UPDATE: I got some new information from a source about the Union's past participation in what used to be known as the U.S. Open Cup qualifying rounds. See below.
This is a rather small thing as regards the local soccer scene, but it's something that I didn't want to overlook.
The first- and second-round draws for the 2012 U.S. Open Cup are out, and we now know the early matchups for the Union's lower-division affiliates.
In the first round, the Union's PDL affiliate, Reading United A.C. will host the New York Greek Americans of the U.S. Amateur Soccer Association. The game will be played on May 15 (as will all the first-round games), at a time and venue to be determined.
This is a neat matchup, as the Greek Americans organization has a considerable history despite its lowly current status.
They won the U.S. Open Cup four times when it was known as the National Challenge Cup: 1967, 1968, 1969 and 1974. They also were runners-up in 1989. Obviously, the competition was different back then - teams in the old North American Soccer League did not participate - but it's still worth noting.
The winner of that game will travel to another renowned lower-league club, the Charleston Battery, for the second round on May 22. Long a power in the second division, Charleston's Blackbaud Stadium was the first soccer-specific venue built in the modern era in the United States. I've never been there, but I've watched quite a few U.S. national team and other games from afar that Charleston has hosted.
Blackbaud is also known for the pub built into its stadium, The Three Lions. The stories I've heard about that place are almost as famous as the stories I've heard about games at the stadium.
Elsewhere in the first round, Bethlehem, Pa.-based FC Sonic of the NPSL will host the Long Island Rough Riders at Lehigh University's Ulrich Sports Complex. That game will kick off at 7:30 p.m. I don't see any information about the game yet on FC Sonic's website, but I figure they'll have some details up soon.
In case you're wondering, FC Sonic does not have an affiliation with any MLS club. But they do play in the same city as one of the truly legendary teams from American soccer's earliest years, Bethlehem Steel. They won four of the first six National Challenge Cups ever contested - 1915, 1916, 1918 and 1919 - and claimed a fifth title in 1926.
Steel's five-trophy haul remains tied with Maccabi Los Angeles for the most ever in the history of the competition.
The winner of the Rough Riders-Sonic game will travel to Harrisburg to face the Union's USL PRO affiliate, the City Islanders, on May 22. The game will be played at the City Islanders' home venue, the Skyline Sports Complex, and will kick off at 7:00 p.m.
Once the second round wraps up, the 16 American Major League Soccer teams will enter the tournament in the third round. Those games will be played on May 29. I've been told by a source to expect the third-round draw to be announced soon after the first round is completed.
As U.S. Soccer's press release notes, there are some contingencies about what the second-round matchups will be based on which teams win certain first-round matchups. This makes it hard to assemble a straight bracket.
An old friend of mine, Josh Hakala, has assembled a close approximation of a bracket at his website about the Open Cup, TheCup.us. There's also a map of where all the participating teams are located here.
Josh's site is full of historical facts and figures about the tournament. If you have an interest in American soccer history (and I hope you do), it is definitely worth checking out.
Turning back to the present, it will be interesting to see whether the Union finally get to host a game this year. They did not do so in either of their first two seasons, visiting the Red Bulls in 2010 and D.C. United in 2011.
Among the potential reasons why the Union haven't yet hosted a game is the U.S. Soccer Federation's now-defunct bidding system for hosting rights. Starting this year, the process of awarding hosting right is being conducted in a much more straightforward (and much less financially-incentivized) manner.
That is a long-winded way of saying that in past years, hosting rights essentially went to the highest bidder. Josh put together a great explanation of the old bid process late last year.
(I was later told by a source that the answer is even more complicated than that. The games that the Union played in last years were Open Cup qualifying games, not part of the official Open Cup; and they were administered by Major League Soccer, not the U.S. Soccer Federation.
I knew that the games were technically qualifiers, but I always assumed that they were part of the Open Cup in some form anyway. I did not know they were organized by MLS instead of the USSF. That is a big difference.
The new Open Cup format means that all participating MLS teams are officially in the tournament right away, without MLS having run a qualifying competition. This makes the new format even better.)
With the new draw format in place, I'm looking forward to seeing how this year's tournament plays out. Hopefully there will be a lot more matchups between teams across divisions, which is part of what makes any cup competition special.
I've written a few times before about the U.S. Open Cup and Pennsyivania's history in the competition. You can read those posts here.
Would you like to see the Union host an Open Cup game? If they do, would you go? Have your say in the comments.