Major U.S. Open Cup changes could benefit the Union

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - The U.S. Soccer Federation has announced some dramatic, and much-anticipated changes to the format of the U.S. Open Cup.

As detailed here by longtime friend Josh Hakala of TheCup.US, there will no longer be a staggered qualification process for Major League Soccer teams. All 16 United States clubs (the three Canadian clubs are not eligible) will now enter at the third round.

A total of 64 teams will be involved, with the potential to reach deep into the amateur levels of American soccer.

Here is the breakdown:

- 16 teams from Major League Soccer (first division)
- 6 teams from the North American Soccer League (second division)
- 10 teams from USL PRO (third division)
- 16 teams from the Premier Development League (amateur) 
- 9 teams from the United States Adult Soccer Association (amateur)
- 6 teams from the National Premier Soccer League (amateur)
- The winner of a playoff between one NPSL team and one U.S. Club Soccer team (amateur)

That's a total of seven different leagues. Those of you who follow European soccer know about the domestic cup competitions in those countries, and how many different levels of teams are able to qualify. The U.S. Open Cup is no different. 

The simplification of the tournament format should encourage MLS teams to take the competition more seriously. It is the oldest continuous soccer competition in the United States, dating back to 1914.

Pennsylvania teams have made significant contributions to the U.S. Open Cup's rich history.

Bethlehem Steel is the joint record-holder for number of cups won with five. Four of those triumphs came in a five-year span from 1915 to 1919, with Bethlehem finishing runner-up in the one year they did not win it.

In addition, the Philadelphia Ukranians won four Cups between 1960 and 1966.

Overall, Pennsylvania has the third-most U.S. Open Cup titles of the 50 states with 12. Only New York (26) and California (15) have more.

As important as the change to the tournament format is a change to how home games are determined.

From now on, clubs will no longer have to submit sealed bids to host U.S. Open Cup games. Essentially, this allowed clubs with the most money to buy home games in the competition. 

This has been cited as a major reason why the Seattle Sounders and Chicago Fire have hosted so many Open Cup home games in recent years.

The frequency of home games for Seattle has been particularly noticeable. Although no one disputes the fact that the Sounders have earned their massive popularity in Seattle, the revenue derived from those big crowds has allowed the Sounders to put more money on the table than other MLS clubs could afford.

For example, TheCup.US reported last month that the Sounders and Fire each bid over $100,000 to host the 2011 final, which was contested between the two clubs. Seattle won the bid, and an Open Cup record crowd of 35,615 showed up to watch Seattle claim a 2-0 victory.

Under the new rules, the third round, fourth round and quarterfinals will require a flat fee - reported to be around $15,000 - to host fixtures. If both teams in a given matchups submit bids, a blind draw will be conducted.

The semifinal and final venues will still be determined by the old bidding rules. Still, today's announcement represents significant progress.

Overall, the new rules should make it easier for the Philadelphia Union to get a U.S. Open Cup home game, which has never happened. In 2010, the Union were eliminated in their first game at New York, and last year they were eliminated in their first game at D.C. United.

The Open Cup calendar has also been condensed, which should further encourage MLS clubs to take the compeitition seriously. Here is the schedule for this year:

May 15: First round begins
May 22: Second round begins
May 29: Third round begins, MLS clubs enter competition
June 5: Fourth round begins
June 26: Quarterfinals begin
July 10: Semifinals
August 7 or 8: Championship game

If you've been reading my blog for a while, you know that I've written before about how much I like the U.S. Open Cup. It is good for American soccer to embrace the tournament's history, and the winner gets a big prize: a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League.

What do you think of these changes? Do you want to see the Union take the U.S. Open Cup seriously, or do you thin it's not that important? Have your say in the comments.