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US OPEN CUP 101

By DJ SWITZER, 05/16/16, 7:45PM EDT

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By now, you’ve probably heard that FC Cincinnati are playing in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Specifically, the team will be facing Indy Eleven NPSL this Wednesday, May 18th, for a 7pm kickoff at Nippert Stadium.

But what exactly is the U.S. Open Cup? Why are FCC playing in it if they’re in the USL? Who is this Lamar Hunt guy who has his name tacked onto the beginning of it? And how can I get tickets for it?

These questions and more have been frequently heard around the Queen City in the build up to this week’s midweek tie. For many fans new to soccer or only now looking into the different aspects of the professional game, the notion of the Open Cup is completely foreign. Looking around the rest of the American sports scene, not a single other major professional sports league participates in a separate, unrelated competition to their regular season in the middle of that very season.

So to help you get a grasp on the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and what it means for FC Cincinnati and its fans, we put together this handy guide.

WHAT IS THE LAMAR HUNT U.S. OPEN CUP?

More frequently referred to as the “U.S. Open Cup”, or more simply the “Open Cup”, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is an annual single elimination knockout tournament hosted by the US Soccer Federation. It is a completely standalone competition, and has zero impact on the USL season despite running concurrently with it. And what makes it particularly interesting is that, technically, it’s possible for nearly every men’s soccer team in the country — professional and amateur — to qualify for the tournament.

Want an American sports analogy to compare the Open Cup to? The easiest is the NCAA basketball tournament. Fully professional teams from the big leagues of MLS (17), USL (17) and NASL (9) — excluding those who have a parent club in a higher league, like USL’s Orlando City B whose parent club is in MLS — all get automatic bids to the tournament. The rest of the field is rounded out by the finest amateur (14) and semiprofessional teams (14 NPSL, 18 PDL) in the country who qualify through their own leagues’ tournaments or regional competitions.

Though the Open Cup format is a bit of an oddity in American sports circles, it’s very common place in the world of soccer. The tournament’s most famous cousin is England’s FA Cup. It conjures similar sentiments to the “March Madness” when minnows make deep runs by knocking off giants, inspiring the frequent use of it’s own trademark catchphrase, the Magic of the Cup”.

And while the FA Cup might be revered in part due to it being the oldest continuously operating soccer tournament in the world, the U.S. Open Cup is third oldest having been awarded every year since 1914.

WHO IS LAMAR HUNT AND WHY IS THE TOURNAMENT NAMED FOR HIM?

Lamar Hunt, who passed away in 2006, was one of the forefathers of the modern era of American professional soccer. As one of Major League Soccer’s initial group of investors, Hunt at one time owned three MLS clubs, including the Columbus Crew. He spearheaded the development of the country’s first soccer specific stadium in Columbus. And his sons now are the primary owners of MLS side FC Dallas, where they built the country’s third soccer specific stadium. The tournament was named for Lamar in 2014 as a way of paying tribute to all that he’s done for the game of soccer in the US.

HOW DOES THE TOURNAMENT WORK?

The 17 independent USL clubs like FC Cincinnati enter the tournament at the second round, where they play the winners of the amateur/semiprofessional teams that play in the first round. FC Cincinnati are playing Indy Eleven NPSL — who come from the 4th division, semiprofessional National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) — who knocked off the Cincinnati Dutch Lions — a side hailing from the other 4th division semiprofessional league, the USL’s Premier Development League (PDL).

Should FCC win and advance to the third round, they’ll be greeted by one of the nine sides entering the competition from second division North American Soccer League (NASL). The draw for that round has already occurred, meaning FCC will face another trip to Florida to face the Tampa Bay Rowdies in a few weeks’ time.

The seventeen Major League Soccer (MLS) clubs then enter in the fourth round, with winners potentially advancing all the way to the final. In addition to the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup trophy, the winning team is awarded $250,000 in prize money and receives a birth in the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League — the North American club championship tournament.

WHO HAS WON THE OPEN CUP, AND WHAT ARE OUR CHANCES?

Having been around 103 years, the Open Cup has been won by a fair few number of teams. Sixty to be precise, many no longer around. But the most successful clubs are Bethlehem Steel (the original club, not the MLS 2 affiliate for the Philadelphia that plays in the USL) and Maccabi Los Angeles, both of whom lifted the trophy five times before the modern era. More recently, MLS sides Chicago Fire and the Seattle Sounders have each won the Open Cup four times.

How will FCC fare? That’s hard to say, though USL clubs have a track record of upsetting higher league competition. But for a little perspective, remember that the last USL club to hoist Lamar’s Cup was the Rochester Rhinos in 1999 — though the Charleston Battery were finalists back in 2008.

And FYI: Coach John Harkes has twice lifted it himself, once with D.C. United in 1996, and another with the Columbus Crew in 2002.

HOW DO I WATCH AND/OR GET TICKETS TO WATCH FCC IN THE OPEN CUP?

Since our broadcast deal with Sinclair only covers USL regular season home matches, that unfortunately means there will not be a stream or local TV broadcast of theOrange & Blue‘s Open Cup match this Wednesday. So if you want to watch this game, you’ll need to come to Nippert!

As such, tickets are already for sale for the match on our website. And for season ticket holders, you already have tickets for this match in your ticket books! Look for the tickets marked as “US Open Cup” with a date of TBD — such as the one pictured to the right.

If for some reason you can’t make it to Nippert on Wednesday, be sure to follow along on Twitter for live updates of the match.