The 2012 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup will be receiving an extreme makeover, according to a source familiar with the organization of the tournament. The changes are detailed in a proposal that is awaiting final approval by Major League Soccer’s Competition Committee, which is scheduled to meet in the weeks leading up to MLS Cup. The proposal calls for the US Open Cup to increase the number of participating teams from 40 to 64, which will include all 16 US-based MLS sides. The tournament will also begin earlier, kicking off the opening round on May 15, marking the first time the tournament has begun prior to Memorial Day in the Modern Professional Era (1995-present).
The source tells TheCup.us that the changes are the result of a compromise. The lower division teams wanted a greater chance to face an MLS team in the tournament, while MLS teams were looking to begin and end the competition earlier in the year to avoid scheduling congestion in the second half of the season. In addition to the playoff chase at the close of the regular season, some MLS teams also participate in the CONCACAF Champions League Group Phase. International competitions featuring MLS players have also been part of the juggling act for clubs, particularly in June and July.
The goal is to have the Open Cup completed by August, the starting point of the CCL Group Phase which runs August to October. The last Open Cup tournament to hold a championship game before the month of September was in 1995 when the Richmond Kickers won the title in penalty kicks over the El Paso Patriots, the year before MLS joined the competition.
The United States Soccer Federation (USSF) declined to comment until any proposals have been confirmed.
The 64 teams and rounds of play would be broken up as follows:
The First Round would begin with 32 amateur teams playing off to produce 16 winners. The 16 that advance from Round 1 will take on the 16 US-based lower division professional teams from the North American Soccer League (NASL), pending sanctioning, and USL Pro. The 16 winners from Round 2 would face the 16 MLS sides awaiting them in Round 3.
There is, however, no certainty that the NASL will be fully sanctioned as a Division 2 league, but the proposal was constructed with the possibility that they would be. Last year, the NASL was excluded from the Open Cup, according to USSF, due to the fact that the 2011 format was already finalized prior to the NASL being awarded a one-year provisional sanctioning.
How the 32 amateur teams will be divided up between the Premier Development League (PDL), National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) and US Club Soccer will be determined at a later date.
Another ripple effect from moving the start of the tournament to the middle of May is the expected elimination of the longstanding in-season qualifying process for the PDL berths. Throughout the Modern Professional Era, the PDL has featured regular season games which double as qualifiers for the US Open Cup, adding additional value to the early part of the league schedule. Since the vast majority of players on PDL and NPSL rosters are college players, the earliest they are allowed to start training with their club is May 1, but with two weeks until the first Open Cup game, it is highly unlikely that the leagues will try to squeeze in any kind of qualifying process.
In fact, a sign that the new format is expected to be adopted has already surfaced. USASA regional and state associations have been informed that they need to make arrangements to have regional qualifying completed by May 1. Based on previous tournament formats, that is usually the same deadline PDL and NPSL teams are given to determine their entries.
For the first time since 2006, every MLS team will enter the US Open Cup, putting an end to five years of play-in tournaments for the top division. The numbers would suggest that MLS qualifying will not be missed as average attendance for the competition, held on midweek dates, had been on a steady decline since 2008. After averaging 6,479 fans per game in 2007 (four games) and 6,764 in 2008 (five games), 2009 (six games) dropped to 4,724 and 2010 hit rock bottom with 2,487 over seven games. Last year, the average climbed to 3,803, but much of that is attributed to the Portland Timbers who drew an MLS qualifying record 11,412 to watch their 1-0 extra time loss to the San Jose Earthquakes in the semifinals.
MORE ANALYSIS: Extreme Makeover – US Open Cup edition: What it all means (Extra Time @ TheCup.us)