1938-1939 National Challenge Cup: The first time the US Open Cup was invite-only

Posted by | February 12, 2021
Weck Henney (left) and Davidson (right) of Chicago's Manhattan Beer fight for the ball with St. Mary's Celtic in the second leg of the 1939 National Challenge Cup Final at Starlight Park in the Bronx. Photo: Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Weck Henney (left) and Davidson (right) of Chicago’s Manhattan Beer fight for the ball with St. Mary’s Celtic in the second leg of the 1938-39 National Challenge Cup Final at Starlight Park in the Bronx. Photo: Brooklyn Daily Eagle

On Feb. 8, 2021, the US Soccer Federation announced that due to continuing concerns involving the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 edition of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup would be limited to just 24 teams. 16 teams from different levels of US soccer will be selected to compete in the opening round, with the winners facing eight Major League Soccer clubs.

Few may know that this will mark the second time in the tournament’s history that the entire field was selected by a committee instead of individual club entry. While the method of choosing the entries has not been revealed as of yet, teams are not free to enter the tournament on their own.

In a change set forth by the American Soccer League, it was decided at the annual United States Football Association meetings on July 2, 1938 in New York City that the upcoming National Challenge Cup tournament would be by invitation only. The change was seen as making the tournament more “evenly balanced” and the National Challenge Cup committee was tasked with selecting the field of 64 clubs.

From 1913-1924 all teams regardless of level of play were eligible to be drawn to begin in the opening round. In the Fall of 1924, all four professional St. Louis Soccer League teams joined the American Soccer League (ASL) clubs in a boycott of the 1924-25 tournament. One of their complaints was having to play early round games against amateur clubs that drew little money, sometimes not even enough to cover travel expenses if it was an away game.

From that point on, 12 teams in the East and West were given exemptions directly to the First Round proper, with the remaining four spots in each bracket filled by survivors of qualifying rounds. The only change in format between 1925-1938 was in 1931 and 1933, when the ASL teams played a pair round robin series for spots in the Quarterfinals.

Bill Watson Burke - Photo: St. Louis Post Dispatch Archives (Dec. 11, 1938)

Photo: St. Louis Post Dispatch Archives (Dec. 11, 1938)

Normally the exemptions in the East were taken by the ASL clubs, while in the West teams from St. Louis and Chicago took a majority of the exempt spots, with clubs from Detroit, Cleveland and Western Pennsylvania filling out the rest. The exempt teams in the West were chosen based on prior Cup and league results, although the professional clubs from St. Louis & Chicago were chosen automatically regardless of past results.

The 1937-38 National Challenge Cup attracted 118 teams, 83 from the East and 35 from the West.

For the 1938-39 tournament, the committee selected 42 teams from the East and 22 from the West. The Western half saw just a drop off of 13 teams from the previous year. The East lost 41 teams, most notably the Northern Massachusetts and Southern New England region, which went from 23 teams in 1938 to just nine. The allocation of clubs per district were Eastern Pennsylvania (10), Maryland (3), New Jersey (6), Northern Massachusetts and  Southern New England (9), and Southern New York (14) in the East, and Illinois (5), Michigan (3), Missouri (2), Northwest New York (3) and Ohio (2) for the West. All 12 ASL teams were invited along with two ASL New England Division clubs.

Due to the lopsided number of teams, the Eastern half of the tournament required an extra round of play ahead of the Quarterfinals. Of the 10 teams in this round nine were from the ASL, the lone exception being Fall River’s Holy Cross of the Southern New England Soccer League.

By the end there were no real surprises or upsets under the new invitation only format. The Quarterfinals featured three teams that finished near the top of the ASL (New York City clubs Brookhattan and St. Mary’s Celtic, along with First German American SC from Philadelphia), the ASL New England Division winner (Lusitania Recreation), the champions and runner up of Chicago’s International Soccer league (Sparta Garden City & Manhattan Beer), the champion of Western Pennsylvania’s Keystone League (Morgan), and one of the top teams in Cleveland (Bartunek Slavia).

Manhattan Beer defeated Morgan for the Western championship by a 5-4 aggregate score, and St. Mary’s Celtic took the Eastern crown over First German American by a 3-2 on aggregate. St. Mary’s Celtic then took care of Manhattan Beer, 5-1, over two legs for their first and only Open Cup championship.

The invitation-only format lasted just one season. In October 1939 when the pairings were set for the 1939-40 tournament, the format had returned to its previous setup. Only 81 teams entered in that edition, down significantly from the 118 of two seasons prior. Perhaps some teams stayed away from being excluded the previous year, although the entry totals would continue to decrease as World War II continued to build.

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