In 2013, the United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA) had a good idea: bring together the winners of the four major national amateur tournaments to decide a stand-alone national champion.
The first US Soccer National Amateur Championship saw the winners of the 2012 PDL, NPSL, USASA Open Cup and USASA Amateur Cup compete for the right be considered the best amateur club in America.
Well, the winner of the first title, Carolina Dynamo, was the 2012 PDL runner-up, not champ, but since a Canadian club - Forest City London - had won PDL that year, it was excusable to ask the best-placed American team to compete for an American national championship. And the rest of the field was legit: the 2012 NPSL champ, Lehigh Valley United Sonic; Battery Park Gunners were the 2012 USASA Amateur Cup champs; Croatian Eagles were the 2012 Werner Fricker Open Cup winners. Carolina Dynamo won the 2013 National Amateur Championship title and the tournament was off to a promising start.
The 2014 edition started off with the right intentions: Austin Aztex (2013 PDL winner), RVA FC (2013 NPSL winner), NorH Texas Rayados (2013 Werner Fricker Cup champ), and RWB Adria (2013 National Amateur Cup champ) were announced as the teams competing for the title. By the time the competition started, however, the Aztex had been replaced by Ocean City Nor'Easters - losing semifinalists in PDL 2013 (the runner-up that year was a Canadian club, as was the other losing semifinalist). And RVA FC was replaced by the 2013 NPSL runner-up, Sonoma County Sol. RWB Adria won the Championship, so at least the tournament crowned a true amateur champion despite the depleted field.
2015 was the year the Hank Steinbrecher trophy should have been of interest to the New York Red Bulls. RBNY's U-23 team won the 2014 NPSL title and thereby qualified for the 2015 National Amateur Championship. But that year's field did not include RBNY U-23s because the team had switched leagues and joined PDL. Instead, Chattanooga FC - the 2014 NPSL runner-up - hosted the tournament and won the title.
At least the 2015 National Amateur Championship had three national amateur champions in it: 2014 PDL winners Michigan Bucks, and the two 2014 Amateur Cup champions, Maryland Bays and New York Greek Americans. In 2016, the tournament devolved into little more than another opportunity for Chattanooga FC fans to have a day out.
Chattanooga hosted the Championship again, despite the fact it had not won NPSL in 2015 - it had lost the playoff final for the second consecutive year, this time to New York Cosmos B. The 2015 Amateur Cup champs, Quinto Elemento FC and West Chester United, were there. But the PDL's representative was Chicago Fire U-23s: a team that hadn't even made the playoffs in PDL 2015. RBNY U-23s were the losing finalists in the 2015 PDL championship game, and the winner - K-W United - was a Canadian team, so it seemed the Red Bulls had been snubbed for a second year in a row. But it subsequently emerged that RBNY had declined the invitation to participate.
Presumably a lot of other PDL teams passed on the invite to play what had become Chattanooga Cup too. To add insult to the injuries already inflicted on what was supposed to be the nation's showpiece amateur soccer tournament, Chicago Fire U-23s won the 2016 title. The National Amateur Champion was the third-best team in NPSL 2015's Heartland Division.
But in 2017, USASA appears to have realized that the Hank Steinbrecher Cup was in danger of becoming more sham than championship. Assuming the teams named all turn up, this year's field is arguably the most respectable yet for the tournament. The 2016 NPSL champion, AFC Cleveland, will host; 2016 PDL champs, Michigan Bucks, are expected; as is Christos FC, the winner of both the 2016 Amateur Cup titles. And Werner Fricker Cup isn't quite what it used to be and would appear to no longer be a true national competition, so there might be a longer-term need to fill the fourth spot at the National Amateur Championship. USASA has given the Chicago Fire U-23s, now re-branded as Chicago FC United, the chance to defend its title.
Chicago might not have been a particularly worthy national amateur champion in 2016, but it won the title and if its presence in this year's tournament sets the precedent that the champion will defend the trophy ever year, fair enough. Absent Werner Fricker Cup as a viable fourth national champion, it seems a reasonable solution.
And for the first time in its short history, the USASA National Amateur Championship might actually be contested by four actual champions from the preceding season.