Let’s address a couple of issues:
- The U.S. Open Cup could use a boost.
- Teams could use some meaningful games in February, but it’s too cold to play in many parts of the country.
So let’s do this:
The Cup is already playing a lot of qualifying games in the preceding fall. See the 2018 qualifiers that took place from September through November. Switching the tournament to a fall-to-spring schedule wouldn’t take much more.
As in England’s FA Cup (as I type, American Eric Lichaj’s two goals have Nottingham Forest — once affiliated with the Carolina Dynamo — ahead of Arsenal), let’s have the top two divisions (or whatever gives us between 30 and 40 teams) enter the competition in the round of 64.
Then let’s play the first three rounds at neutral-site warm-weather (or indoor) venues in February.
Here are the advantages:
- At least one meaningful game in February even if a home ground is covered in snow.
- A month in which the Open Cup is the only thing going on in U.S. outdoor soccer, giving it a promotional push.
- A good warmup for the Division 1 season (and the CONCACAF Champions League).
- You lose a bit of the romance of making a Division 1 club play at some tiny lower-division club’s home ground, such as yesterday’s Fleetwood-Leicester matchup. But this is mitigated by having your pick of suitable venues.
- Tough to get a “home” crowd. You’d need to put something together to get hard-core supporters to travel. Maybe some creative scheduling could help avoid having teams travel too far. Perhaps some East Coast teams go to Atlanta, Rocky Mountain teams go to Texas or Arizona, Great Lakes teams go to domes (Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Detroit, Syracuse, Milwaukee, Fargo and maybe the warehouse-esque Ultimate Soccer Arenas in Michigan).
Then play the quarterfinals and semifinals during the spring season, with the final itself being the last game before the summer break for the World Cup, Euros, Copa America, Gold Cup, etc.
A couple of questions this format would raise:
If we’re playing a fall-to-spring schedule, what about the MLS playoffs?
These have always been too long, anyway. In last night’s forum in Illinois, Eric Wynalda pointed out the problem of players getting rusty when their teams don’t make deep runs in the playoffs. That’s a bit of a problem in the current schedule, when a player might sit out from late October to early March, and it would be a problem in a fall-to-spring system — you certainly don’t want players sitting out several weeks before a World Cup or a Copa.
Maybe you’d still have a single-game MLS Cup or a four-team tournament, but that’s it. Hopefully, the Open Cup will fill our need for knockout play. (And maybe some promotion/relegation playoffs, but that’s another rant.)
What about the NPSL and PDL teams that currently play in the Open Cup?
They shouldn’t be in the Open Cup. At least, the teams that rely on college players (pretty much all PDL teams and most NPSL teams) shouldn’t be in it. If you have a club with enough non-college amateurs to play a fall-spring schedule, fine.
The current NPSL/PDL schedule is absurd. Players only have a couple of months to participate, and yet each league is run as a national competition with national playoffs at the end. Just as Wynalda lamented the fact that many pro players are left idle because their teams don’t make the playoffs, these college players who need more games don’t get to play a couple of weeks in the summer.
And then the players go back to their college teams, sometimes before the league final. Last year, Midland-Odessa had to scramble to find enough players to play the NPSL final. In the current format, there’s no way a college-dependent team could play the Open Cup semis or final if it advanced that far.
These leagues should focus on guaranteed games. Try to play 14 regular-season games over 10-11 weeks. If you want to play a Summer Open Cup of sorts on additional weekdays, fine, and there’s always the option to play in the fall-to-spring Open Cup if the players are available.
Let the summer leagues be summer leagues. Nothing wrong with that. For everyone else, have a Cup that has a larger spotlight.
(And yes — USSF needs to pay the travel costs for any team, particularly amateurs, going to the round of 64 and beyond.)