A Primer to the US Open Cup

-By Ben Peacock 2/5/19

With the Little Rock Rangers earning a bid in the 2019 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, fans of the central Arkansas team may have questions about what exactly this tournament is. The Open Cup is the US’s oldest national-level soccer competition, dating back to 1914. Named after the man who was paramount to creating Major League Soccer, the Open Cup is a single-elimination tournament that is open to teams from all levels of soccer, from amateur to top tier professional, to compete. It is sanctioned by the US Soccer Federation, who hosts it.

Early on, the tournament was called the National Challenge Cup. From its inception, it has never been interrupted. Only one lower league team has won the tournament since the founding of MLS, the Rochester Rhinos in 1999. The prize package for the winner includes $300,000. The runner-up and the top team from each lower division also receive a financial reward of $100,000 and $25,000 respectively. The winner of the Cup qualifies for the CONCACAF Champions League, the larger tournament of teams from North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. The reigning champion of the US Open Cup is Houston Dynamo.

Teams from lower leagues have two paths of qualification. If the team operates within a nationally sanctioned league—such as NPSL—the team’s success in league standings are used for entry. For all other teams, like UPSL and various other regional amateur leagues, they may enter a qualifying mini-tournament held in November and December of the prior year and finalized in April. USL-1 and USL Championship clubs are automatically eligible, permitting they are not a reserve team for an MLS club, in order to prevent conflicts of interest. Likewise, every MLS club also draws a bid. (Whether the USL or MLS clubs choose to enter is up to them.)

The number of teams from each lower league who gain entry is based on complicated math that takes into account the number of teams who apply, how big leagues are, how many pro teams entered in the prior year, and so on. Suffice to say this year, the committee has allotted eight slots to the “qualifiers” (from the mini-tournaments), 14 slots to NPSL, and 10 slots to USL-2. These are all considered Open Division teams. Together with Division III teams from USL-1, who received 6 slots, these will make up the 38 initial teams that will enter the Open Cup. In later rounds, Division II teams, the 25 clubs of USL Championship, and Division I teams, aka the 21 MLS clubs, join the competition.

In order to host a match once pairings are made, teams meet certain criteria for their pitch (and pay hosting fees once they’ve reached round 4). Determination of home field is then determined by coin flip.

As a single-game knockout format, matches must have a winner. So if a match is tied at the end of regulation (plus any added stoppage time), a full 30-minute extra time will be played. If still tied, the match will be decided on penalty kicks.

Matches get underway in May, featuring teams from Open Division and Division III leagues. These teams match up geographically for the first round and the winners move on to the second round in which the Division II teams enter. For the third round, no new teams are introduced as the winners of round 2 compete to reduce the field. Then in the fourth round, Division I clubs enter the fray. The fifth round, also known as the Round of 16, takes place in June. Competition continues to narrow down through quarterfinals that are played in July, semifinals in early August, and finally the final in late August.

Round Divisions Entering # of Teams Dates (2019)
1 Open Division, Division III 38 total: 8 qualifiers, 14 NPSL, 10 USL-2, 6 USL-1 May 7 & 8
2 Division II 44 total: 19 first round winners + 25 USL Championship May 14 & 15
3 22 second round winners May 29
4 Division I 32 total: 11 third round winners + 21 MLS June 12
Round of 16 16 fourth round winners June 19
Quarterfinals 8 Round of 16 winners July 10
Semifinals 4 Quarterfinal winners August 7
Final 2 Semifinal winners August 27 or 28

Zooming in on the Rangers’ 2019 bid, the NPSL allocates its slots based on success in the prior season. They are given to the NPSL champion, the runner-up, the semi- and quarter-finalist teams, and so on from playoffs. Because the Rangers made it to the South Region Semifinal, they qualify for the 2019 Open Cup tournament.

The Rangers will learn who their opponent will be in April and also whether they will host the first round. Follow the Rangers on Twitter HERE and Like them on Facebook HERE to stay informed on the full 2019 schedule, including Open Cup, conference play, and interleague matches.

Special thanks to Jake Sillick from thecup.us and John Lenard from 3rddegree.net for information that contributed to this article.

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