As most soccer sides in the U.S look to start building themselves for the 2012 season, Wednesday brought the news that the Lamar Hunt U.S Open Cup will be changing the format for home ties in this years championship which is great news for the smaller sides that qualify for the National cup competition.
In this, the 99th year of the competition, changes have been abound, starting with an early first round to help solve mid season congestion for the MLS sides that will compete in MLS, CONCACAF Champions league and also host European sides on pre season tours. This also sees the MLS sides competing in their entirety for the very first time in the leagues history.
MLS : Chicago Fire, Chivas USA, Colorado Rapids, Columbus Crew, D.C. United, FC Dallas, Houston Dynamo, LA Galaxy, New England Revolution, New York Red Bulls, Philadelphia Union, Portland Timbers, Real Salt Lake, San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders FC, Sporting Kansas City.
The first round action begins on May 15 where all 64 teams will take to the field representing the largest contingent of teams in the modern era and also sees an expansion of 24 sides from last season competition.
With all MLS, NASL & USL sides participating, it gives a nice round competitive 32 professional teams competing and gives all the lower league teams the opportunity to gain the chance for a 'Big' match in the earlier rounds of the competition.
The amateur entrants will comprise of 32 teams spread throughout the lower echelons of U.S soccer from across the nation.
The alterations to the cup format also allows for a random draw therefore allowing home teams the option to host their upcoming tie dependent on venue criteria but shows a willingness of the cup benefactors to grow the competition into a truly nationwide opportunity for lower league teams to experience the thrill, exhilaration and buzz from each round draw and participation.
All of the matches apart from the final in August will be played on Tuesdays, and will be played weekly between May 15 until June 5. This gives the competition no time to stop and breath as it kicks into high gear, meaning the first four rounds are played in four weeks.
Due to the amount of teams with amateur status, the opening three rounds of the competition will be played geographically with a higher level of entrant joining at each round of play.
In the opening round, the 32 amateur sides will play off against each other geographically but will avoid teams from their particular league setup. Meaning NPSL, PDL and USASA teams will avoid each other if they play in the same setup.
USL PRO: Charleston Battery, Charlotte Eagles, Dayton Dutch Lions, Harrisburg City Islanders, Los Angeles Blues, Orlando City, Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Richmond Kickers, Rochester Rhinos, Wilmington Hammerheads.
The winners of this first round will face Division 2 or 3 sides, (USL Pro or NASL) again based on geography and the 16 winners of round 2 will then progress to play Division 1 (MLS) sides, again geographically. Its a great opportunity for lower league sides to play some major sides in the U.S pyramid of soccer, knowing that winning just 2 matches could allow them to be matching themselves against the elite sides the country has to offer.
Amateur Level Distribution (32 teams):
U.S.A.S.A Regional Qualifiers – 9 spots
USL PDL – 16 spots
NPSL – 6.5 spots
US Club Soccer – 0.5 spot
Using for example, Galveston Pirate Soccer Clubs situation who will be competing in the NPSL this coming season, in the first round they could be facing the likes of ASC New Stars who currently lead the Houston Football Association Premier division.
A win there could then see the Pirates face a division 2 or 3 side meaning the chance of facing NASL side San Antonio Scorpions. Again, a win in that match could hand the Pirates the opportunity of facing MLS side Houston Dynamo.
This example would be a dream situation for the NPSL franchisee and is based on the geographical specificity of the cups new format.
This situation will be the same throughout the country with smaller local sides being offered the chance of being 90 minutes of soccer away from playing USL & NASL sides, and only 180 minutes away from a potential tie with an MLS side.
Due to the fast and frenetic pace the cup rounds will be played at, each match will be played to a finish on the day of the game with extra time and penalties finalising each tie in preparation for the following weeks match.
Prizes will vary and will be staggered for each level of entrant.The leading amateur, Division 2 & 3 side in the competition will each win themselves $10k but for the overall winner of the cup will earn themselves £100k, with the runners up collecting half that amount.
The competitions new format means a new and exciting start to the 2012 season and for the teams involved, the US Open Cup cannot come quick enough for all the players and staff.