The U.S. Open Cup has a long and storied history going back over 100 years. With all the struggles of American soccer over that time, the Open Cup has been the one constant. Today, the winner of the Open Cup gains entry into the CONCACAF Champions League.
Tuesday night Orlando City took on the Columbus Crew in the fifth round of the 2015 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. The 2-0 win advanced the Lions to the quarterfinal, where they will meet the Chicago Fire in Bridgeview, Illinois.
Despite the fact that the club's 14,000 season ticket holders had this game included in their season ticket package, only 13,684 fans entered the Citrus Bowl for this important match with a budding rival. The reason why the Open Cup continues to struggle in most cities is that Americans just don't understand it.
Last week, Orlando Sentinel columnist and sports radio talk show host Mike Bianchi said on his daily show Open Mike that he wasn't sure he could get behind an exhibition tournament in the middle of the season. He was specifically speaking about the U.S. Open Cup. The statement showed that Bianchi, a new soccer fan, was unaware of the importance of the cup and the fact that it's not an exhibition tournament. But Bianchi's misunderstanding of the tournament is indicative of the larger problem.
Soccer is growing rapidly in America. Whether it's watching the World Cup or playing the FIFA video game, more and more Americans are awaking to the beautiful game. However, having been developed primarily in Europe and South America, there are many differences between soccer tradition and the other American sports.
Longtime fans of the game will know well the great cup competitions from around the world. Tournaments like the Open Cup include England's FA Cup, Spain's Copa del Rey, and Germany's DFB Pokal, which are major trophies to compete for and, especially with the FA Cup, draw a large media presence. The Open Cup should be considered just as important as these tournaments for American soccer fans.
In all of the American sports, they play a regular season which is followed by playoffs leading to the eventual champion. That's the only meaningful competition that teams will take part in. There's no chance that the Sacramento River Cats will face the Los Angeles Dodgers, or that the Hershey Bears will face the New York Rangers in a meaningful game. So the idea that the Fresno Fuego could play an important game against the LA Galaxy is foreign to many Americans.
This isn't a criticism of American fans. Many European fans have trouble understanding the playoff system that Americans use in determining their champion as most European leagues use a single table. This is why, with MLS now being shown more internationally, you'll see commentators attempting to explain the playoff system in great detail whereas in America, it's understood. The point being that it takes time for people to conceive new concepts.
Of course, this isn't the only reason for the U.S. Open Cup's struggle with attendance. The fact that games receive very little publicity (only the final is televised) and all games are hosted midweek, where even MLS games tend to struggle, contribute greatly. But the fact that most Americans are entrenched in the American sports traditional calendar makes the other factors almost obsolete.
Soccer continues to grow and, as it does, the traditions of soccer are becoming more and more well known. Proof is that the FA Cup is now shown on network television in the States. So, while it's not there now, eventually the U.S. Open Cup will be considered an important tournament by all fans. But as for today, the tournament continues to struggle because many Americans simply don't understand the contest.