Photo: Matt Ralph | Brotherly Game
When the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) announced changes to the schedule for the 2020 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, it delivered a major blow to the two Open Division national leagues at the core of the tournament’s tier of underdogs. The federation announced that the competition’s 107th edition will begin the week of March 24-25, the earliest start to the US Open Cup in the Modern Era (1995-present).
Every year, teams from the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) and USL League Two (USL-2) have competed in the Open Cup using rosters that are almost entirely made up of active college players. With the earlier start, the NPSL and USL-2 teams will be crippled because they will be unable to use those players.
Due to this schedule change, some teams, all of which are strong candidates to be chosen for next year’s tournament, have told TheCup.us they may take their name out of consideration for the 2020 US Open Cup. According to those teams, the time and resources it would take to enter the competition would not be worth it if they would have to enter a sub-par team.
According to NCAA rules, college soccer players are not allowed to compete in a competition outside of their school prior to May 1.
188.8.131.52.1.2 May 1 Exception. A student-athlete in soccer may compete outside an institution’s declared playing and practice season as a member of an outside team in any noncollegiate amateur competition, provided: (Adopted: 1/14/97 effective 8/1/97, Revised: 10/31/02)
(a) Such participation occurs not earlier than May 1;
(b) The number of student-athletes from any one institution does not exceed five;
(c) The competition is approved by the institution’s director of athletics; and
(d) No class time is missed for practice activities or for competition.
The teams that rely on college players would not only be without their services for the opening round, but the new US Open Cup schedule plans to complete the first three rounds of the competition before May 1. Reaching the Fourth Round is already challenging enough — only 17 Open Division clubs have done it since MLS launched in 1996. Now Open Division clubs would have to win three games with a pieced together roster which could make Cinderella runs more difficult.
USL League Two has been competing in the US Open Cup since the beginning of the Modern Era (1995), while teams from the NPSL first entered the competition in 2003, however, the league did not receive its own spots in the tournament until 2011. In the Modern Era, the Open Division level, which is made up of almost all amateur teams, have upset 82 clubs from the top three professional divisions in this country. Out of those 82 upsets, 56 of them came from teams from USL League Two and six of them came from NPSL clubs.
TheCup.us reached out to several NPSL and USL-2 teams for comment on the schedule change, and nearly all of them opposed the move.
“We are extremely frustrated with U.S. Soccer’s decision,” said Reading United AC Vice President Art Auchenbach. “They are going to lose some of the ‘magic of the cup’ by eliminating the Under-23 segment from participation. Hopefully, they will recognize the error of their ways and rethink it for the future.”
While Auchenbach gave a diplomatic answer when asked for comment on his way back from the USL League Two meetings in Orlando, his Twitter feed told a more subdued story.
In the eyes of the USSF, the teams that rely on college players were collateral damage in the effort to improve the tournament.
“The Open Cup Committee decided to start the competition earlier so that the tournament as a whole benefits from more time between rounds,” said a U.S. Soccer spokesperson. “Home teams will now have more time to promote and sell tickets, visiting teams will be able to arrange travel earlier and with more flexibility at lower cost, while those handling broadcast production will be able to make arrangements within a more manageable timeline. While U.S. Soccer recognizes that teams dependent on college players may need to look elsewhere to fill their rosters for Open Cup games in March and April, the Committee feels this scheduling step is necessary to drive increased interest in the tournament, help maximize sales for all involved and, ultimately, build a more credible competition across the U.S. Soccer spectrum.”
Since 2010, the first two or three, and sometimes four, rounds of the tournament would take place on consecutive weeks. This would create a challenge for amateur clubs and lower division professional teams to market the games and arrange travel. While, the federation does cover some of the travel costs, giving more time in between matches could give teams an opportunity to arrange more affordable travel, and give players an opportunity to make arrangements for a road game.
After the announcement of the changes, one team official told TheCup.us they believe the goal is to minimize the number of pro teams getting knocked out by amateur underdogs.
“U.S. Soccer has single-handedly and purposely destroyed the first three rounds of the Open Cup,” they said. “They don’t want any more amateur upsets and that is embarrassing.”
According to TheCup.us projections, the Western Mass Pioneers of USL League Two are expected to make their 12th appearance in the tournament next spring, and they know it won’t be easy.
“It’s always a great honor to qualify for the Open Cup,” said Pioneers spokesperson Brandon Smith. “Advancing in the Cup gives us an important opportunity to host home games, potentially with a MLS team. But as a pre-professional organization, we are reliant on elite college players to fill our franchise. An early start for us greatly hurts our chances to advance in the tournament. But we will do our best to recruit players and be competitive.”
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The new date will be tough for NPSL clubs like Cleveland SC, but they feel like it will be the players who will hurt the most by this change.
“We have to put some additional resources toward fulfilling a roster for a March date,” said Cleveland SC president Sam Seibert. “Quite honestly we have several players that will still be with their college programs that not only will be upset about not being able to compete in [the early rounds of the US Open Cup] but they also deserve to be there. I think the change is unfair to NCAA players … however, if this change means there will be more opportunities for lower-level clubs to compete against USL and MLS clubs, I’m for it.”
While nearly every team TheCup.us spoke with was disappointed with the decision, one team official said if you can only compete with college players, then you shouldn’t enter the US Open Cup.
“[The schedule change] essentially eliminates USL-2 teams,” said Sonny Dalessandro, owner of the NPSL’s Tulsa Athletic. “[USL League Two’s] rules and age restrictions handcuff them to using college players. It’s the same for a lot of NPSL clubs as well … We have a core group of older players that can be very competitive and represent us well, so we’ll give it a shot. USL-2 teams should have never been allowed in. My thought is that if a team cannot, in theory, win a competition due to NCAA timelines when players have to return to their schools, they shouldn’t be allowed into the competition in the first place. Would they have won it all? No. That’s not the point though. The point is that every entrant should represent a team eligible to win. The new rule set changes that theory, and for that, I like it.”
What Dalessandro is referring to is the fact that an Open Division team is severely limited in their potential in the Open Cup. It’s just an issue that no one has faced since MLS joined the tournament in 1996. If an Open Division team that features a roster loaded with college players was to make a miracle run to the Quarterfinals or beyond, they would likely not be able to field a full team. Once the calendar turns to August, most of those players would be gone. NCAA rules require players to return to their respective schools 21 days prior to their team’s first game of the season.
The Open Division participants for the 107th edition of the US Open Cup will be announced on Jan. 9, 2020.
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