Snowy conditions, seen in this 1956 First Round game between Harmarville and Cecil, is what many teams had to play through in order to keep the Open Cup on schedule in the past. Photo: National Soccer News
With the 2020 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is unclear when, or if, the tournament will be played this year. If the 2020 edition is indeed called off, it will be the first time since the tournament’s inaugural year in 1913 that it will go unplayed. Currently, the US Open Cup is the second-oldest continually-operating cup competition in the world, behind only Northern Ireland’s Irish Cup which started in 1881.
However, this is neither the first nor longest delay the Open Cup has experienced in its 106-year history. The start of the 1919 competition was set back nearly a month when the Spanish Flu pandemic swept through the country. Many times play has been stopped anywhere from two to four months due to winter weather conditions making games unplayable. In 1948, it took 11 months to complete the tournament due to weather delays and the 1948 Summer Olympics.
For most of the Open Cup’s existence, the preliminary rounds of the tournament started in October with a planned Final in April or May. This meant playing games through the winter months, often on mud, snow, and ice-covered fields. Usually the only weather that would force the postponement of a cup game would be heavy snow or very cold temperatures, which could hold up the competition for multiple months.
While the Open Cup was able to overcome the longer delays of the past, the tournament also operated on a much more flexible time frame. If the final was pushed back well beyond the preferred calendar date, there was no real “or else” date for it to be played. Soccer in the United States used to run closer to the fall to spring schedule popular in Europe, and it moved to a spring to fall timeline in the late 1960s. Outside of lightning or heavy rain, there is not much during the spring and summer months that will cause a delay, and playing in the winter months in the northern half of the country is seen as out of the question.
The congestion of Major League Soccer and USL Championship league schedules play a factor in when the tournament can be played. In the past, Open Cup games were often given precedence over league games, where now the Open Cup game dates must be squeezed in to fit the league schedules. The Open Cup Final is almost always scheduled no later than September or October in order to not interfere with the MLS Cup playoffs.
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The availability of players also depends on the calendar. Many teams from the NPSL and USL League Two rely on college players to fill their rosters, and due to NCAA rules these teams only have access to these players for a limited number of months. If the Open Cup were to fall too far behind schedule, these teams could lose the use of many of the players that make up their roster. However, since the start of the 2020 US Open Cup was pushed back to late March (the earliest start of the Modern Era), any team that relies on college players to fill out its roster wouldn’t have access to those players anyway.
Here are a few examples of long delays the Open Cup has faced in its history. While this is not a complete list, these are some of the more notable delays.
A cartoon about the impact of the Spanish Flu on the sports world from the Philadelphia Inquirer on Oct. 7, 1918
1918/1919: Spanish Influenza outbreak
Just as the 2020 edition is delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the start of 1919 tournament was set back by a pandemic, though only for a month.
A week before 12 matches were set to kick off the tournament on Oct. 20, 1918, the United States Football Association authorized postponing all the opening round games due to a new outbreak of the Spanish Flu.
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The deadly pandemic is believed to have gotten its start in United States military training camps in Kansas in April of 1918, and the deployment of those soldiers to Europe for World War I the following month allowed the virus to spread. In Sept. of 1918, a new outbreak was reported at Camp Devins outside of Boston, as well as a naval facility in Boston.
The flu spread quickly along the east coast, prompting recommendations against large gatherings in most cities. Many college football games in late October & early November were either played in empty stadiums or canceled outright.
The only areas deemed “safe” for large gatherings in late October were New York City and Connecticut, which allowed four cup games to be played on planned Oct. 20 start date. The 11 other opening round contests were completed in the following weeks, with Chicago’s Bricklayers & Masons’ 3-1 win over American Hungarian FC bringing a close to the first round three weeks after its planned completion.
In the end, the tournament was able to quickly regain its pace after the October delay, and, in the end, on April 19, 1919, the Bethlehem Steel defeated Paterson FC, 2-0, to win the club’s fourth National Challenge Cup title.
