Nashville Soccer 102: What is the US Open Cup?

The title says it all: Nashville SC will be playing Inter Nashville FC in the US Open Cup tomorrow. What does the competition entail, why are two teams from different leagues playing each other in it, and what’s the endgame?

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What is the Cup?

It’s just the oldest soccer competition in the United States – and despite our country’s reputation as a non-footballing nation, one of the oldest continuous soccer competitions in the world. This year’s edition is No. 105 straight. That makes the US Open Cup much older than MLS (est. 1996), and virtually every club in the country.

Long story short, this is our country’s national championship. While the MLS Cup can decide the winner of our top pro league, the US Open Cup is the top team in the land. Yes, since the establishment of Major League Soccer, teams from the top division have dominated the competition. However, there’s always the dream of the little guy at the very least pulling an upset or two, and maybe even going all the way.

In that respect, you can think of it as a closer analogue to the NCAA basketball tournament, rather than the structure we’re used to for professional sports in the United States. Mid-major teams always have the ability to spring an upset in the first or second round – folks in the area are certainly familiar with Middle Tennessee’s upset over Michigan State a couple years back.

Who’s in it

That is, it’s like the NCAA Tournament if that event wasn’t still restricted to teams from an individual division. While the comparison between, say, the ACC and Southern Conference may feel like a huge gap, it’s not the same as if every college team in the country was able to participate together.

The US Open Cup includes teams from every US Soccer sanctioned division, from the top-tier professionals in MLS (aside from the Canadian teams, who have their own similar competition), to Division 2’s USL (Nashville SC is here), to a theoretical tier three though one currently doesn’t exist, to Division 4 leagues PDL (where Nashville SC’s U-23 team played last year) and NPSL (Inter Nashville is here). The vast majority of Division 4 teams (all in the PDL, and most in NPSL) are amateur teams – no paid players, plenty of volunteer support in the gameday operations, front office, etc. That’s not as low as it goes, though, true amateur sides sanctioned by the amateur arm of US Soccer (USA Adult Soccer, or USASA) go through qualifying to participate in the first round. That’s right – if you play in the right beer league, and your team is good enough in that beer league, there’s a path to participating in a tournament against the big boys.

While only a handful of USASA teams qualify into the first round of The Cup proper, this is theoretically a tournament that any sanctioned team in America can play its way into. (Even teams from the now-defunct NASL – good riddance to it, as well – qualified with a special exception this year).

How’d we get here

The pre-qualifying rounds include the USASA teams battling it out at a local, regional, state level to participate in the tournament. There was also a play-off round for some of the NASL teams to earn their way into the tournament (although by the letter of the rule, they were ineligible by virtue of not playing in a sanctioned league).

Once the tournament itself begins, the teams are slotted against regional opposition in round one, which consists of the Division 4 teams (and those below). Inter Nashville FC played against the PDL’s Charlotte Eagles last Wednesday, emerging with a resounding 6-1 victory.

Round 2 takes place tomorrow, and that’s where USL teams enter the mix, including Nashville SC. (Depending on the divisional structure in any given year, the exact entry points among the divisions and leagues is a bit on the “variable” side, for what it’s worth). It’s once again paired by geography, and that’s why you have two teams from the same city – but two tiers apart on the US Soccer pyramid – playing each other.

For those who are truly at the 102 level of learning about soccer, but the way, local matches are traditionally called “derbies” (pronounced “darby”), because we come from an anglophile soccer culture, which is why you’ll often see insufferable tools complaining on Twitter that the reason the United States didn’t make the World Cup is because we call the sport “soccer” instead of the pip-pip-cheerio approved “football.”

What’s next

The winner of tomorrow’s game already knows that the opponent will be one of two options: the USL’s Indy Eleven or PDL side Mississippi Brilla. Given that the first several rounds of the tournament are paired geographically, the round three draw took place at the conclusion of round one (or it was supposed to – there was a bit of a delay and the announcements weren’t made until yesterday).

The Nashville team – be it Inter or SC – will be the host for the third round. NSC has already played Indy once – losing 2-1 in Indianapolis just a couple weeks ago.

Round four is where MLS teams enter the competition, and that’s where the competition can get really fun. Attendance-obsessed though FC Cincinnati fans may be, their team’s run through a couple MLS teams to reach the national semifinal – they lost to New York Red Bulls, who subsequently fell to fellow MLS team Sporting Kansas City – was a great story in soccer last Summer. (For what it’s worth, their opponent tomorrow is Detroit City FC, home to the most insufferable fans on the planet, so for this time only, go FCC).

The stakes

Beyond being crowned the national champion, there are monetary considerations for advancing and winning the Cup. The winner receives $300,000, the runner-up $100,000, and the farthest-advancing team from each non-MLS division earns $25,000. That’s obviously life-changing money for some of the amateur and even NPSL-type teams.

Of course, the pride is a big factor as well. The hope of this site is that US Soccer continues to increases the prizes (particularly for lower-division clubs), making the competition a more meaningful one for all.

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