Land of the brave: The rich history of the US Open Cup

Words by Steven Keehner Illustration by Philippe Fenner
May 11, 2018
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While the concept of a ‘postseason’ would seem odd to determine the English Premier League Champion, it is not in itself a completely foreign concept. While leagues are not typically resolved with a playoff, the concept of a Cup is different. Every season millions of fans around the world gather to watch their respective national, continental, and world cups.

The names ‘Bethlehem Steel F.C.’ and ‘Maccabi Los Angeles’ will more than likely carry zero relevance in the mind of the average soccer fan. It probably won’t even in the mind of the average American fan. But both of these clubs are sizeable pieces of a puzzle that has defined not only the history of American soccer, but of America at times: The Lamar Hunt U.S Open Cup.

While it’s not exclusive to the United States, the one-game playoff has allowed for some of the greatest moments in American sporting history. This has become so popular, that postseason tournaments such as the NFL Playoffs and the Collegiate Basketball Tournament (which is better known as ‘March Madness’) have become the only acceptable way to crown a champion to many. If you’re good enough, you’ll be able to go on one last win streak.

Sometimes uncertainty is the best thing for competitive sports. The U.S Open Cup has exemplified this.

With the 105th edition of the second-oldest continually soccer competition set to begin in May, fans throughout the United States will gather to celebrate.

94 Clubs, ranging anywhere from the defending champions Sporting Kansas City, to New York Cosmos B, will all be competing for not only one of soccer’s hidden gems, but for a chance to compete with the finest clubs in North America by winning a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League.

Unsurprisingly, the two states that have hosted the most USOC winners would come from two of the biggest in the country: New York (26) and California (15). But despite the dominance of these two, 17 others have hosted the winning club at some point. This includes Pennsylvania and Missouri, also claiming it on more than ten occasions.

Despite the USOC being America’s largest cup competition, it’s been defined by anyone but Americans at times.

Perhaps the most effective story that is told through the Open Cup is the one of the “American Dream.” Due to various political and social reasons, immigration to the United States largely increased toward the later-half of the 19th century. This is reflected in the Cup’s history.

Clubs like Maccabi Los Angeles, Greek American AA, Philadelphia Ukrainians, Brooklyn Hispano, and Brooklyn Italians are some of the tournament’s most successful clubs ever; all of which have a foundation based on some sort of cultural heritage.

Something as simple as a game can mean more than any item ever could when moving to a new land.

This is a part of the Open Cup’s history that makes it more unique than many domestic cup competitions around the world. Even with 2017’s edition, it still featured stories of immigrants, like Junior Lone Star FC, a club that was founded in 2001 by primarily Liberian and West African players.

Despite the competition being influenced by immigrants, this does not mean that Americans haven’t played a role in this Cup’s history.

Adelino ‘Billy’ Gonsalves, a son of Portuguese immigrants, who was described by the Society for American Soccer History as, “A tall man with a very hard shot, his reputation never spread internationally very much because he declined several overseas professional offers,” was one of the United States’ first great players. He has also earned a reputation that has made him one of the Cup’s all-time greats, making 11 Finals in only 15 years.

But much like the underdog stories of immigrants, clubs are not immune from that same underdog effect.

Until Major League Soccer began to play in 1996, the Open Cup has held a proud history of allowing amateur clubs to have a realistic chance at glory. This only further added to the mystic of “anyone can win it.” Despite no non-MLS club winning the cup since the Rochester Rhinos in 1999. This hasn’t prevented minnows from stamping their name in the Cup’s history.

Christos Football Club, a Sunday League club named after a liquor store from Maryland, made it to the fourth round of last year’s tournament before being stopped by the MLS side, D.C. United. This wasn’t before going up 1-0 in the 23rd minute via a free kick.

In last year’s semi-final round, two of the final four clubs were also not from MLS. The United Soccer League’s FC Cincinnati and North American Soccer League’s Miami FC both exceeded expectations before coming one game short of potentially making history.

Soccer has always been the sport of the working-class throughout its entire history. Whether it’s the foundation of clubs like West Ham and Arsenal in England, or Sevilla or Atletico Madrid in Spain, the impact of workers within the game is undeniable. The U.S isn’t a stranger to this concept either.

From the 1920’s to 30s, “work teams” dominated the competition, with clubs like Bethlehem Steel winning five Open Cups during the time. Various brewers and other industries would write their name in the Cup’s history throughout this period.

This continued, even while America was in its “Golden Age” of soccer with the North American Soccer League.

Despite the United States hosting some of the greatest players ever in Pele and Johan Cruyff, neither had a chance to compete for America’s most prestigious competition. For reasons that are still not fully understood, the North American Soccer League clubs refused to compete in the competition.

Some have speculated that it came down to a fear of losing to a minnow. We may never know.

As mentioned before, Major League Soccer’s foundation has resulted in a takeover in the Cup’s History. Chicago Fire, Seattle Sounders FC, and Sporting Kansas City have emerged as the most successful MLS sides in the tournament. With continual domination in the Cup, it is only a matter of time before the stories of many clubs will become overshadowed by big money.

But despite this, nearly 100 clubs will fight for their chance at history.

If I were to ask you if you wanted to watch The Villages take on the Jacksonville Armada in the opening stages of this season’s Cup, it would sound slightly ridiculous. It sort of is, to be fair. But behind these games, lies a much larger picture.

The U.S Open Cup may not have many distinctly unique signatures, but it has not gone without its moments. FC Cincinnati vs Chicago Fire last season was the best game I’ve ever watched. It featured everything that makes the beautiful game, beautiful. With a loud crowd, exciting play, and a thrilling finish, it left me on the edge of my seat the entire way through, and I don’t even support either of those clubs.

The beauty is in the uncertainty. A Sunday League Club should have no right to compete with a professional, top-tier club; it makes little sense. But because of the nature of the competition, it does. This isn’t exclusive to the USOC, but it may be more prominent than many Cup competitions around the world.

In a soccer world where big paychecks and corporatism are defining the game more than ever, it’s exciting and refreshing to still watch minnows and read stories about these people being no different than yourself.

The Cup will not feature the greatest players, the flashiest styles, nor will it necessarily even be that unpredictable at times. But with a young league that is still creating its own history, it’s important for us fans to remember what we have, and there may be no better example of that than the Lamar Hunt U.S Open Cup.

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