2021 US Open Cup format: Tournament shrinks due to COVID-19 pandemic

Posted by | February 9, 2021

UPDATE (3/30/21): The 2021 US Open Cup has been reduced to 16 teams

The US Soccer Federation has announced the format for the 2021 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup. The 107th edition of the tournament will feature 24 teams, the smallest field in nearly three decades, in a five-round competition. The First Round is scheduled to begin on May 4-5 with the Final culminating on June 29 or 30.

The news was first reported by Brian Straus of Sports Illustrated Soccer on Feb. 8.

The format change is due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 US Open Cup was set to feature a Modern Era record 100 teams before the tournament was canceled for the first time in its 106-year history. Now, the 2021 will feature a drastically reduced field due to safety concerns and a crowded soccer calendar according to US Open Cup commissioner Paul Marstaller.

“As we looked at our scheduling options, the Open Cup Committee first prioritized the health and safety of the players and decided against scheduling matches in both March and April due to the ongoing circumstances with the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Marstaller in a statement. “We also took into consideration the extended June FIFA window and the Concacaf Gold Cup taking place through Aug. 1, along with the semifinal and final rounds of the 2021 Concacaf Champions League being scheduled in the fall.

“In the end, we all felt a shortened version for this year was the best format, and we’re excited to have the opportunity to crown a champion after not being able to in 2020.”

The prize money for the tournament remains the same with $300,000 awarded to the winner and $100,000 to the runner-up. The teams that advance the furthest from each lower division will earn $25,000, as long as they advance at least one round.

Due to the reduction of teams in the tournament, no professional league will have every member team take part. This will be the first time since 2011 that not every Major League Soccer team takes part in the tournament. In addition, of the 36 Open Division teams that qualified for the 2020 only 1/9th of them will be included in the new 2021 format.

The current allocation of tournament berths are as follows:

Open Division (4)

Four of the 36 Open Division clubs will be invited to take part in the tournament. Teams from this group include:

  • 12 from the qualifying tournament held in the fall of 2019
  • 2019 U.S. Adult Soccer Association (USASA) National Amateur Cup champion (Newtown Pride FC)
  • 14 teams from the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL)
  • 11 teams from USL League Two

Division III (4)

Both the National Independent Soccer Association and USL League One will be allocated two team berths each. 

  • All nine Spring 2021 NISA teams are eligible
  • Nine teams from USL1 are eligible

Division II (8)

The USL Championship will be allocated eight spots. Of  the 31 teams currently slated to compete in 2021, 24 are eligible for a tournament spot.

Division I (8)

Major League Soccer will be given the final eight spots in the 2021 tournament. All 24-US based teams are eligible for the tournament.

TheCup.us can confirm that both leagues and teams were informed of this yesterday (Feb. 8). One of the professionally sanctioned leagues that was reached for comment said team selection was “still being determined.”

Additionally, certain deadline and eligibility requirements have been waived for the 2021 tournament. Section 202(a) of the Open Cup Policy cites that Open Division teams must remain in good standing with their respective leagues, including taking part in continued league matches. However, with the cancelation of many league seasons, including both NPSL and USL2’s in 2020, this has been waived. Also due to the extenuating circumstances and multiple Open Division Local Qualifying teams switching leagues since the conclusion of the Fall 2019 tournament, the committee has waived this rule meaning all 12 are still eligible.

This has been a problem two times in recent memory. In 2017, Minneapolis City SC was disqualified from the tournament following its qualification after it jumped from the Premier League of America to the NPSL. One year later, 1993 Cup champions El Farolito SC met the same fate when they joined the NPSL from the San Francisco Soccer Football League after securing a tournament spot.

US Soccer has also formulated a contingency encase COVID-19 or other hurdles come into play. If by March 29, the Open Cup Committee feels the Opening Round matches are in danger of being disrupted, the entire round can be cancelled outright. In this scenario, all leagues/divisions besides Major League Soccer would have their team berth allocations cut in half (USLC gets 4 teams, NISA/USL1 get 1 each, Open Division gets 2). The tournament would then start with the Round of 16 on May 18-19 (if the committee agrees conditions are favorable).

