Last night’s U.S. Open Cup tie between FC Cincinnati and the Chicago Fire was crazy intense. It had everything short of the Hand of God to make for the perfect soccer drama: the upstart, lower-tier underdogs against one of the best teams in the first division; the MLS (and Chicago Fire) rejects lining up to take the big team down, the massive crowd in the stadium, the inclusion of global star, Bastian Schweinsteiger, along with the other starters for both teams. The breakaways, spectacular last-ditch tackles, and saves-after-saves-after-saves, all from both teams. And, of course, the clutch goalkeeping performance in the penalties to win it for the home side. All together, it made for remarkable television. That, of course, is the other big story from the night. This was the first time that ESPN (or any other national broadcaster) showcased a non-finals U.S. Open Cup match on national television.
This was kind of the perfect opportunity for ESPN. FC Cincinnati has already attracted national (and even international) attention. After all, it’s not every day that a brand new, second division team in a city with practically no soccer history is able to suddenly pull in more fans than almost half of MLS. While U.S. Open Cup matches tend to pull in lackluster audiences, ESPN already knew that the fans in Cincinnati wouldn’t disappoint. After all, 30K people showed up for the previous round’s match against the Columbus Crew. That was a record-setting statistic; the largest non-finals crowd in the tournament’s history. At least, until last night’s game:
Unless FC Cincinnati makes it through the quarterfinals and hosts another game, it’s very unlikely that there will be a larger attendance in this tournament. Such a game looks amazing on television and, when paired with the other storylines, becomes something of a no-brainer (especially in retrospect).
This isn’t to say that there was no risk involved for ESPN. Even with all the build up, the match could have been a dud with Chicago deciding not to properly show up, or having Cincinnati get routed by the better team. Even though it’s over a hundred years old and one of the oldest continuously-run cup competitions in the world (indeed, the oldest outside of Britain), the U.S. Open Cup isn’t exactly always talked about in the most prestigious terms. For a lot of teams, it’s not a priority. It’s something to do on the side, even a distraction at the most cynical level. While this appears to be changing, teams in the past would play reserve and fringe players, especially in the early stages of the tournament. The prize money rewarded by USSF reflects as much. The winning team receives $250,000 in prize money. The runner-up gets a mere $60,000. Since 1996, all the finalists except 3 have been from MLS. Only one lower league side has made it to the final in the last 15 years: the Charleston Battery in 2008. For an MLS side, that prize money is chump change. The prize for winning comes down to a single player’s wages. The prize for finishing second barely covers a reserve player’s salary. Lower league sides receive a bonus for going farther than any other team from their league (this year, that would be both Miami FC and FC Cincinnati, in the NASL and USL respectively), but that money comes out to just $15,000. Between the costs of travel, the costs of having to run half-empty stadiums, and other expenses, that prize money might merely cover the cost of participating in the tournament to begin with.
In a sense, I’m describing a cyclical, chicken-or-the-egg problem here. The fans don’t show up because the competition is not taken seriously. The competition isn’t taken seriously because the money isn’t there from advertisements, ticket sales, or broadcasting. And the money isn’t there because the fans don’t show up.
This cycle needs to be broken by someone. And, you know what, it’s been broken. I mentioned that MLS teams have been taking the tournament more seriously in recent years. That showed with MLS teams playing their starting XI’s, even against lower league sides. With fans showing up in huge numbers for Cincinnati, and with ESPN showcasing the match, there’s real momentum that needs to be built on. This was the first time that the Round of 16 was highlighted like this. Now, we need the first QuarterFinal aired nationwide on tv. And the semifinal after that. We need to treat the tournament like it’s a big deal. That goes for the USSF, too. The federation is sitting on $100 million in surplus. It doesn’t strike me as too much to ask that a cut, of that extra money, perhaps as small as 5%, go into properly awarding the winners of the Open Cup, along with others who excel in the tournament. Get ESPN to cover more matches in more rounds, and then split some of that broadcasting revenue with the other teams. There’s no reason that this tournament can’t be better. It just needs a little more time and investment. We can do this, and we SHOULD do this. Taylor Twellman said as much during the actual broadcast.
When people talk about England’s FA Cup, the phrase The Magic of the Cup seems to always come up. There’s something special about the idea of the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea, and Manchester United having to go to a team way down in the divisions, play on their ground, and risk losing to the likes of Bradford City, Lincoln City, and Sutton Town. It feels incredible to see your team make a cup run if you root for a team like Arsenal, but especially if you are rooting for a team down in the divisions or down on their luck, like Reading or Bradford City or Wigan. The things is, we have a competition like this here in the United States. We have 100+ years of history of magical cup runs. We have a tournament where a coach of such calibre as Tata Martino can be foiled by a last-minute clincher. We have a tournament where Bastian Schweinsteiger can be pitted against a second division team and 32,000 cheering fans and lose. The U.S. Open Cup can absolutely be magical. It was magical last night. If we pay attention, there’s no reason why we can’t be enchanted by this cup in the future.