If you couldn’t get to Orlando City’s U.S. Open Cup match-up with the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers last year, you were out of luck. If you lived outside of Central Florida or couldn’t get to the stadium in time after work, you were left hunting for a way to watch the match.
But there was none to be found. Some courteous souls in the stadium attempted to periscope the view from their seats, others tried to give live updates via social media, and there was a general attempt to inform the fans that unfortunately couldn’t be there. To make matters worse, there were highlights posted periodically, meaning someone was recording the match.
It’s not totally uncommon for home clubs to forgo streaming in the Open Cup. Some of the smaller teams aren’t capable of hosting setups and there’s a general fear that offering a free online way to watch the match will hurt ticket sales and attendance. But the Citrus Bowl was still cavernously empty for a midweek match against the Strikers even without any other way to watch it.
The Open Cup is a unique opportunity for the lower league sides to test their mettle against MLS competition, a way for those lower tier teams to earn some extra cash from the U.S. Soccer Federation, and of course the trophy and berth in the CONCACAF Champions League spot at the end of it all. There’s quite a bit of extra incentive for USL and NASL sides on the pitch, but the buzz that it creates around potential “cupsets” is the biggest possible draw for the tournament.
American sports fans are enamored with the underdog and there’s seemingly a storyline to follow every year. It’s the closest thing American soccer has to college basketball’s March Madness that sees millions of Americans tune in every year to see mid-majors shock the blue bloods. The Open Cup always seems to deliver with a story of its own for the neutral fan; Colorado pub team Harpo’s FC were the darlings of last year’s edition and this year amateur side Christos FC has captured the attention of soccer fans across the country prior to bowing out last night against D.C. United.
It wasn’t too long ago that the USL version of Orlando City had its own giant slayings back in the day that spurred on extra excitement and support around town. The Lions’ 2013 run saw them down the Colorado Rapids in Orlando and then their affiliate at the time, Sporting Kansas City, in Missouri. The Cinderella story that year made it all the way to the quarterfinals — and was level with the Chicago Fire in the second half — before finally bowing out. Winning USL titles is fantastic, but there’s a next level of excitement when it comes to taking on the best of the best in the country.
Fans were robbed of watching a cupset last year when PC dribbled through the Orlando defense and scored the game-winning goal deep into extra time. For the majority of Ft. Lauderdale fans that didn’t make the trip, there isn’t the same amount of pride from reading a box score or a tweet after the fact. It’s not just about the inability to take part in rare match-ups with regional competition, it also hurts the potential growth of the fanbase in those markets because it limits that excitement. For the American game that needs that grassroots improvement, it’s an unfortunate oversight.
The folks at the U.S. Soccer Federation decided to take matters into their own hands this year to remedy that problem. Instead of leaving it up to the teams, the federation decided to host streams of every fourth-round match on their website. So fans could watch Christos FC try and take down D.C. United in the tiny Maryland Soccerplex last night, or rare regional match-ups like Orlando City and Miami FC, Columbus Crew vs. FC Cincinnati, or St. Louis FC and Chicago.
The Open Cup is nothing without accessibility for the fans to experience it. For a tournament that is supposed to encompass the entire country, limiting it to local markets is counter-intuitive. And while it may not be ideal for teams or the USSF to pay for streaming without a direct form of income, it’s for the good of the game to expose these exciting knockout matches to as many people as possible. As MLS has learned, there’s something to be said for consistency and availability in soccer broadcasting. These streams are the next step for the Open Cup as a tournament.