If conditions for holding Round of 16 cannot be met on April 19, tournament for 2021 will be canceled

2021 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup Competition Schedule

March 29: Date for confirming Opening Round

March 31: Opening Round matchups announced

April 19: Date for confirming Round of 16

April 21 or 28: Round of 16/Quarterfinal Draw (can held earlier if Opening Round is not played)

May 4-5: Opening Round (8 USLC, 4 NISA/USLL1, 4 Open Division teams)

May 18-19: Round of 16 (8 D-I [MLS] teams vs. winners from Opening Round)

May 25-26: Quarterfinal Round

June 15-16: Semifinal Round

June 29 or 30: Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Final

Continuing the four-year deal signed in 2019, all US Open Cup matches will be broadcasted on ESPN+. This will be the second tournament to be shown on the platform.

While we do not know which teams are going to take part in the 2021 U.S. Open Cup tournament, here are a few reminders on recent performances:

Major League Soccer

2020 MLS Cup – Columbus Crew SC

2020 Supporters Shield – Philadelphia Union

2020 MLS is Back – Portland Timbers

Other eligible teams – Atlanta United FC (reigning Lamar Hunt US Open Cup champion), Austin FC, Chicago Fire FC, Colorado Rapids, D.C. United, FC Cincinnati, FC Dallas, Houston Dynamo FC, Inter Miami CF, Los Angeles Football Club, LA Galaxy, Minnesota United FC, Nashville SC, New England Revolution, New York City FC, New York Red Bulls, Orlando City SC, Real Salt Lake, San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders FC, Sporting Kansas City

USL Championship

2020 League Champion – N/A
(Final between Tampa Bay Rowdies & Phoenix Rising FC cancelled)

Other eligible teams – Austin Bold FC, Birmingham Legion FC, Charleston Battery, Charlotte Independence, Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC, El Paso Locomotive FC, FC Tulsa, Hartford Athletic, Indy Eleven, Las Vegas Lights FC, Louisville City FC, Memphis 901 FC, Miami FC, New Mexico United, Oakland Roots SC, OKC Energy FC, Orange County SC, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC, Rio Grande Valley FC Toros, Sacramento Republic FC, San Antonio FC, San Diego Loyal SC

(Note: Rio Grande Valley FC Toros is eligible for the US Open Cup tournament for the first time due to its restructured agreement with Houston Dynamo FC, which gives full operation of team operations back to RGVFC.)

USL League One

2020 League Champion – Greenville Triumph SC
(awarded after final vs Union Omaha cancelled)

Other eligible teams – Chattanooga Red Wolves SC, FC Tucson, Forward Madison FC, North Carolina FC, Richmond Kickers, South Georgia Tormenta FC, Union Omaha

(Note: FC Tucson is eligible for the US Open Cup for the first time since 2018 and its jump to professional play. This is due to the separation of the team from its previous owner, USL Championship side Phoenix Rising FC.)

National Independent Soccer Association

2020 Fall Champions – Detroit City FC

Other eligible teams – 1904 FC, California United Strikers FC, Chattanooga FC, LA Force, Maryland Bobcats FC, Michigan Stars FC, New Amsterdam FC, Stumptown Athletic

USASA Amateur Cup

2019 Champions – Newtown Pride FC (No 2020 edition)

National Premier Soccer League

2019 National Semifinalists – Cleveland FC & ASC San Diego (2020 season cancelled)

Other eligible teams – Atlantic City FC, Denton Diablos FC, FC Arizona, FC Davis, FC Motown, Fort Worth Vaqueros, Med City FC, Minneapolis City SC, Naples United FC, Tulsa Athletic, West Chester United SC

(Note: Both 2019 Champion Miami FC & Runner-up New York Cosmos B are no longer with the league. Additionally, Crossfire Redmond was allocated a spot in the 2020 US Open Cup but no longer appears on the list. They are currently listed as an active team on NPSL’s website)

USL League Two

2019 National Semifinalists – FC Golden State Force & South Georgia Tormenta FC 2 (2020 season cancelled)

Other eligible teams – Chicago FC United, Corpus Christi FC, Des Moines Menace, North Carolina Fusion U23, South Carolina United Bantams, The Villages SC, Ventura County Fusion, Western Mass Pioneers

(Note: Both 2019 Champion Flint City Bucks & Runner-Up Reading United AC pulled out of the 2020 tournament due to player eligibility concerns. Neither have become re-eligible. Additionally, GPS Portland Phoenix was allocated a spot in the 2020 US Open Cup but no longer appears on the list. USL League Two has not updated its team listing for 2021 as of this writing.)

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