Tweaking the Cup

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The 2018 US Open Cup just wrapped up last week, with Houston Dynamo winning the final over the Philadelphia Union 3-0. In the same week that final was happening, next year’s qualification matches were kicking off. With so many layers of clubs competing from every league (and many non league clubs), it’s no wonder that there would be some overlap. While the final delivered an exciting ending to this year’s Cup, it was what was said during halftime that sparked this article.

One half of the call team for the match was Taylor Twellman. Without going too far in the weeds, it should be said that I have a tremendous amount of respect for Twellman. He’s one of my favorite voices on national broadcasts of American soccer because he knows his stuff. Prior to coming into the booth, he played several years in Europe before returning to the United States and playing in MLS for 8 years with the New England Revolution. In 2008, he suffered a serious neck and head injury during a match and never really recovered enough to play again. Since this injury, he’s become very outspoken on the subject of concussions in the sport. So when he calls a match, the man knows what he is talking about. I can certainly appreciate that.

 So during the halftime break, Twellman was given the usual 2 minutes of talking time that the color commentator generally gets on most soccer broadcasts. And in enjoyable Twellman fashion, he fired away on the subject of the Open Cup.

Boiled down, Twellman’s argument: In the wake of the failure to qualify for the World Cup, the USSF should be doing more to grow the game in this country. One way is to grow the Open Cup, as it reaches into every corner of the country. How can we grow the competition:

1. Increase Participation by increasing the purse from 300k to a million

2. Let the lower seeded team host the match up to quarters

3. ESPN needs to air more matches

For the record, this website has been trying to get Taylor to do an interview on this subject, but he has ignored us so far. We encourage every reader of this article to tweet at him and push him to talk to us.

It’s a pleasure to hear someone with a national audience taking the time to discuss growing the USOC, because lower league guys talk about the competition constantly. For the most part, ESPN (and most other national media outlets) ignores the competition unless A. a tiny club comes close to knocking off an MLS side (see Christos FC) or B. they are broadcasting a match and need to spark an audience. So when Twellman spoke up on the subject, everyone’s ears in lower league soccer twitter perked up. So let’s continue the discussion, for at least the length of this article.  I’d like to break down Taylor’s arguments, offering my own opinion and some of my own proposals as well.

Responding to Twellman

1.     Increase participation by increasing the purse from 300k to a million.

I don’t think Taylor has thought this one out, but allow me to blow it up and offer a better idea for using all those dollar signs he’s throwing around. So first, let’s consider what would happen if we made the prize a million: it would only enrich an MLS club. Since MLS has been in existence, MLS clubs have won every US Open Cup competition except 1999 (Rochester Rhinos). The last non-MLS club to make it to a final was Charleston Battery in 2008. I seriously doubt Taylor meant he wanted more MLS clubs participating, so increasing the purse would only mean a raise for the clubs that need it the least.

On the other hand, the clubs that do need the cash are from lower leagues, particularly amateur sides, which Twellman mentions in his rant. While the prize money has increased for the lower tier clubs ($25,000 to the highest finish from each level), why not invest that hypothetical million dollars in a new way? $10,000 a round for each winner until we get to the 4th round (when MLS enters). There’s only 62 matches in the first 3 rounds, so you’ve only spent a hair over $600,000. An amateur club could pay their yearly operating expenses by playing well in the first 3 rounds. And with that other $300,000, let’s leave it for whoever goes the farthest in the competition, split it down the middle: $150,000 for the highest finishing amateur side and $150,000 to the highest finishing non-MLS side. Can you imagine what an amateur club could do with 150,000? Talk about growing the game and the USOC!

2.     Let the lower seeded team host the match up to the quarters.

This is a common sense proposal that I think most people would agree to, at least from the lower tier clubs. By allowing clubs to host their bigger name opponents, you do a couple of great things: 1. You allow the lower seeded team to get a bigger cut of the gate. 2. You allow the lower seeded team to generate local interest by bringing in a big name club. 3. You reduce travel costs for the clubs that can afford them the least. 4. You pass home field advantage to the lesser seeded club. Every bit of that makes sense.

3.     ESPN needs to air more matches.

As I mentioned before, ESPN really doesn’t mess with the Open Cup until it has a vested interest in people watching it. No one should be surprised, it’s the way media works. The world-wide leader will promote, broadcast, and offer highlights of the matches they will benefit the most from. Twellman calls out ESPN for not broadcasting more Open Cup matches, but why would they if they don’t own the rights (or, from a philosophical perspective, don’t care about the success of the sport/competition)?

I would propose that USSF (and yes, before you say it, SUM) needs to find a broadcast partner that cares about the success of the competition. When the NWSL was getting 3 matches a year on ESPN, they sought out a better option for their product. They found a partner in Lifetime who was willing to buy into the league (making the success of the matches more important to the network). Lifetime now broadcasts matches every week and the entirety of the playoffs. Maybe it’s time for USSF to find a lesser network to carry the Open Cup? Bring a new partner in to drive the competition and tell the club’s and player’s stories that will fire up viewers. Exposure of amateur clubs would drive more people to show up at local matches, especially in the 2nd and 3rd rounds.

So yes, Taylor, let’s have ESPN broadcast more USOC matches, but let’s also find a new partner who is willing to make an investment into growing the competition.

What about the USSF?

 Twellman’s comments are certainly exciting to hear for fans of the Open Cup, especially because there is little hope that USSF will do anything. Rather than promoting the competition as the center of the American soccer universe, USSF seems to ignore the calls to focus on it. The Open Cup is on life support. While amateur clubs continue to participate, there is little chance they will advance far in the competition and USSF seems unconcerned about the challenges facing these clubs.

Earlier this year, the performance bond expected for each team jumped to $1,000. This was installed to penalize clubs that forfeited matches in the Cup. When teams began to protest and complain, the response was to point out it was refundable. Now I can’t speak for every amateur club, but most don’t have $1,000 to hand over to USSF for several months. And if a bus blows a tire or your team gets the flu, kiss that money goodbye. If USSF wanted to encourage participation, why not drop this performance bond entirely? At least 3 club operators I know personally told me this bond was the reason they didn’t participate this year. What a shame.

 It is a tired argument, but the USSF seems very unconcerned about the lowest levels of soccer in this country. MLS and the National teams continue to dominate the focus of the organization. Demanding change has done nothing, so far. Voices like Twellman’s are important, because he has a large audience, but the people with the power to change the state of things seem unswayed.

The focus of the argument, I believe, has to be the opportunity to make money. While the pure-hearted may argue for the growth of the game, USSF has made it clear that the bottom line is what drives them. With that in mind, let’s point out that the US Open Cup is an unmined source of broadcasting dollars. That getting more eyes on the Cinderella stories will grow the block of potential soccer fans in this country. That promoting the Open Cup will open up more parts of the country to the sport, which would mean more dollars.

So far USSF has ignored the Open Cup, but maybe if we begin to focus on what it could mean to the bottom line, we can change their minds. Maybe nothing changes, but I’d rather be working for a paycheck, than waiting to win the lottery.

By the way, we’d still love to hear from Taylor.

- Dan Vaughn

Lola Vaughn