It's that time of year again when pundits like me starting explaining to everyone how the U.S. Open Cup is a great tournament but needs some serious fixing. Well, until USSF actually gets the message and goes about fixing it, we're going to continue to write about it. Hope you don't mind.
No more bidding
The simplest and most straight-forward part of the process that needs to happen is for USSF to get rid of the ridiculous bidding process that allows certain teams to play virtually every match at home. The fact that a team like DC United can host 11 straight home games is an absolute competitive atrocity. There seems to be little reason behind the bidding process other than it allows USSF to ensure a little extra money ends up in their pockets.
What's involved in the bidding process you ask? Well, at the start of the tournament each team is given a multi-page document that lays out the basics such as stadium size and jersey colors. Along with that is a bid form that includes information like expected attendance, whether or not the game will be on radio or televised and, most controversially, how much money the team is willing to guarantee the federation. This is where all kinds of potential shenanigans can happen.
SB Nation has learned the bids for third-round games are often at least in the tens of thousands of dollars, and bids in the later rounds can be substantially more. The kicker? Even MLS teams don't know how much the other teams are bidding and never learn. For teams that actually want to win the tournament -- and more and more teams seem to be figuring out that at the very least this is the path of least resistance to the CONCACAF Champions League -- there are really no limits to how much they might be willing to spend.
Take the Seattle Sounders, for instance. Although they've gone on the road at least once each of the past two years, they will host their third round and quarterfinal matches this season. Unlike many teams, they have the ability to host at two different facilities and can cater their bid accordingly. If they believe their semifinal opponent -- say Real Salt Lake -- might put in a strong bid and would potentially be a solid draw, they can offer to open up CenturyLink Field the way they did for last year's Open Cup final. Almost no team in the league can compete with that bid, as the Sounders would be able to guarantee a much larger crowd than virtually any other team.
It should go without saying that this offers some pretty significant advantages. While I don't blame any team for trying to get whatever competitive advantage they can, USSF should not be encouraging that kind of behavior the way the current system does.
A more reasonable way to determine which team hosts would be to have a simple draw. Lots of leagues use draws to determine hosts, so this should be nothing new. If a team ends up winning 11 straight draw, great. But it's better than having it determined by which team was willing to pay more. It should go without saying that these draws should be public to guard against accusations of malfeasance. The one catch should be this: There should be a minimum stadium standard and teams should be allowed to decline the right to host.
Expanding the tournament
What differentiates the Open Cup from virtually every other tournament in the United States is that it's one of the only places where you can see teams from different levels compete for a common prize. Even in college sports where teams from different divisions play one another, it's never for the same championship.
The USSF should embrace this unique feature by expanding the tournament in order to allow all 16 U.S.-based MLS teams automatic entry. That this already doesn't happen is, perhaps, the hardest aspect of the tournament to understand. As it currently stands, the tournament consists of 40 teams -- eight from MLS and 32 from various other leagues. Rather than eliminating spots that currently go to these lower leagues, simply add eight spots in the tournament.
As it is now, the first round would continue to consist of the 32 lower-division teams playing against one another. Those 16 winners would then be placed into one of eight roughly geographic regions (to limit travel), along with the 16 MLS teams. Each of regions would consist of two MLS teams and two lower-division teams. The matchups would then be determined by lottery.
The obvious upside to this is more games featuring minnows and sharks, and thus more opportunities to see things like the Richmond Kickers upsetting the Columbus Crew. While there was a time in the not-so-distant past that MLS teams wanted to limit this kind of potential embarrassment, it's time we move beyond that. So a lower-division team goes on a Cinderella run ala the 1999 Rochester Rhinos and wins the whole thing. Would any serious observers really believe that makes MLS look worse? Detractors of the league already have their reasons.
Considering some MLS teams already play as many as three extra games just to qualify for the tournament, there should be almost no effect on fixture congestion, as this only adds one match to each team's schedule.
Show the games
Currently, the only match that's guaranteed to be on TV -- even locally -- is the final. For MLS or USSF to demand that every match be televised is probably unrealistic. But there's no reason that as part of the national team TV package that USSF couldn't require the network to host a Game of the Round. Even if it's relegated to a channel like Fox Soccer or ESPNU, it would be a huge improvement over the current situation.
Similarly, there doesn't seem to be a good reason why MLS doesn't make all Open Cup webcasts available through MLSSoccer.com. The league's site currently takes an oddly hands-off approach to the tournament, not even listing the schedule on its front page, while making room for the Gold Cup and, more oddly, the Nutrilite Canadian Championship.
Give the final a permanent home
Last year, when the Sounders hosted the final, we saw how great the atmosphere could be. As much as I'd like to see every final be played in Seattle, though, I realize that it's neither practical nor fair to give the Open Cup final a permanent home in one of the country's most remote locations.
The Open Cup final deserves a permanent home, but it should be someplace reasonably accessible to every team in the country. It should also be a state-of-the-art facility, and an ownership interested in growing the game. You probably know where I'm going with this...
Make Livestrong Sporting Park the permanent host of the Open Cup final. Like the people of Omaha, Neb. have embraced the College World Series, I have no doubt that local will flock to this annual game to see our national soccer championship played in the proper venue. Maybe make it part of a larger celebration of soccer. Do the Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the same time. Have the respective academy teams face off. Blow it out.
Each one of these suggestions, I feel are relatively simple and should come at a minimal cost. Taken individually, I think each one has the potential to inject new life into a tournament that truly deserves it.