Since the inaugural season of MLS in 1996, the league’s teams have had a stranglehold on the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Given the difficulty of winning the tournament as a lower-league team and the inability of MLS reserve teams to enter, the USL’s plans for a new lower-division cup competition is great news for all the clubs involved.
Once upon a time, MLS had its own reserve league. That idea was abandoned in 2014 after 10 years, instead requiring the league’s teams to partner with a USL team. To keep full control of its second team, the LA Galaxy created LA Galaxy II and placed them in the USL. Soon, many more teams followed with 10 currently in existence and more expected to launch in the coming years.
In January of 2016, the USSF stated that “any outdoor professional league team that is majority owned by a higher-level outdoor professional league team or any team that is (1) majority owned by an outdoor professional league team, (2) registered with any open division league, and (3) registered as a professional team, will not be able to take part in the Open Cup.” With the purpose of MLS second teams being to develop talent, this new rule took an excellent opportunity away from the young players.
This week, the United Soccer League announced a rebranding of its leagues. Starting in 2019, the USL will be called the USL Championship, the new division three league will be USL League One, and the current Premier Development League will be renamed USL League Two. In addition, USL executives are working on a new tournament that would include all teams from the USL Championship and USL League One.
As first reported by ESPN, in addition to the new names for the three leagues, the USL would also be developing a new tournament for the professional teams of the USL Championship and USL League One, similar to the English EFL Trophy, which would feature a group stage and knockout rounds, and would likely begin in 2020.
This new cup is great news for all teams in these two leagues. Since MLS’ inaugural season of 1996, only one non-MLS team has won the U.S. Open Cup, so this new tournament provides the independent teams with a way to win a cup competition. For the MLS-owned teams, it provides their players the opportunity to play in a cup competition, something they currently lack, being banned from the U.S. Open Cup.
It still remains to be seen how many USL teams will drop into League One. So far, Toronto FC II, the Richmond Kickers, and the Rochester Rhinos have made that decision and Orlando City B has joined them after taking the 2018 season off. For those that do join the lower division, the new tournament will provide an additional advantage — the opportunity to play against higher level players.
While those teams that remain in the USL will see second division competition each week, those dropping a division down for development purposes will now get to play older players during these cup games. That was a bit of a concern for some of the teams that make that decision, and while these will only be select games, it’s better than what they have now.
The restructuring of the USL is an exciting development and has widely been considered a positive move for the leagues. Just as exciting is the news of a new lower division cup competition which will allow those without much of a chance of winning the Open Cup an opportunity to challenge for a cup and those banned from the Open Cup to compete in a competition with a knockout format. Overall, it’s a win-win situation for all involved.