There are a lot of new soccer fans in Minnesota now that Minnesota United FC are playing their first season in the country’s top league, Major League Soccer (MLS). And while the MLS season has been going on for a few months now, there is another another trek that the Loons are about to embark on: The Lamar Hunt US Open Cup (USOC).
The USOC is a simple knockout tournament and has equivalents all over the world, such as the FA Cup in England, the DFB-Pokal in Germany, Copa del Rey in Spain, and Copa MX in Mexico. And just like in those countries, American teams first must qualify for the USOC tournament proper.
To get into the tournament, teams qualify through different tracks. All U.S.-based MLS and NASL teams qualify automatically. That means you won’t see foreign teams like Montreal Impact, Toronto FC, and Vancouver Whitecaps of MLS or even FC Edmonton and Puerto Rico FC of NASL in the tournament. USL, the 3rd professional league, has more restrictions on it. Just like the other two leagues non-US teams (Ottawa Fury) cannot qualify for the USOC.
Along with that, a change (starting for the 2016 tournament) US Open Cup stated “professional teams that were majority owned by a higher-level Outdoor Professional League Team" are not allowed to participate in the USOC. That rule effectively means that the reserve squads of MLS teams cannot play in the USOC. A similar rule is already in effect in both Germany and Spain.
After all ineligible teams are removed, that leaves 43 professional teams qualifying for the tournament.
The second way to qualify for the tournament is through the national league track. This track is exclusive to the two largest amateur leagues in the country, the NPSL and PDL. For the 2017 US Open Cup, the Premier Development League was given 21 berths which were assigned by the league to nine division champions and 12 at-large berths. The NPSL on the other hand was given 18 berths in which eight were assigned to the teams who made the regional championship and the other 10 for at-large births. This is especially important as this is how the teams in the NPSL North will have to qualify (and part of the reason Minneapolis City SC was disqualified). Adding the 39 berths to the amateur teams puts us at 82 total teams so far.
And then last there is the Local Qualifying Track that is for any team not in one of the previous mentioned leagues. After all teams have registered, the final allocations are given to the local qualifying teams who then play a single elimination qualifying tournament. This year the qualifying tournament was just two rounds. Due to the disqualification of Minneapolis City SC for changing leagues, the final number of teams qualifying this way was 17 giving a total of 99 teams - a record in the US Open Cup - qualifying for the 2017 edition of the tournament.
After qualifying, the tournament starts with the 56 amateur teams seeded geographically for the first round, which was played May 9th-12th. The second round, played May 16th-17th, saw the 28 first round winners advance. At the same time the 24 teams from the NASL and USL enter the tournament. As with the first round, the pairings are made geographically while trying to put as many amateur teams against professional teams as possible.
The third round had its matches seeded geographically and exclusively between the second round winners was played on May 30th-31st.
The fourth round, which is where we are now, had the MLS teams enter the competition and just like the second round is seeded for both geography and putting as many lower division teams against MLS ones as possible.
The remaining rounds are seeded based on a draw prior to the 5th Round, the winners then advance to the quarter-finals, semi-finals, and the US Open Cup Championship, where the overall winner is decided.
This tournament is especially important for lower division teams with the prize money that is given out. The Champion receives $250,000 and one of the three places in the CONCACAF Champions League given to US teams. The runner-up receives $60,000 along with the furthest advancing team from each lower division receiving $15,000 which is extremely important for the amateur teams.
This is the first of a three part series covering the US Open Cup ahead of Minnesota United’s match against Sporting Kansas City. Check back on Sunday when we detail the history of the US Open Cup.