MORE: 1918/1919 National Challenge Cup Round 1: World War I, Spanish Flu cause chaos for tournament
MORE: Philadelphia soccer and the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic (Philly Soccer Page)
1943: Bad weather in Wisconsin
When Brooklyn Hispano defeated the Philadelphia Americans, 3-1, in the 1943 Eastern Final (National Semifinals) on March 14, the second round slate on the western side of the bracket had yet to be completed. A brutal Wisconsin winter pushed a pair of Second Round games from their scheduled December date all the way to April 4, 1943. Once spring temperatures thawed the Badger state, the Croatian Eagles were able to defeat Wacker FC, and Milwaukee side Falk Field Club overcame Schwaben AC from Chicago, 4-1.
Falk defeated the Eagles the following week to advance to an April 25 quarterfinal game with Chicago’s Sparta A & BA. The delays caused the Western final between Sparta and Western Pennsylvania’s Morgan Strasser to be played nearly two months after their Eastern counterparts. Brooklyn Hispano won the 1943 Open cup over Strasser on May 30, nearly three months after their game with the Americans.
1947: More bad weather and bad scheduling
Due to a combination of weather and scheduling delays, the 1947 US Open Cup did not wrap up until Sept. 7. At the time, it was the latest date on the calendar the Final had ever been played. It was also the third year in a row that the final was pushed to its latest ever finish, as the 1945 final took place in mid-June, and the 1946 Final did not kick off until July.
On April 2, Bill Graham of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that while the Western half of the tournament was moving on time, the East was badly delayed because of interference from “other competition”. While the West did not have nearly the number of entrants, the last of the 11 games in the First Round in the East did not wrap up until May 18, four months past the preferred time.
The American Soccer League’s Baltimore Americans were the first direct casualty of the delay. The Americans were forced to forfeit their first-round game to Baltimore amateur club Hasslinger SC when their playing field became unavailable due to the start of baseball season in May. Soon after, Detroit’s Pioneer Kickers forfeited their quarterfinal replay with Western Pennsylvania’s Curry in mid-May in order to focus on their North American Professional Soccer League schedule.
By June, the Eastern second round schedule had yet to be completed and the Baltimore SC Orioles joined the list of withdrawn teams. Kearny Scots and the Kearny Irish were scheduled to face each other on June 6, but decided to both withdraw, in protest of the method of drawing opponents.
By the time the United States Soccer Football Association (USSFA) convention took place in June, the Open Cup finalists had yet to be determined. The ongoing delay became a hot topic of discussion in the meeting of the Cup Committee, with some district representatives arguing that it was unreasonable to expect their teams to try and play important cup games in the winter months when bad weather made fields unplayable.
With Sparta and Ponta Delgada finally determined as Open Cup finalists at the end of June, yet another delay stopped the tournament’s completion. The USSFA agreed in December of 1946 to send a team to Cuba for the first-ever North American Football Confederation championship. Instead of putting together a team of players from across the country, the USSFA decided to send Ponta Delgada, the defending US Amateur Cup champions and the runner-up of the previous year’s Open Cup.
The NAFC tournament required Ponta to be in Cuba for two weeks, and the result may have caused Ponta to wish they stayed at home. Ponta lost the first game 5-0 to Mexico on July 13, and seven days later, they dropped their final game to Cuba 5-2 to finish last among the three teams.
Finally, on Aug. 31 the first leg of the Open Cup final between Sparta and Ponta Delgada was played at Tiverton, Rhode Island, which Ponta won 6-1. A week later in Chicago, Ponta claimed their first Open Cup title with a 3-2 win, erasing the disappointment a month earlier in Cuba. (NOTE: It would be a half century before a team from Massachusetts would lift the trophy again when the New England Revolution ended the drought with the 2007 US Open Cup championship)
A photo from the Capital Times (Madison, Wis.) from March 27, 1948
1948: Delayed by weather (again) and the Olympics
Bad weather once again wreaked havoc on the Eastern half of the Open Cup schedule in 1948, causing the First Round to stretch from Jan. 18 to Apr. 4. With just five teams in the Western half of the tournament proper, the Western Final was won by Simpkins Ford a mere month after the Eastern First Round was completed.
