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Aug 29, 2006

U.S. Open Cup yet to reach the mainstream

Funny thing about the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, that nifty little tournament that anonymously slogs along the back roads of the American sports map:

It's got all these MLS teams, and it's backed by the money and marketing muscle of U.S. Soccer. And yet, it takes a scrappy bunch of no-name amateurs or a shoestring budget USL side scoring a big upset to generate any real tourney buzz.

Every time a minor league team slays an MLS bully, the tournament benefits through a brief balloon of exposure. Just having the opportunity to do so makes for great pub.

This year, FC Roma out of Dallas became the little team that could. The weekend warriors got big press from The New York Times and elsewhere across the land by ambushing Chivas USA in Los Angeles, then holding up capably in a loss to the Galaxy.

Thanks to such heroic tales, the U.S. Open Cup is starting to cut the smallest of notches of publicity and awareness in the greater sports scene.

Of course, the balloon inevitably bursts when the minnows get swallowed by bigger names. A quartet of MLS survivors emerged from this year's just-completed quarterfinal round: D.C. United, Houston, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Still, it's the upsets that drive publicity. And every time it happens, the Open Cup profile swells just a wee little bit. That's a good thing, because it's a worthwhile tournament (which more MLS teams are taking a little more seriously now).

Just because this idea of a concurrent, knockout competition meandering alongside a traditional league format is foreign to American audiences, that doesn't make it a bad idea.

Everyone in soccer sees the potential if other American sports would consider something similar. Pawtucket knocks off the Yanks one year in baseball? People in the Big Apple would fall right out of their shoes.

So the question becomes this: What can be done to accelerate the Open Cup's growth, to increase the plodding pace of its slowly building domestic awareness?

One potential way: Tweak the format a bit, making the late-round showdowns -- perhaps the last four rounds -- home-and-home, total-goal affairs.

It wouldn't be a rocket-fuel boost, but it would help. It would provide an opportunity to double up on the grassroots awareness sewn in every city each time a U.S. Open Cup match plays out.

Houston Dynamo general manager Oliver Luck says the Open Cup's greatest challenge lies in its novelty.

Simply put, lots of folks just don't get it.

"One thing we have to do is a better job of explaining to fans and to the local media that this is something kind of special," said Luck, whose Dynamo face the Galaxy in one of two Sept. 6 Open Cup semifinals. "It's not a traditional concept, and it's simply hard to explain to people, particularly when they see two MLS teams face off. They don't understand the concept of concurrent competitions."

In its current format, the Open Cup is a single-elimination tournament from start to finish. Since the early rounds are typically contested by teams that operate on limited budgets, that's probably not going to change.

But the later rounds might benefit by spicing up the competition with aggregate goals series, which would multiply the local media opportunities to tell the Open Cup story.

The first challenge, of course, is adding even more games during a late-July or August period that tends to be jammed up with matches anyway.

The solution there is quite simple: Move the round of 16 and the quarterfinals out of that congested August window. Play them in May, June or early July instead of August.

Most MLS teams joined this year's tournament in the round of 16, playing those matches in early August. For the Chicago Fire, that was the first of seven matches that month.

But go back to May, when Dave Sarachan's team played just four times. D.C. United's calendar looked about the same. In fact, you could say that Peter Nowak's men had eight games in August, since so many United standouts participated in the All-Star contest.

So why are MLS teams cramming so many games into August but lolling about and leaving so many gaps in the April-June window?

Adjusting the Open Cup calendar would reduce some stress on MLS rosters that build in July and August, when the clubs from Don Garber Valley are also squeezing in the revenue-generating friendlies against Mexican and European clubs.

No matter where you play the Open Cup matches, MLS coaches are likely to complain about hectic, taxing schedules. But isn't that what the 28-man roster is all about? Los Angeles currently list just 23 men on its roster, but whose fault is that?

The next challenge is paying for additional Open Cup travel. U.S. Soccer currently allots $7,500 per match for expenses to the road team, an amount that doesn't come close to paying for many of the excursions.

When Roma visited Los Angeles for two separate trips, that $7,500 barely covered the air fare, much less the cost for hotels, meals and van rentals.

A home-and-home series would also help level the playing field, so to speak. Currently, teams bid to host the late-round matches, a practice that favors the bigger clubs, which can afford to risk a bit more. And tilting matters toward the heavies is hardly what the Open Cup should be about. (FYI, even if the Open Cup doesn't adopt home-and-home for later rounds, U.S. Soccer officials should select the late-round hosts on a coin toss, not a bid. Last year, Los Angeles' bid to host the Open Cup final came in at $50,000. FC Dallas' came in at $40,000. That 10 large paid off, as L.A. won the bid and took the final.)

FC Dallas manager Colin Clarke doesn't fancy the idea of home-and-home series; he prefers the romance of single-elimination soccer. But he does support a blind draw to determine venue.

"You pull names out of a hat for the home team, and pull a name out of the hat for the visitors," he said. "That's why you see a big-name playing at a smaller place in the FA Cup, and that's where you get the chance for some big upsets."