15-5-2, that’s the record of the US Open Cup hosts record since 1995. Not even the MLS Cup Final has that lopsided of a record for the home side. As a comparison the MLS Cup Final has been hosted by the higher seed in 2012, prior to that season the Final was held at a predetermined location. Since 2012 the host is 4-2 in the MLS Cup Final but 2 of those wins and one loss have come in either extra time (once) or a penalty shootout (twice). Prior to the move to the highest seed in 2012 the MLS Cup Final was played at the site of a team in the Finals three times, with the team on their home pitch going 2-1.
1995 may seem a bit arbitrary to use as a starting date but it is considered the beginning of the modern era of the Open Cup. Prior to 1995 professional teams were not allowed to enter the USOC (hence why the original NASL never played in it) but beginning in 1995 pro teams we’re allowed in. 1996 saw the entry of MLS teams into the tournament and 1999 saw the last non-MLS side (Rochester Raging Rhinos) win the Cup.
This begs the question, with such a lopsided record why doesn’t the USSF have the Open Cup at a neutral site? The (English) FA Cup and the German DFB-Pokal are both held at the largest stadia in their country and are a showcase of the depth and breadth of clubs in their nations, not just the two (invariably MLS) sides which make it to the final. For instance, the 2019 FA Cup Final between Manchester City and Watford saw the allocation of 28,000 tickets to each participating club and 14,000 tickets allocated to volunteers, charities and grassroots clubs before any consideration was given to open sale of tickets.
In contrast, the rootless wandering circus of the Open Cup has faced in the modern era is the attendance, or lack thereof. Between 1995 and 2009 the attendance averaged 9,137.5 fans per match. Only four times did the match draw 10,000 fans or more those years being 1998, 2000, 2005, and 2007 with only ‘98 and ‘00, both being played at Soldier Field, drawing closer to 20,000. The capacity percentage was even worse with the best being the neutral site game at IUPUI in 1997 getting 92.8% of the stadium filled up.
It is not just poorly attended, the Open Cup Final hosting rights were vibrantly and vocally illustrated this year by Atlanta United. They gave the home club the whole gamut of rights that they usually would have for an understandably partisan league game. Atlanta drove their pre-match railway spike, kept their home-biased arena announcements for substitutions and lineups and even attempted some petty trolling with the playing of Oasis’s Champagne Supernova. The notably vocal minority of Dark Clouds who made it to their 500 seats were exiled to a far flung corner of an upper deck. It seems that US Soccer are trading away fairness for volume, especially when that is compared with the ticket allocations earlier in this piece.
Whilst playing it at a massive stadium like an NFL arena might be too far, too fast, maybe yesterday proved that a base in a big stadium with a strong local fan base could host a final as a neutral field, coupled with the kind of festival atmosphere celebrating the depth of current US clubs affiliated through the various strata of US Soccer and maybe even some of the century of historic clubs that came and went before them.
This all brings it back around to the USSF’s, clubs, and fans lack of caring about the US Open Cup. Atlanta United and Minnesota United, who played in the Open Cup final in 2019 drew an average of 7,523 (AUFC) and 11,561.7 (MNUFC) in their respective pre-final home matches. The Open Cup is such a secondary thought more than a few MLS sides, and even some USL sides, don’t play most USOC matches at their primary stadium.
The USSF needs to bring more love, care, and atmosphere to the tournament and the final. If you don’t think neutral, away atmospheres are possible in the US, I have two words for you - Super Bowl. If we announce the host at the preceding year’s event then fans, media and clubs have a chance to gear up for a road trip - or a trip down the road. If that happens, US Soccer has literally no excuse for not being able to stage manage an event, something that club owners in this country have a ton of experience in.