A Place at the Table

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Why are there no women’s clubs in the U.S. Open Cup? I’m not talking about a separate U.S. Women’s Open Cup (let’s stick a pin in that). I’m literally wondering why no women’s clubs are in the tournament including qualifying. As an aside, I’d love to know if anyone has information on any women’s clubs that may have taken part in the tournament in the past.

Your immediate reaction might be that the USOC is only for men’s clubs. That might be practically the situation on the pitch but the cup is literally open to any club that is affiliated with an Organization Member of USSF and specific participation criteria in the federation’s U.S. Open Cup policy. Beyond what I’ve just noted, that section (§202 to be precise) states that the club must be playing in a league of four or more teams and that league play consist 10 or more competitive games during the year. The other subsections demarcate specifics about eligibility for clubs in Divisions I, II and III leagues and the Open Division. The Open Division includes any club not part of a Division I, II or III league. The language of the federation makes no distinction beyond those. That’s it. It’s an “Open” cup with a few eligibility criteria.

It can’t be a competitive issue because, again, it’s an open competition. Baked into that definition is the opportunity for all who are eligible can take part. The USOC has qualification procedures set up for Open Division clubs to determine if those non-Division I, II or III clubs meet eligibility via competition. Why would women’s clubs be not allowed to determine their eligibility on the pitch as the rules allow?

Women’s clubs are eligible to take part in the U.S. Open Cup. Period.

So why aren’t they? A big one might be finances. It’s difficult for smaller clubs to put together the resources to take part in the competition. And, for those who do have those resources, it may be impossible for them to justify the use of those funds. But, the financial barriers from smaller clubs taking part are universal.

Are women’s clubs less financially secure than men’s clubs? Likely on the whole that is true. But we also know that many organizations have both women’s and men’s clubs as part of the whole. It would be easy to list men’s clubs who have taken part in the USOC while the women’s clubs of the same organization have never taken part.

We have the notable exceptions to this possible issue. None of the top division clubs of the NWSL have ever taken part in the USOC. And, whatever you may think of the financial resources available to them, the definitely have the resources available to take part in the USOC relative to the amateur and semi-pro clubs who take part every year. Not only that, none of the former WUSA, WPS or, even, WPSL Elite clubs ever took part in the USOC.

What about desire? Is it possible that no women’s clubs have ever wanted to take part in the U.S. Open Cup? Of course not. Should we survey all those clubs just to make sure? I’ll wait just here while that absurd mental exercise is taking place.

Done? Great.

What does that leave us with? Well, gender and/or sex discrimination. Is that uncomfortable? OK, how about gender inequity? Is that nicer?

Imagine what Mallory Pugh could do against an amateur men’s side. (Image courtesy of The Washington Post)

Imagine what Mallory Pugh could do against an amateur men’s side. (Image courtesy of The Washington Post)

Those are the obvious but they are so serious and heavy that we don’t like to think, much less talk about it. It’s easy to throw out other more “practical”, surface reasons and just move on. It’s simpler to rely on competitive balance, lack of desire, lack of resources than deal with the actual underlying issues.

Remember when we stuck a pin in the idea of a U.S. Women’s Open Cup? Let’s talk about that. The usual push back is that women’s clubs should have their own open cup. That’s the practical reason, even those who are well-meaning, that women’s clubs don’t belong in the USOC. That’s not true, but, for the sake of argument, let’s say that the USOC rules disallow women’s clubs.

Then, where is this USWOC? What’s stopping it from happening? If the argument is that there isn’t enough desire, resources or competition out there to support it, then, please, let me refer you to the entire history of American soccer. Somehow the USOC was able to survive and be held every single year with small clubs, scant resources and little attention. But, a USWOC? That’s obviously something that needs to be justified before it can happen.

This year is the eighth FIFA Women’s World Cup. There will be huge interest in the women’s game this summer. A perfect time to ride the wave of that and launch a USWOC. No?

A U.S. Women’s Open Cup would be “making do” when women’s clubs should be taking part in the actual USOC. Even though that’s not good enough, the USWOC would be at least something better than nothing. But even that lesser competition is not a thing at all. That’s the issue. The finish line keeps getting moved farther and farther away as the gatekeepers throw up hurdle after hurdle.

It’s fine if you don’t care about women’s soccer. It’s fine if you don’t feel the need to promote women’s soccer. It’s fine if you don’t want to watch women’s soccer. Just don’t get in the way of those who do.

- Dan Creel