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The US Open Cup and its empty seat dilemma

Written by Will Parchman


The US Open Cup’s shining moment this season was probably a memorable meeting between Portland and Seattle at Starfire on July 9 that went 120 minutes before the Sounders advanced 3-1. That there will be some debate about this point is a remarkable thing in itself.

There were 4,233 people there, but they squeezed into every cranny of the small venue and created an atmosphere worth remembering. A small pocket of Timbers fans banged away at drums in one corner. Sounders chants raced around the field, one chasing after another. But the slouchy size of the venue was hard to ignore. Even for Timbers-Sounders, there was little point hosting at a much bigger venue. The thing would merely feel like a monstrosity with empty seats frowning on the field from every angle.

Even on its good days, the US Open Cup struggles for attention.

The reality of the cup’s day-to-day hit hard again on Tuesday. This was the scene in Frisco on Tuesday during FC Dallas’ eventual loss to the Philadelphia Union on penalties in the USOC semifinal. FCD wasn’t just playing for a spot in the final. It was playing to host the final.

There’s no reason to apply emotional vitriol to the moment, nor is this cause to drag FCD through the mud. The Hoops draw a respectable average of around 16K per game, which isn’t earth-shattering but is hardly embarrassing. The occasion merely requires the cold steel of logic. Fans failing to show up to a game between two – or, heck, even one – unknowns in the early rounds is understandable. Drawing that spotty (yet hearty) crew for a semifinal against a fellow MLS playoff chaser seems out-of-place and almost out of time. Midweek or not.

This is not an FCD problem. It takes a fine comb to find games that draw more than 5,000 fans. Among the most well-attended USOC games this season was the Cosmos’ 3-0 drubbing of the Red Bulls, which drew 9,364. Shuart Stadium could’ve fit in nearly 2,000 more fans. The national average probably rests somewhere in the 3-4,000 range, generously. An internet livestream, a ubiquitous last resort for desperate fans worldwide, is even a hit-or-miss proposition.

Since we’re on FCD, though, they serve as an appropriate dummy for our discussion. In their last home game before the World Cup break, they drew just north of 16,000 fans for an eventual 3-2 win over Colorado on June 7. After a 10-day break in home games, FCD played San Antonio in the fourth round of the cup. Attendance for that game: about 2,200.

You might suspect an in-state rival would draw better, but the Scorpions have little tradition, a small fan base, and San Antonio is some four hours away. Fair points. You might also expect it to draw better since it was FCD’s only home game in nearly 30 days, and it wasn’t a friendly. That one’s harder to answer. On June 24, the Dynamo hosted FCD in one of the most anticipated cup games of the season in the next round. It was a thrilling encounter that FCD won in extra time. The game drew 2,083 people.

It’s difficult to simply chalk it down to midweek fixtures, either. MLS tends to shy away from scheduling regular season matches outside the weekend frame, but FCD played at the Galaxy on May 21, and the listed attendance was more than 14,000. Had it hosted a midweek league game (something it hasn’t done all year), I have little doubt FCD would’ve drawn far better than its USOC numbers. In a lot of ways, this is a sadly appropriate summation of the proceedings.

The apathy this competition seems to produce is beyond the realm of understanding. The idea of the century-old competition is summarily applauded by a nationwide fanbase increasingly enveloped by a pro/rel debate that often turns toxic. By providing open competition down to the root-stalk of the game here, the USOC seemingly bridges every wall we’ve erected to keep out those we think are crazier than us. And every bridge – some originating from Sacramento and Panama City, some from Seattle and Philly – leads to the same place. This is the people’s tournament, and the people are largely indifferent.

Fans are not unlike truffle dogs bred for a specific purpose. In this case, that means seeking out importance and watchability and holding them aloft like a trophy when they’re found. So it is with every fan base worldwide.

Here’s the truly baffling thing about all this: USOC games have both. They may not be intertwined with the struggle for the MLS Cup, but cup games aren’t friendlies. They matter, albeit on a smaller scale than the MLS Cup (we could get real metaphysical here on “what is this cosmic scale we’ve constructed for ourselves” but I’ll spare you). I understand the tendency here to throw that notion in the gutter – “Nothing really matters other than the league” – but allow me to remind you that importance isn’t some distant notion calibrated and then imposed from an ivory tower. It’s simply the collective will of the whole. If you wanted the cup to matter, it would. Literally as simple as that.

As for watchability, the Red Bulls being riddled by the Cosmos, FCD nipping the Dynamo in extra time, the Sounders-Timbers extra time thriller in front of a packed house, the RailHawks bumping off the Galaxy, the Crew topping newfound midwest rival Indy Eleven on nine men, the Silverbacks beating the Rapids, the Union topping FCD in penalties, the Brooklyn Italians existing in any kind of form… these are all stories worth hearing, and the public at large has weighed them and left them on the counter.

