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Why the U.S. Open Cup means so much to FC Cincy

Why the U.S. Open Cup means so much to FC Cincy
Posted at 7:00 AM, May 18, 2016

FC Cincinnati briefly steps out of United Soccer League play this week for a chance to compete with American teams from every level in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

Cincinnati enters the U.S. Open Cup in the second round along with 16 other USL teams and hosts the Indy Eleven of the National Premier Soccer League at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Nippert Stadium.

“It’s awesome competition,” FC Cincinnati midfielder Jimmy McLaughlin said. “The history behind it is incredible. It allows teams in the lower leagues to make a statement. We can show everyone we’re a great team and we can play against everybody.”

So what exactly is the U.S Open Cup and what does it mean to FCC? Here are the Top 9 things to know about the tournament.

1. What is the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup?

Dating back to 1914, the U.S. Open Cup is the oldest cup competition in United States soccer and is among the oldest in the world. It is a single-elimination, 90-game tournament hosted by the U.S. Soccer Federation and open to all soccer teams of any division in the United States.

All Major League Soccer, North American Soccer League and USL teams not affiliated with MLS automatically qualify, while fourth- and fifth-tier teams from the NPSL and Player Development League had their own qualifying tournament in the fall.

It is a completely standalone competition with no impact on the USL season, despite running concurrently with it.

2. How is the tournament structured?

The Open Cup format is a bit of an oddity in American sports circles, but comparable to the popular cup events in European soccer (and around the world), where lower-level teams often make deep runs by knocking off giants – similar to the Cinderella teams in NCAA basketball March Madness.

The tournament started May 11 with the top 14 amateur teams and 32 semi-pro teams (14 NPSL and 18 PDL) competing in the first round. The first-round winners advanced to the second round, where 17 USL teams await them Wednesday. Then, those winners meet the nine U.S.-based NASL clubs in the third round June 1. Should FCC advance, they will travel to play the Tampa Bay Rowdies in Florida.

The 17 MLS clubs begin competition June 15 in the fourth round, which will yield the Round of 16 participants. The clubs then will be divided geographically with the pairings in each group decided by a random draw. That round begins June 29.

The two winners in each group from the Round of 16 advance to the quarterfinals July 20. Geography will continue to play a role in determining the pairings for the semifinals Aug. 10. The final is set for Sept. 21.

3. Who is the tournament named after?

The tournament was named after Lamar Hunt in 1999 to honor the long-time soccer supporter and pioneer. Hunt, who passed away in 2006, was one of the forefathers of the modern era of American professional soccer and a member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame. As one of the MLS’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.

4. What are FCC’s chances?

FCC showed it could compete with the highest level of soccer in the United States during the preseason, when it beat MLS side New York City FC; however, Major League Soccer teams have dominated the U.S. Open competition since the league began in 1996.

No lower-division team has won the Cup since the USL side Rochester Rhinos claimed the trophy in 1999.

Still, the U.S. Open Cup has seen its share of Cinderella runs. The USL’s Charleston Battery reached the final in 2008, and the Richmond Kickers made it to the semifinals in 2011. Amateur side Cal FC advanced past two pro clubs (USL Pro side Wilmington Hammerheads and MLS side Portland Timbers) on its march to the Round of 16 in 2012.

5. Who is the favorite?

It’s really anyone’s game, but Colorado Rapids currently is the MLS points leader and, by default, probably the favorite.

Sporting Kansas City, which is 5-6-2, was awarded its third title last year after beating the Philadelphia Union 2-1 (7-6 on penalty kicks) in the 102nd edition of the competition. MLS sides Chicago Fire and the Seattle Sounders have each won the Open Cup four times.

6. What does the Cup winner get?

The winning team gets its name engraved on the Dewar Challenge Trophy, which has been permanently retired and remains at U.S. Soccer House in Chicago, and $250,000 in prize money. They also receive a berth into the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League – the North American club championship tournament.

Each country has its own domestic cup competition, and the winner of each one automatically is placed into a tournament to compete against neighboring countries’ cup winners.

7. How will FCC approach the tournament?

FCC coach John Harkes said his team will approach Cup play just like a USL game.

"We want to take it seriously, and we want to compete with that, so from our end, we are going after that,” Harkes said. “It's a challenge for us and a chance to see how we size up against some of the bigger clubs that maybe present themselves in different rounds. That's for sure a priority how we approach that game."

Harkes has twice lifted the Cup as a player, once with D.C. United in 1996 and again in 2002 with the Columbus Crew.

8. Who is FCC opponent Indy Eleven?

FC Cincinnati’s second-round opponent comes from the fourth division NPSL. Indy Eleven knocked off the Cincinnati Dutch Lions, of the USL’s PDL fourth-division semipro league, in the first round.

Indy Eleven, coached by John Simmonds, are playing their first season as the official lower-league affiliate of the NASL club of the same name. From 2013-2015, they were known as the Indiana Fire NPSL and earned their place in the 2016 Open Cup after advancing to the NPSL national semifinals in 2015. FCC met the Indy Eleven parent club in a friendly in March with the teams playing to a 1-1 tie.

9. How do you get tickets?

Fans interested in attending FCC’s match against Indy Eleven are encouraged to visit the club’s ticketing site at www.fccincinnati.com/tickets. Pricing and purchasing procedures for the club’s Cup game will remain consistent with any regular-season USL contest at Nippert Stadium.