Headline in the Wisconsin State Journal – March 27, 1948
In an attempt to keep bad weather from delaying the tournament in the West, the Wisconsin State Soccer Association went to an unusual length to determine who would advance as Wisconsin’s representative. On Mar. 28, the Milwaukee Brewers were set to face Richard Rich Tigers in the Wisconsin final, but the game was put off by the same winter weather that had gripped Milwaukee for the past few months.
The winner was set to advance to the Illinois third round, who were waiting on the Wisconsin winner. Since the bad weather showed no sign of letting up, it was decided a coin flip would determine the winner. Richard Rich Tigers won the toss, and they may have regretted making the trip to Chicago. On April 4, the Tigers were hammered 10-1 by the Polish American AC (now AAC Eagles).
Since Brookhattan was tied up with the Lewis Cup Final (ASL league cup) in early May, in order to keep the Open Cup moving the USSFA decided to switch up the Eastern Third Round pairings. Instead of facing Brooklyn Hispano, Brookhattan were given a bye to the Fourth Round, and Hispano was set up to face German American Soccer League champion Elizabeth Sport Club (NJ). Elizabeth wound up upsetting Hispano 2-0 and would eventually be stopped in the Quarterfinals by Ponta Delgada, 2-0.
With five members of Simpkins Ford (St. Louis) named to the 1948 US Olympic Team, the date of the 1948 US Open Cup Final was pushed back until after the Olympics. Headline: Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Just as had happened the year before, the Final was set back by an international competition. Brookhattan finally were crowned Eastern champions with a 4-1 aggregate win over Ponta Delgada on June 20. Simpkins Ford had already been waiting six weeks since they defeated Castle Shannon in the Western Final on May 9. The plan was to stage the two legs of the Final on July 4 in St. Louis and July 11 in New York. That plan hit snag when Simpkins couldn’t find a suitable field to use.
Complicating matters was the fact that the US Olympic Soccer team was scheduled to leave for London on July 14, and five Simpkins players were on the team. On June 24, USSFA Vice President Walter Geisler announced that the Open Cup Final would be delayed until after the Olympics.
Unfortunately, the US Olympic soccer team found themselves on the wrong end of a disappointing result, just like Ponta Delgada the year before. The 1948 Olympic football tournament was a single elimination knockout, and after their original opponents withdrew (Portugal), the US wound up facing Italy in the opening round. The Americans were hammered 9-0 by an Italian team with many players from first and second division Italian clubs. The Olympic team stayed in Europe for another two weeks to play games against Northern Ireland (5-0 loss) and Norway (11-0 loss).
Finally, on Oct. 17, 1948, Brookhattan met Simpkins at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis, eleven months after the tournament began in November of 1947. Simpkins won their first Open Cup championship in thrilling fashion, with Henry Merlo scoring in the 89th minute to push the home club past the visitors, 3-2. It was the first time a St. Louis team had lifted the trophy in 13 years.
The 1947/1948 tournament remains the longest lasting edition in the competition’s 106-year history. After 1948, the final would often be played in June or early July, but the tournament would not see another October final until 1996, when by then, the calendar for soccer in the United States started in March or April instead of September.
1965: Midwest matches once again delayed by weather
While three of the four teams for the Western semifinals had been determined by February, Chicago’s qualifying would be stuck in a holding pattern until April by winter weather. Once spring broke, Hansa defeated the Maroons 3-1 in the final Chicago quarterfinal game. Hansa would go on defeat Schwaben 3-2 in extra time on May 2. The Western side of the bracket wound up a month behind the East.
That year, Hansa would go all the way to the Open Cup Final against New York Ukrainian on June 27 and July 4, falling 5-2 on aggregate, although the second leg went to extra time to break a 2-2 aggregate score.