As we saw in last season’s F.A. Cup when eighth tier Marine AFC took on Premier League traitors side Tottenham Hotspur, fans want to have games or competition between professional and lower leagues teams even more now as smaller sides look to rebound from the pandemic. With the 2021 U.S. Open Cup postponed until later this year (if that even happens), it looked as though that itch was going to remain unscratched for some time in the United States.
Enter the National Independent Soccer Association. The professionally sanctioned third division leagues has announced initial details for the 2021 NISA Independent Cup, a regional competition contested between it’s own professional teams and amateur squads from around the country.
Despite only being in it’s second season, NISA’s second edition of the tournament increased more than double in scale, going from 15 teams across four regions to 36 teams competing in nine different regions. Each of the regions will crown a champion with eight of them also containing at least one current or future NISA member. In the announcement, the association cites the cancellation/culling of the U.S. Open Cup as a reason why the field was increased to include 28 amateur sides from around the country.
Of that group, five locals have either earned the right to compete or jumped at the opportunity to join. The New England Region of the competition is the most relevant to the Tri State Area’s lower divisions. The four team group comprises Lansdowne Yonkers FC (NY), Newtown Pride FC (CT), Mass United Rush (MA), and NISA member New Amsterdam FC.
Two of these teams compete in the Eastern Premier Soccer League (EPSL), which has an affiliation agreement with NISA and is supposed to send multiple teams to the Independent Cup based on merit. Lansdowne most recently won the EPSL’s Metropolitan Conference regular season title, which most likely earned them a spot in the competition, and previously won the Cosmopolitan Soccer League (CSL) championship four times.
(Note: The CSL and EPSL are linked via promotion and relegation)
“(We) are very excited to be involved in this year’s NISA Independent cup, looking forward to the games and hopefully rubbing shoulders with some of the big boys later on,” the team said on social media not long after the announcement.
The other EPSL team, Mass United, looks to finish second in the league’s newly created Northeast Conference which encompasses the New England region. Top finishing Connecticut Rush is not taking part in the competition.
The whole tournament, including expansion and spots for teams competing in NISA affiliate leagues, is another aspect of NISA’s plan to develop an connection ecosystem within U.S. Soccer. While not every team taking part will join the system, rather staying in their current leagues or not pursuing going professional, the chance to have various teams compete against different sides from various leagues is almost like opening a forbidden door in the “soccer warz” ravaged landscape the sport has seen in this country.
Taking it back to Lansdowne for a moment, the team has accomplished a ton in the past decade. Winning the Werner Fricker National Open Cup in 2016, qualifying for two U.S. Open Cup tournaments, and currently being one win away from the national stage of the National Amateur Cup (which also nets a USOC spot for winning) is a lot for a team to do over it’s history let alone all within one decade.
This season alone in the EPSL the team’s roster includes players like Shamir Mullings (who played across England including professionally with Forest Green Rovers and Macclesfield Town), former League of Ireland champion Daryl Kavanagh, and tons of NYC area college talent. Even still, their footprint hasn’t fully escaped the metro-area or at best the northeast.
Taking part in the Independent Cup can be a huge next step in the team’s growth and add more national experience to it’s resume. The future implications of this are unlimited, whether that be igniting discussions to go more professional in NISA’s system or doubling interest in their current amateur venture in New York’s lower league system. Plus even if nothing happens the team has a thriving youth program taking place just north of the city at Tibbetts Brook Park that could benefit from growing connections within NISA or the regional amateur circuit.
Plus with vaccination rates rising and states steadily decreasing quarantine procedures, the idea that live fans will be able to attend tournament matches is a huge plus for any small side.
Two more nearby teams, Atlantic City FC of the National Premier Soccer League and Allentown United FC (Allentown, PA), of the United Premier Soccer League, are also taking part in the competition’s Mid-Atlantic Region.
The tournament is scheduled to begin on July 9, less than a week after NISA’s 2020–21 Championship match in Detroit, and each region will crown a champion via group stage standings. There does not seem to be a plan to crown a national champion at this time and streaming/broadcasting details will be announced at a later date