John Nyen on the U.S. Open Cup.
years ago there was some big news in association football.
World War I was finally finished and in England, official competitive football was allowed to resume (between 1914 to 1919 the FA Cup and League Cup were suspended due to the war with regional competitions taking place in their stead). In England, Aston Villa took the 1920 FA cup, winning 1-0 in the 100th minute over Huddersfield Town in front of 50,018 people at Stamford Bridge.
However, what was also quite surprising was that over in the United States, Bethlehem Steel F.C. had failed to progress to the National Challenge Soccer finals (now known as the US Open Cup) for the first time since the first year of the competition in 1914.
The champions of the Lehigh Valley roared through the previous competitions subduing all in their wake as they won 4 of the 5 previous Cup titles, only finishing second in 1917 to the deadly Fall River Rovers. However, in the 1920 US Open Cup playoffs, they were unable to get by Robins Dry Dock of Brooklyn, NY who themselves eventually fell to the 2nd place finishers that year, Fore River of Quincy, Massachusetts. Of course many people suspect that some of Bethlehem’s struggles may have come from the team’s 1919 trip to Scandinavia in which they toured around playing the best teams they could find and racking up 5 wins 2 losses and 4 ties in the process.
As the dispatch said,
“A soccer victory garnered before a king was the fortune of the Bethlehem Steel soccer players, champions of the United States, in a contest staged in Stockholm yesterday afternoon. This pleasing information is conveyed in an Associated Press report stating that the American champions lowered the colors of the Stockholm Tigers before King Gustave and a crowd of enthusiasts that shattered all previous attendance records in that country. The final score was one goal to nothing.”
August 15, 1919 – The Globe – Bethlehem
The news reports indicate that Bethlehem lost the 1920 game in a fantastic contest:
“Visions of retaining possession of the National challenge soccer trophy of the United States were blotted out in the last two minutes of a most grueling contest in which Bethlehem F. C., holders of the cup, were forced to bow to defeat at the hands of the undefeated Robins Dry Dock eleven. The famous steelmakers were eliminated in the fifth round by the score of 1 goal to 0.
The victory was the culmination of one of the most exciting battles ever staged and came after a heart-breaking contest lasing an hour and twenty minutes and requiring two extra periods of 15 minutes each for a verdict.”
April 5, 1920 – The Globe – Bethlehem
To be certain there is some history there for the average American sports fan to consider, as two years from 2012 we will see the 100th anniversary of the initial US Open Cup competition, which means that the US Open Cup Championship (1914) is only behind the World Series (1903) in terms of age for on-going professional team championships in the United States. The 1893 founded Stanley Cup is older to be certain; however no US team had a chance to win the trophy until 1914 when the New Westminster Royals moved to Portland, Oregon to become the Portland Rosebuds in the PCHA. Interestingly enough the American Football Challenge Cup was started in 1885 but died out in 1899 in one of the many setbacks of soccer in the United States.
Given the recent emerging status of US Soccer, it bears the reminder that this competition exists, because for some it has been pushed away (much as the FA Cup has been) in the wake of things seen as bigger and better. For those that grew up with the USL Pro, USL First Division, the PDL, the A-League, and USISL (among others) the Cup was the time to see your club face off against other clubs from other locations and divisions. (It is worth noting here that the old NASL of Cosmos, Timbers, and Sting fame did not compete in the cup). The cup has a storied history with fantastic teams, fantastic team names, and fantastic final game locations.
The 1928 final was played between the New York Nationals of New York City, NY and Bricklayers and Masons F.C. of Chicago, Illinois in a two legged final at the venerable Polo Grounds in New York City and Soldier Field in Chicago. In 1955, Eintracht SC of East New York defeated Los Angeles Danish American SC of South California 2 -0 in the Rancho La Cienga Staidum in Los Angeles. In the history of the US Open Cup competition, the all time winners of the cup (Bethlehem Steel and Maccabi Los Angeles) are still tied at 5 cups a piece. This is now bound to change in the current MLS era of cup competition, but the history still shows the intriguing past of soccer in the United States. Interestingly enough, in 1926 the Hakoah All-Stars from Vienna played the New York Giants (of non-American football/baseball fame) in front of 46,000 at the Polo Grounds winning 2-1, which was followed by trips over the water from Real Madrid, Glasgow Rangers, Preston North End and Maccabi FC of Tel Aviv.
In 1996, the era of Major League Soccer dawned in the United States and this is reflected in the recent winners of the competition. 16 years later only one team has pulled off the total cupset and they finished off four MLS teams in a row to do this. The 1999 Rochester Rhinos of the 2nd division A-League took out (in order) the Chicago Fire, the Dallas Burn, Columbus Crew, and finally the Colorado Rapids to win the cup 2-0 in Columbus, Ohio. This feat is not something likely to happen again soon with the advent of better play, deeper squads and more attention in all competitions by MLS teams. However, the idea behind the upsets is still in place as all teams affiliated with the US Soccer Federation, whether amateur or professional, are eligible to play. This is something that really mirrors the great tradition of the FA Cup, that when the competition starts up again you will have teams from the Premier Development League playing against their MLS Cousins in an attempt to dethrone them. Having said all that, the tradition of teams from different divisions finding a way into the finals continues as the Charleston Battery were able to make the final in 2008 only to be defeated by DC United.
This year the Cup officials have made some changes to the field in an effort to help make the cup draw a bit more fair for all teams involved. There will be 64 teams in total with 32 of those teams coming from the three major established leagues in the USA (MLS, NASL, USL Pro). The other 32 will be pulled from qualifying rounds from the other tiers of United States soccer, with all members decided by April 29th. The cup contest then begins in earnest on May 15th with the 32 amateur teams playing each other for a spot in the next round to face the 16 NASL and USL pro teams.
The hope here is that, as soccer develops in the United States, we will see more of an emphasis being placed on the cup by MLS teams.
The fan support of MLS teams can help apply pressure by being very vocal about their love of the competition and indicating to the clubs their desire to see the club put an effort towards winning rather than just participating. Fortunately, due to the size of MLS, many fans have a personal relationship with the front office in their clubs allowing them direct contact to the front office as well as the players. This gives the average fan the ability to influence the teams understanding of the perception of cup competitions as well as friendlies and fan atmosphere. As well, the influence of the internet and streaming video is helping the cup gain some popularity as previous to this time it would almost be impossible to have a video or transcript of some of the smaller teams playing bigger teams in the cup. Even now it remains almost impossible to watch any non-MLS team in U.S. Open Cup competition on television.
In the MLS era, the Chicago Fire are kings of the cup winning the title 4 different times and finishing second twice, while the Seattle Sounders (3 cups), DC United (2 cups) and LA Galaxy (2 cups) are all trying to catch them. If Chicago is somehow able to win the cup this season it will put the final nail in the coffin of the old days of American Soccer League teams based around laborers and tradesmen. However, these days should not be forgotten by fans but remembered and exalted as the intriguing past of the continuing presence of the world’s game in a country that hasn’t always supported it.
Right now there is an amateur team practicing and playing who believes that they can achieve something amazing like the 1982 New York Pancyprian-Freedoms, or the 1959 McIlvane Canvasbacks. With the coming year and the coming cup the atmosphere for any affiliated team can be hope; and that is something amazing in sports today. This is the beauty of all open cup competitions like the FA Cup or the U.S. Open Cup, the fact that for one day on the field the giant clubs and small clubs are equal opponents until the final whistle is heard.