CINCINNATI -- When FC Cincinnati defender Austin Berry was playing for the Chicago Fire at the beginning of his six-year professional soccer career, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup was always of high emphasis.
The oldest cup competition in the United States was less of a focus during his time with the Philadelphia Union, and the Korean FA Cup was of no priority when he played on loan with South Korea’s FC Anyang in 2015.
While some similar-style tournaments in other parts of the world may carry a lot of weight, emphasis on non-league events differs from team to team. For FC Cincinnati, it appears to be a mixed bag.
The second-year United Soccer League club is putting its full focus on Wednesday’s second-round U.S. Open Cup match against AFC Cleveland -- rather than beginning preparation for Saturday’s league game against Bethlehem. However, FCC will use a lineup with a blend of starters, reserves and guys who haven’t even been in the available 18 on a regular basis.
“Different teams put different emphasis on it,” Berry said. “In Chicago, we focused on the U.S. Open Cup a lot, probably because they won it a bunch of times. But then Philly was a little different and in Korea, we didn't emphasize the Cup at all. We had another league game and I don't think even the head coach went to it."
Berry sees it as a good opportunity for his side.
“I think we’re all looking forward to it. It's a test for our depth and a good chance for guys who haven't had many minutes this year to stay fit and show what they can do.”
The U.S. Open Cup, dating back to 1914, is among the oldest cup competitions in the world. It is a single-elimination 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 United Soccer League teams not affiliated with MLS automatically qualify, while lower-tier teams from the NPSL and Player Development League had their own qualifying tournament in the fall.
There are 99 participating clubs in this year’s field, including reigning champion FC Dallas and 18 other MLS outfits. There are also six clubs from the NASL and 18 teams from the USL. The Charleston Battery in 2008 was the last non-MLS team to reach the final and in 1999 the Rochester Rhinos were the last lower division side to win it.
The champion gets its name engraved on the Dewar Challenge Trophy, which has been permanently retired and remains at U.S. Soccer House in Chicago. The champion also gets $250,000 in prize money as well as a berth into the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League – the North American club championship tournament.
“I enjoy the U.S. Open Cup,” FCC midfielder Corben Bone said. “I've always been on teams that take it really seriously, and it's a historic tournament. A lot of the teams I've played on have done pretty well. I think it's a pretty cool tournament. You're playing against teams you might not play in the regular season and that kind of stuff so it's a fun tournament.”
The knock on cup competitions for some teams is that they take away focus on the more important league games and the extra mid-week match puts players at risk for injury or fatigue. The travel also can be costly, though the teams that advance the farthest from each lower division are rewarded with $15,000.
FC Cincinnati was fortunate to get a home game for the second round, where it enters, and would play at home in the third round with a win. However, had the Des Moines Menace beaten defending National Premier Soccer League national champion AFC Cleveland in the first round, FCC would have had to travel to Iowa.
Though FCC will use the game Wednesday as a chance to rest some starters and give playing time to reserves, coach Alan Koch said his club can benefit from a competition like the U.S. Open Cup.
“It's a nice opportunity to try something different and give some players an opportunity that may not get an opportunity when we are playing for three points, but it's also its own separate playoff situation because it's do or die,” Koch said, adding that it's a chance to test the squad against unfamiliar competition.
The Cup gives FCC a chance to get leading scorer Djiby Fall, who is in the midst of a six-game suspension from USL play, back on the field. He is eligible to play in non-league competition. Koch said Fall “will definitely start,” but did not elaborate on who else would be playing.
FCC hopes to use the U.S. Open Cup as sort of a “fresh start,” after coming off a disappointing 2-0 loss to Orlando City B to fall to 2-4-3.
“It's definitely great for us,” Koch said. “It's a clean slate for us, it's a clean slate for them. It's not like in a Cup competition you look at a league table and see where you stand or they stand, it's just a one-off game so it is a nice, fresh start for us as opposed to having to worry about playing for three points or who we are playing and where they stand in the table.”
Bone said Wednesday’s game also could help put FCC back on track for the continuation of league play Saturday.
“It's a game we can go out and win, and winning is contagious,” Bone said. “To go out and win this game, that gives us some type of momentum going into Saturday.”