The Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, or USOC for short, seemed to be a trophy that was always on the periphery for most MLS teams, especially the New York Red Bulls. They often fielded less than full-strength rosters as midweek matches would put a wrench in training for first team regulars.
Even some fans possess an "It's just a friendly" attitude towards the Open Cup, as if it bore no meaning to them or for the team... which to an extent it really may not.
For me this mentality is a major problem. The tournament has been dominated by teams from the 1930s, such as Bethlehem Steel, which many fans have no idea about. It seemed that in the early days of soccer in America, the Open Cup was a pretty sought out and respected trophy to bring home. Now, with the emergence of a top flight division in the US, that prestige seems to have waned.
On the US Soccer Federation website, the competition is described as:
"In a nutshell, the U.S. Open Cup is very similar to domestic cup competitions popular throughout Europe, South America and the rest of the world... In leagues the English Premier League, Serie A in Italy and the Bundesliga in Germany, cup competitions are prestigious tournaments waged between countries' strongest teams such as Manchester United, AC Milan, and Bayern Munich, and smaller teams like the amateur French side Calais that made it to the finals of the 2000 Coupe de France only to fall to defending champions Nantes on an injury time penalty kick."
However, based on its marketing of the tournament, it seems like that statement is may not hold up as much as the federation believes. Almost nothing is done to promote the tournament, despite it being trumpeted as being on the level on the FA Cup and the Coupe de France. This year the tournament featured its largest participation of soccer teams, but you'd be hard pressed to find the "Magic of the Cup," found in other countries.
No deals have been made with leagues or the national team to help promote this historical championship. To that point, it is disgraceful to compare it to the FA Cup or the Coppa Italia. Teams in Europe all actively seek to bring home the trophy, while many in the top flight in the US seem to treat it more of a burden than anything else. With its mid-week scheduling and poor attendance figures (especially from a Red Bulls perspective) the tournament lacks the punch of some of its counterparts.
In my opinion, only a few tweaks are needed to bring the tournament to its intended glory. First and foremost, some games should be played on the weekend. Yes, this cuts into the MLS season, but weekday games are more of a burden than a convenience. The style that the FA Cup is structured seems the best, in my opinion. Just place the matches into the weekends, and have MLS hold off on playing regular season games during those weekends.
Weekday league games are not even all that well attended. For the match against RSL this season, people scoffed at the attendance figures, as has been common for Red Bull matches that take place on Wednesday. The upcoming Open Cup game against the Union will be no different. A 4 pm kickoff during the week is horrible on many counts. Not everyone can take off work a couple hours early to go to the game, and most can't take off the whole day for this match.
If people can't attend, then what happens? Well there's streaming on YouTube, and for Red Bull games I've never seen more than several hundred people watch a stream at any given time. YouTube seems like a great idea for access - anyone with internet connection can watch the game. In some cases though, lower level teams do not have the capability to stream matches, meaning it is not guaranteed that fans can watch an open cup match. Organizers should work hard to ensure streams so everyone can watch every match.
There have been some positives in recent years. The USSF has finally announced a dedicated twitter handle @opencup to follow all of the action, and provide information about streams, match day information, and other historical facts to bring fan engagement. In addition, every draw has been streamed on YouTube so fans can see first who their team will be playin gin the next round. The federation has also ramped up its coverage online providing recaps for almost all of the matches. Still, more can be done to bring the prestige back to the U.S. Open Cup.
I loathe that I have missed every cup game so far due to working hours during the week, and I'm sure others feel similar. Hopefully the Open Cup will continue to grow and become more accessible to casual and hardcore American soccer fans.