No one can deny that there are problems with the US Open Cup. Lack of proper promotion, poor attendance, lack of streaming options to name a few. But perhaps most telling is the indifference most teams put into the early rounds. In almost all cases, when a professional team enters the tourney, starters are rested, and bench players are brought in to get time, and to not expose key players to injuries.
The visuals this creates is problematic. If the coaches treat games like glorified scrimmages, and teams don't broadcast games, why should fans care? Aside from the novelty of regional rivalries, and low tier teams playing high tier teams, there is no really no incentive for teams to take it as an important game.
In the last few years, US Soccer has made an effort to add incentives for lower tier teams to play at full strength. A bounty for the furthest advancing team in each tier was offered. This year, the award for being the last team from your tier standing netted your team $15,000 dollars. Setting aside the trivial amount of cash offered, this sounds like a great idea on paper. For amateur, USL, and NASL teams, an extra cash incentive might be enough to motivate front offices to ‘encourage’ coaching staffs to play at full strength for the cup. However, much like everything that connected to the Open Cup, it looks like this wasn't properly thought out.
I first noticed the inequity the final night of 4th round play, when every amateur, and USL team was eliminated from the cup. Browsing through Twitter taking in all the results, I saw this:
Because every USL team entered at the same time, and all that got to the 4th round where eliminated, I wasn't really sure what the tiebreaker was. After some digging, I unearthed the Open Cup Handbook, and found the section on cash awards.
At first glance, this doesn't seem unreasonable. You advance in the tourney, you need to beat higher tier teams. Sure, it doesn't conform to most tiebreaker norms; goal differential, away goals, total wins, etc. But the problem with awards being based on tiers, is that not every team plays a higher tier team.
Let's take Colorado Springs Switchbacks. A USL team, they are considered a tier 3 team. Like all USL teams, they entered in the second round. They defeated lower tiered Harpo's FC in the 2nd round, and moved on to the 3rd round. The 3rd round is when NASL enters, as the league is tier 2. Seems logical. Except that the NASL is predominantly an east coast league, with the only 2 teams west of the Mississippi River, and one of them, Edmonton, doesn't compete in the American tournament. While the Switchbacks played USLs Arizona United in the 3rd round, a team on the same tier, the Wilmington Hammerheads faced Miami FC, an NASL team, and a tier above. So while both Colorado Springs, and Wilmington advanced to the 4th round, Wilmington already owned the tie breaker, because they got to play a regional NASL team.
This glaring uneveness basically negates any competitive incentive for western conference teams (aside from Oklahoma City, who shares the town with NASL’s Rayo OKC), leaving them knowing that they would have to beat an MLS team just for a shot at the relatively small amount of money. You can hardly blame them.
This is yet another example of US Soccer not giving the Open Cup the attention it deserves. How do you fix it? Well the first thing is to increase the award for teams. Instead of making it a bounty where the furthest advancing team wins, make it a bonus for each round. A team putting together a 2-3 game run would give teams more money, and more incentive. If the desire to keep the bounty still exists, increase the award to the teams in a more meaningful way. For a franchise like Sacramento, $15k is the equivalent of the gate profit at a home game. Increasing the award gives teams the incentive to play the starters, promote the games properly to bring in fans, and makes the games more attractive.
Clearly the current plan isn't working. The tiebreakers are slanted to the east coast teams, and coaches and fans still treat the countries oldest soccer tournament like a friendly at best, and a scrimmage at worst. And in the end, American soccer suffers for it.