This is not necessarily a clarion call for a rise in USOC interest. I’m not in that game. Ultimately the sport here will determine what is important and slough off the rest. If the USOC doesn’t matter, then it shouldn’t. Soccer will improve and grow and thrive here by the fittest competitions and teams and players grinding the weakest of their counterparts into ash. But what I struggle to understand is why the cup doesn’t matter to so many. It isn’t that it should matter (I think it probably should, but that’s utterly beside my point), but you simply think it would. It’s almost like picking up Finnegan’s Wake and then putting it down for the 58th time before getting through 30 pages. In a lot of ways the idea was pure, and you feel as though there’s something you’re missing by stepping away, but the notion was simply more enticing than the reality.

You will tell me the reasons why fans don’t show up to these games in larger numbers (midweek, less importance, often feature backups), and I will hear them and register them as valid, but they will still fail to address the sheer disparity. MLS doesn’t have the luxury of legions of T-shirt fans. The USOC is just nerdy enough to appeal to more.

So enjoy the USOC if you enjoy it and ignore it if that works for you. No one here is saying otherwise. But I also think it’s important to recognize what’s here while it’s here. This tournament is not as insignificant as its attendance numbers tend to indicate. How significant it is in the long run will be determined by the nation’s hunger for it.

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  • Jim Powers

    If you look at how Australia’s FFA is staging their very first FFA Cup and compare it to the way US Soccer stages its 101st US Open Cup, it is embarrassing. The FFA Cup has a title sponsor, 10 nationally televised games, and a dedicated website. Their top flight league dates back to…2005. USSF does next to nothing to promote these games, every year, leaving poor Josh Hakala and his website to do all the work. MLS (and by extension, SUM) does little to promote this, because in their minds it’s promoting “competitors” in the NASL, USL Pro, etc. Which is fine and dandy, except the federation isn’t exactly impoverished. I would venture to say they likely have double to triple the amount of money the Aussie fed has… so the question is how did they do it so well Dow Under right off the mark and we’re still stuck with embarrassing attendances and low interest?

  • rolldog

    Thank you, well written article. I love the Open Cup for all the reasons you mentioned – its history, its inclusiveness (esp to gauge NASL quality), the cinderella potential, and what IMO is a truly significant reward: a CCL berth. I agree with most of the points you made, and want to add on a few more:

    1. Season tickets often don’t include Open Cup matches. I suppose that’s because if you’re only selling a couple thousand it’s going to be to those hardcore fans, but if you’re a STH do you really want to pay extra to go to a midweek Cup game when you’ve already got tickets to league play on the weekend? Often featuring the same teams but with better lineups? If simply increasing attendance and awareness is the goal, including with STH would be a good start. The Galaxy, for example, include three “Bonus Tickets” for extra competitions like the Open Cup or CCL with their season ticket package. I don’t know how common that is, but it seems like a good idea to me. Maybe not as good an idea if you’re the one depending on the gate.

    2. TV really does matter. Like, a lot. It’s hard to take a tournament seriously or build any kind of momentum when you can’t see a game. I haven’t seen LA play yet b/c they’re always away (and lose).

    3. As CCL awareness builds (and I believe it is), I think the Open Cup will get more love. I believe Seattle and KC care b/c, in addition to being great clubs and having great fanbases, they’ve had a taste of the CCL and enjoyed it. I think RSL put 17k fans into the Rio Tinto for the final last year b/c they value the CCL.

    • Tim

      I’ve been lucky enough to attended 5 USOC matches – and the 2 finals in a somewhat sold-out (25 – 30k) Seattle stadium are two of my favorite Sounders matches ever. The price is better, the crowd is different, and the atmosphere is electric. Last night’s game at Starfire was a blast as well – but i’d honestly be surprised if 5 times that number in attendance wouldn’t have shown up at the big stadium (even with the Mariners playing).
      great comments here about sponsorship, importance of tv, a website, CCL…. I can’t say why clubs can’t or may not attempt to build interest in local matches for this tournament, but it seems very apparent that USSF isn’t helping this tournament at all.

  • DeadlockVictim

    Do the majority of US fans even know the competition exists? Not having a TV contract definitely doesn’t help.

  • chademe

    We always go to the Open Cup games when our schedule allows it. It’s usually against MLS competition and I love the idea behind an “Open” cup. The tickets are cheaper than the regular MLS games and you get better seats because there’s no crowd. I don’t understand why there isn’t more interest either. A TV contract would be great, but how much is a broadcaster willing to pay for it? I think it should be included in whatever contract the teams have with their local providers, and maybe even make the games available on MLS Live. The fact is that it’s usually MLS teams in the later rounds, and if it’s not, it will bring viewers due to the Cinderella aspect.

    I think there needs to be more of a partnership between MLS and the Open Cup, both for TV rights and for advertisement. Anything that increases the popularity of soccer in the US increases the popularity of MLS. A rising tide floats all boats and all that.

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