Only 30 states will be represented in the 2017 tournament. What about the other 20?
In March, TheCup.us released a graphic showing the 99 teams that will battle it out in the 104th edition of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. This week, the tournament kicked off with teams ranging from amateur clubs to the MLS sides vying for the world’s third longest running open soccer tournament.
Since the beginning of the tournament’s latest revamp—the “modern era”—which began in 1995 (the first year professional teams joined the tournament en masse in decades), the number of teams participating in the competition has grown more than six times, increasing from 16 to 99.
In 2017, 30 states will be represented in the 104th Lamar Hunt Cup. Six states will break previous representation records. Kentucky will field more than one team for the first time in the modern era and Nevada will be properly represented by a club for the first time. All of these accomplishments reflect persistent effort for the folks who work with the tournament. However, it still has a long way to go to more fully represent the entirety of the United States.
Having 30 states represented is great, but what about the other 20? Obviously, states such as Alaska and Hawaii are difficult to include due to their distance. That leaves 18 unrepresented for no immediately obvious reason.
There are plenty of hoops teams must jump through before receiving a spot in the cup. These barriers are not set in place to exclude certain states; instead, they are present to ensure clubs big and small have the proper travel arrangements, players, staff, and stadiums to participate without losing money.
For clubs in the USL, MLS, and NASL, these criteria are relatively easy to meet. For amateur sides, these barriers can be difficult to reach.
“One of the opinions that I’ve had for a long time is that if the federation could assure teams that they won’t lose money entering the tournament, then a LOT more teams would enter,” says broadcast journalist and TheCup.us creator Josh Hakala. “But in recent years, we’ve seen teams like the KC Athletics, thanks to the luck of the draw, end up drawing a team from Portland and have to choose between breaking the bank to travel to Oregon from Kansas City, or competing in the tournament (they chose to withdraw).”
While some teams lack the necessary funds, there are also entire states without any teams at a high enough level to participate.
“Some states just don’t have a strong adult soccer program. States like Montana or Idaho, for example,” Hakala says. “And if they do have teams, often they aren’t at a high enough level to compete with some of these clubs from major cities or more populated states.”
Then there are other states more interested in funneling teams into other competitions.
“Some states, like my home state of Michigan, haven’t valued the Open Cup so they rarely entered teams,” Hakala adds. “In fact, I had a friend who ran a club team at Michigan State University who wanted to enter. He contacted the Michigan Soccer Association to ask how to go about entering the Open Cup qualifying tournament (this is long before the Open Division tournament was created) and all they did was try to pressure him to enter the Amateur Cup tournament instead. Some states clearly value the tournament more than others.”
(The Amateur Cup, also known as the USASA Amateur Cup, is a tournament open to all amateur United States Soccer Federation affiliated clubs. The tournament began in 1923 and is now run by the United States Adult Soccer Association.)
So when it comes down to it, there are three primary reasons why the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup does not have better geographical representation: money, interest, and association support.
These factors have less to do with the tournament itself than they do with United States Soccer Federation. As the country thinks narrowly about the next four MLS expansion clubs, the cities and states that are not applying for a spot in North America’s top division are being forgotten. For most of these cities applying for MLS expansion, they already have a soccer foundation to build on, but what about those major cities without a light in the dark for the sport? Due to United States Soccer Federation focusing primarily on the country’s top division, they are hurting smaller clubs.
Where is the regional growth?
Growth isn’t just about having the fanciest stadiums or best players, it’s also about having the game reach as many people as possible. Granted, the improvements that have been made are great, but they aren’t something reasonable to strive for in empty markets. If U.S. Soccer spends time developing the untapped regions, more money could be brought to the sport, a larger youth system could be established, and, of course, more viewership markets could be tapped.
Cities like Omaha, Boise, New Orleans, and Mobile are all without teams. All of these cities have sizable populations, and while soccer surely isn’t the most popular sport in any of them, surely there must be an untapped segment that could support U.S. Open Cup teams, whether it be at the amateur, semi-pro, or professional level.
These cities don’t necessarily need an MLS club, but they should have some sort of soccer. These are untapped markets that could grow the sport in different parts of the country and pay dividends for the USSF, if they want it.