U.S. Open Cup Makes Major Changes As Field Expands To 64, All MLS Teams Qualify

The 2012 U.S. Open Cup will look very different than the 98 editions before it after a series of changes to the competition made by the United States Soccer Federation. Beginning in 2012, the competition will expand to 64 teams and all 16 American MLS teams will qualify for the tournament proper, eliminating the MLS qualifying round that has been in place since MLS began play in 1996.

The 64 teams that will be in the 2012 field will be a professional era (1995-present) record and every professional club in the country will get a spot in the field without having to qualify. Professional clubs will make up half the field, with the other half made up by amateur clubs. The amateur clubs will compete in the first round and will be joined by NASL and USL PRO clubs in the second round. MLS clubs will join the competition in the third round, giving the competition 32 teams in each of the first three rounds

Another change is the elimination of the controversial financial bid process for all rounds before the semifinals and final. The bid process has been under fire, especially in recent years as the Seattle Sounders have won three consecutive U.S. Open Cups while playing nearly every match at home because they have out-bid their competition. Going forward, for all matches before the semifinals and final, the teams will be asked to submit a $15,000 bid and if both teams do so and satisfy USSF stadium requirement, the home team will be determined by a sblind draw. In the semifinals and final, the bid process will be used where each team submits a sealed financial bid to the USSF and the team that bids the most money gets to host the match.

While matches will still be played on Tuesdays, the competition is getting a scheduling change as teams will begin Open Cup play earlier than ever before in 2012. The first round will be played on May 15, with the second round taking place on May 22. The third round will be on May 29 and the fourth round will be played on June 5. The quarterfinals will be played on June 26, with the semifinals on July 10 and the final on August 7 or 8.

The early August final marks the earliest that the competition has ever ended in the professional era. The early start, early finish and condensed competition schedule will be a massive boost to MLS teams who face fixture congestion in late August and in the fall when CONCACAF Champions League group stage play begins.

With the changes, the U.S. Open Cup hopes to become a much bigger competition in the U.S. soccer landscape. Despite being the oldest competition in the country, it has become an afterthought for most MLS teams and has been the subject of ridicule because of the qualifying format, small field and bidding process that made the competition seem "minor league." The bid process is now at least gone for most of the tournament and bigger field and elimination of the qualifying rounds makes it a more straightforward tournament. In addition, the new schedule could usher in a new era in which more MLS teams prioritize U.S. Open Cup play and play more of their top players in the competition, giving it a chance at the stature the USSF hopes for.

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