U.S. Open Cup Format: Qualifying For MLS's Final Two Spots Announced

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MLS Announces Qualifying Process For Final Two U.S. Open Cup Spots

Despite being at the top of the U.S. soccer pyramid, just six MLS teams receive automatic berths into the U.S. Open Cup and just eight teams will compete in the main draw of the tournament. The first six spots were allocated based on 2011 regular-season standings, and the final two will once again be decided by a mini qualifying tournament that will be played during this year's regular season. On Tuesday, the eight teams that will be fighting for those two spots learned who their opponents will be.

In the first stage of qualifying, Chivas USA will play the Portland Timbers and DC United will play the Philadelphia Union. The winner of the Chivas USA-Timbers will then play the San Jose Earthquakes and the United-Union winner will play the New England Revolution. In the other two matches in the second stage, the Colorado Rapids will play the Chicago Fire and Sporting Kansas City will play the Houston Dynamo. The final stage of qualifying will then be Chivas-Port-SJ winner vs. Colorado-Chicago winner and DCU-Philly-NE winner vs. KC-Houston winner.

MLS will have a coin-toss to determine which teams will host the games and the two teams will then have to agree on the dates of the matches.

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NASL Was Apparently Just Fine With U.S. Open Cup Exlcusion

NASL CEO Aaron Davidson has been almost singularly focused on one thing lately: Making sure his league got Division 2 sanctioning. So, maybe it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that he doesn't seem particularly worried that his league won't be allowed to play in the 2011 U.S. Open Cup.

"Frankly, from our perspective — I don't want this to come out the wrong way — but we need to focus on our league right now," Davidson told IndyWeek.com. "The U.S. Open Cup is a phenomenal tournament, it gives you a chance to play MLS teams in games that matter, and it gives you a chance if you win it all you get to go to the [CONCACAF] Champions League. But, at the end of the day, we all know we’d rather focus on this league this season.

"The U.S. Open Cup games still cost you money, it’s hard to draw serious gates there because you don't have a lot of lead time to promote them, they’re on weekdays, [and] they're usually Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays. Obviously, if you get to the later rounds there are chances at really top matches. But, we look forward to coming back to the U.S. Open Cup in 2012. Let’s focus on NASL this year."

Maybe this is just sour grapes from Davidson. Maybe this is Davidson taking a jab at the USSF, basically saying his league season is more important that the country's longest continuously national championship. But both of those motivations seem less than likely. After all, while this season may be cleared for take-off, if NASL has any longterm plans he still needs to stay in the good graces of the USSF.

More likely, it's an honest reaction. There's little doubt that USSF could have found a way to include the NASL in this year's tournament if it was deemed important. The announcement of the format could have been pushed back, as it has each of the past two years, or an alternate format could have been created just in case the league was sanctioned. It seems clear USSF made this a conscious choice, and it seems plausible that Davidson and his fellow owners never raised much of a stink. Neither of those things seem to be in the best interests of a tournament that gives U.S. soccer fans the rare opportunity to see teams from different divisions play one another in a competitive environment, but it doesn't seem impossible to believe that both parties were happy to move along.

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2011 U.S. Open Cup Format: Amateur Teams Get Five Additional Automatic Berths

With news coming out earlier this week that no second division teams would participate in the 2011 U.S. Open Cup, it was clear that some rather significant changes were afoot. Those changes were revealed on Thursday when the format for this year's tournament was revealed. As it turns out, the biggest changes are among the amateur ranks.

Five more amateur teams will earn berths into the tournament this year. The PDL's allotment was raised to nine from eight and the NPSL will receive four automatic berths, the first time since 2003 that teams from that fourth-division league will gain automatic entry. NPSL teams used to qualify through the USASA, which will receive eight berths again this year. But with the five U.S.-based NASL teams be excluded, this allowed more automatic berths to be given to amateur teams.

The MLS will continue to send eight teams to the competition and will enter in the third round as in years past. The top six teams have already been decided based on their finish in the regular season last year, leaving two more spots to be filled through a series of play-ins. The only other fully professional teams to participate will be the 11 U.S.-based USL-Pro teams.

