch the EPL on FSC. We don’t need you anyway.

    My two cents on the matter at hand:

    Yes to it all. Treat all four cups like major trophies and promote them as such. You want to make one the biggest? Fine. I’d rather it not be MLS Cup but that’s likely what the league will promote. But the profile of the SS, USOC, and CCL should be raised.

  • Brendan says:

    I think that as the noose of parity in MLS is loosened, teams will be more able and willing to pick their competition. As true league hierarchy develops, some teams will see themselves as “cup teams” like Spurs and Pompey in England. Not to pick on anyone, but a team like Portland (arbitrary choice) who doesn’t have a great chance of winning the Supporter’s Shield, an outside chance at a play-off run and isn’t qualified for CCL, would choose to field full teams for all cup games and, in doing so, promote the importance of the competition.

  • carlsen says:

    The Open Cup is a great competition , if you do not know the history or choose not to know the history, then you are as ignorant as those who think the 4 major sports are blah blah blah and blah. For this cup to be taken seriously we need a relegation system and we all know that will never happen. This cup is a terrific competition and those who win it deserve a ton of credit. “The best 11 players in the US are not playing professional ” Bruce Arena circa 2006.

  • Bobby in Bay Area says:

    FA Cup is played by reserves until the fourth or fifth round. MLS teams do simmilar. I have attended a few of these matches and they are truly entertaining. FOX Soccer should step out and broadcast the later rounds. That action would raise the profile of the tournament.

  • bullsear says:

    I love the idea of marketing the 4 Majors. It’s a little deceptive to draw a direct analogy between other sports with majors, but then again, all analogies break down at some point.
    Honestly? I say the first thing we do in this grass roots campaign is get on Wikipedia and start adding language like “the three US domestic majors (the US Triple)” and “the four US Majors.”

  • Jnorris says:

    I agree that this is a good discussion. As a die hard Seattle Sounder fan, we have benefitted from winning two US Open Cups in a row, and now are on teh verge of a third. The main benefit – entry into the CCL, which we are currently on top of our group in. There has definitely been a turning point last year and this year in MLS, and the MLS sides are now taking the Open Cup very seriously. Just look at the Sounder-Dallas match last night. Both 1st team sides, both playing very physical wanting to win. Why? Because the CCL is on the line, and both sides know what this means, given that they are both competing in the CCL currently. As the CCL continues to gain steam in the region and in MLS, the Open Cup will continue to be taken more seriously by MSL sides. In two to three years, this competition will be taken as seriously as the CCL or MLS. The comparisons to any Euro league hold true – As a side, you are always battling to win your domestic cup and your league, as either gain you potential entry in the Europa or Champs League. This then gets you to the precipice of the ultimate – the famed “trebble”. This is really the holy grail of domestic soccer. Although I agree with other commenters that the playoffs and MLS Cup should be discarded, I agree with even more commenters that this being America, playoffs are here to stay, and therefore the MLS Cup is going to be a part of the future picture of trophies in American Soccer. Thus, the holy grail is the “quadrebble”, of in this article’s parlance, the 4 majors (although I like the quadrebble better). The Sounders have a shot at the quadrebble this year; that is what Sigi and the boys are gunning for. See if you can stop us!!!

  • tannif says:

    The threat of the US Open Cup becoming a prestigious Cup, all in itself presents this Cup as a desireable Trophy to win. One day, when Nike or Addidas buys this tournament and upgrades it, everybody will want in in a big way, and when that happens, its better to be one of its past champions (and multiple times at that). That said, this is already a major trophy. Being easy to win or lose matters some, but it doesn’t mean its not prestigious.

  • BamaMan says:

    My humble proposal (unlikely to ever happen because it is too simple and makes too much sense) would be to have the month of May as the centerpiece of the US Soccer season. Go to a simple, Mexican-style 8-team playoff with two legs each round for the MLS Cup.
    Week #1
    Week #2 – MLS Cup Finals
    Week #3 – US Open Cup Final
    Week #4

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