The 98th edition of the tournament will begin play on June 14, will feature 40 total teams and will conclude with a championship game on Oct. 4. All games are scheduled to be played on Tuesdays.

Among the MLS teams to earn automatic qualification are the Seattle Sounders, who will be playing for the chance to become the first team since the 1964-67 New York Greek-Americans to win three straight years. The Sounders beat the Columbus Crew in front of a record crowd in last year's championship game.

Qualifying Teams
  • MLS (8 teams – First Division): Columbus Crew, FC Dallas, Los Angeles Galaxy, New York Red Bulls, Real Salt Lake, Seattle Sounders FC + 2 qualifying teams
  • USL Pro (11 teams – Third Division): Charleston Battery, Charlotte Eagles, Dayton Dutch Lions, FC New York, Harrisburg City Islanders, Los Angeles Blues, Orlando City, Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Richmond Kickers, Rochester Rhinos, Wilmington Hammerheads
  • PDL (9 teams – Amateur): Teams to be determined
  • USASA (8 teams – Amateur): Two finalists from each of the four regional tournaments
  • NPSL (4 teams – Amateur): Teams to be determined
Schedule of games
  • May 30: Qualifying Deadline
  • June 14: First Round (32 teams from USL PRO and Amateur Division)
  • June 21: Second Round (First round winners)
  • June 28: Third Round (Second round winners paired against eight MLS teams)
  • July 12: Quarterfinals
  • Aug. 30: Semifinals
  • Oct. 4: Final
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NASL Teams Won't Play In 2011 U.S. Open Cup

NASL won the right to be called Division 2, but that decision apparently came too late to allow the five U.S.-based teams to play in what is arguably their biggest showcase event: the U.S. Open Cup. During a conference call with reporters, U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati revealed the timing of the NASL's one-year sanctioning made it impossible for the league's teams to compete in the country's longest continuously running championship. He also ruled out the possibility of some kind of play-in mechanism.

"There is no place in the structure, they’re not going to be included," Gulati said.

This news surely comes as a blow for second division soccer, which was allowed to send all nine of its U.S.-based teams into the first round of last year's tournament and have historically played reasonably well. Five of those teams made it as far as the third round, but none got any farther and Miami FC (soon to be rebranded as the Strikers) was the only one of those five that is playing in NASL this year. Two non-MLS teams, the Harrisburg City Islanders and the Charleston Battery, made it as far as the fourth round last year. Both of those teams will play in the Division 3 USL-Pro this year, and will be allowed to play in the Open Cup.

This will be the first time in the modern era (1995-present) that a sanctioned professional league will not be allowed to compete in the tournament, according to theCup.US. The original NASL (1968-84) also did not play in the Open Cup.  The Montreal Impact and FC Edmonton will be playing in the Canadian Nutrilite Championship (Voyageurs Cup).

The other particularly newsworthy piece of information to come out of the conference call was the revelation that there is no strict timeline for Traffic USA to divest itself of two of three NASL franchises in which it currently has large stakes. It had been rumored that one of the main reasons for the league's one-year provisional status was that ownership situation, but Gulati indicated that may not be the case.

"We haven’t put a restriction on ownership on the provisional approval," said Gulati, while also addressing the league-owned status of the NSC Minnesota Stars. "The pro league development task force witll contine to work with NASL on a number of points that have been discussed. The immediate resolution in terms of single team, single ownership, we don’t have a timetable on that.

"In an ideal world, we'd like to see individual investment groups for all eight teams or however many they have."

Aaron Davidson, NASL CEO and Miami FC owner, continued to stress that Traffic USA is not directly operating the Atlanta Silverbacks and Carolina Railhawks, and that there are local investors with their own managements.

"We’ve been very clear all along that it was out of necessity that Traffic had to invest into multiple teams," Davidson said. "We are very cognizant that the sport is the No. 1 prioirty.

"We believe those teams will maintain the highest level of integrity. Everyone will have chance to win championship."

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