Portsmouth’s shock 2-0 victory over Tottenham Hotspur to reach the FA Cup Final this weekend got me wondering about the whole idea of an open cup competition and if we could ever adopt one for women’s soccer in the States.
Measly little Portsmouth who can’t win a game in the Premier League and who can’t even afford to pay its groundskeeper defeated a quality side like Spurs, who are angling for a Champions League spot. It was a wonderful upset anyway you spin it. Never mind that this is exactly how Portsmouth got into the financial mess they’re in now. Irony be damned.
I love the FA Cup just as I love NCAA March Madness. To be honest, I really have no interest in basketball and the last major event I can recall happening to my hometown team the Houston Rockets was Yao Ming getting injured. And that was like two years ago. But I’ll always have room in my heart for the NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament.
(Scroll down and skip all this histrionic nonsense if you’re just interested in how it could work)
The reason? Sports are most enjoyable when they function as true works of drama. What else can compare to the last-second buzzer-beaters, the debate over who got snubbed at selection day, the pride in showing off your bracket (hello Mr. President), the fever that induces an entire college campus while its team makes a run, the players who become local heroes for about a week and then enter anonymity again as they graduate. But the best part is the giant-killing. The schools with a student body of like 250 that you had no idea existed until you Wikipedia’d it that upset the big-names. Case in point: This year’s Butler who (nearly) upset Duke in the Championship game. I’m a total sucker for that stuff.
Imagine if Major League Baseball had a tournament that ran concurrently with the regular season and featured the New York Yankees drawing, say, a AAA Cape Cod Amateur Summer Ball League club. It would be brilliant. Soccer is unique because it is the only sport where its professional leagues have a kind of parallel to that kind of ‘everyone can enter-knockout’ competition. League cups exist in nearly every country where there is a sanctioned league (heck, the FA Cup is practically older than the Magna Carta). All you need is several flights of leagues – and they don’t all necessarily have to be professional – and some kind of qualification system, a random draw and that’s it.
The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is the oldest soccer competition in the United States. It dates back to 1914 and has since seen many incarnations and many winners (read David Wangerin’s book Soccer in a Football World for the details) but is still very much alive today. The Seattle Sounders claimed their first ever piece of silverware in the 2009 edition.
Women’s leagues around the world also have their own league cups. FCR Duisburg and USV Jena will play in the Final of the Frauen DFB Pokal. Arsenal and Everton will also face-off in the Final of the Women’s FA Cup in May. France has the Challenge de France, Sweden has the Damer Svenska Cupan, Holland has the KVNB Beker Vrouwen.
So would it be feasible to think that there could ever be a Women’s U.S. Open Cup?
If you’ve never heard of a league cup or an open cup in regards to soccer, it’s quite simple. Every team (even amateur teams) are eligible to enter into this national competition and are randomly drawn against other teams from any flight. The competition is a knock-out format. U.S. Women’s soccer has two or three or four flights depending on how you look at it. First there’s Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS), and then the United Soccer League’s W-League and then Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL) and finally the United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA). Each different league includes teams that are of professional, semi-professional and amateur status. Clubs from each of these leagues would be eligible for entry. Also, only American teams can compete in the tournament but foreign players who play for American teams are welcome.
Before getting to the pros and cons of the idea, here’s a really rough format of how it might could possibly perhaps work if it was hypothetically to be implemented next year:
(Scroll down and skip this technical nonsense if you want just to find out the pros and cons)
I’ll be operating under the assumption that there will be 10 teams in WPS in 2011. I have absolutely no inside knowledge that this is going to be the case at all. I just know that it makes the math easier. I’m also assuming that there will be the same number of USL W-League and WPSL teams next year as there are now. I’m sure that won’t be the case but again hypothetically.
At last count there are 22 U.S.-based W-league teams competing in 2010 and roughly 60 teams in the WPSL. The W-League would be divided among four divisions (for argument’s sake the Rochester Ravens would have to be placed into a different division because it is the only non-Canadian team in the Great Lakes Division). The WPSL has ten divisions. So let’s say the two teams finishing in each W-League division receives a bye to the 2nd round while the top finishing team in each WPSL division also receive a bye. This leaves 14 W-League teams, 50 WPSL clubs and then 8 United States Adult Soccer Association teams would be invited, probably via qualification through their own regions. Then the 36 advancing teams would meet the remaining 8 W-League sides and the 10 WPSL teams. Every WPS team would also enter at this stage. The rest would just be a straight knock-out tournament.
14 W-League Teams
50 WPSL teams
8 USASA teams are invited
36 teams from 1st round
8 W-League teams who received first-round byes
10 WPSL teams who received first-round byes
10 WPS teams
32 remaining teams
16 remaining teams
8 remaining teams
2 remaning teams
- A tournament could bring national exposure to smaller clubs down the women’s soccer ladder. It could highlight players who have either missed their shot at the pro’s after college or simply fell through the cracks.
- It would bring big name international and American superstars to non-WPS markets, thereby spurring more fan interest. Perhaps bringing Marta or Abby Wambach to perhaps Phoenix or Seattle could help expose WPS and convert followers who wouldn’t typically be interested because they don’t have a WPS team anywhere near them. Seeing a game in their own backyard could provide an impetus to start following their league more.
- This could also generate some serious cash flow for the home teams, particularly if a smaller W-League or WPSL team is hosting the tie. Imagine how many U8 and U12 local girl’s teams would come out to watch the world’s best play in their hometown. If a smaller team gets drawn with a bigger WPS side and if it’s marketed well, it could give them some pretty high attendance figures.
- This scenario could also help promote W-League and WPSL sides in their local areas. Again, if it’s marketed correctly and new fans come out to see a WPS side but don’t know much about their own home team, they could potentially enjoy the product so much that they come back.
- It could give college players a chance to play against professionals. A lot of W-League and WPSL clubs have college players in their ranks and the tournament could act as a shop window for these players.
- It would help strengthen the U.S. women’s soccer’s pyramid. If WPS, the W-League and WPSL all knew that they would be probably be playing each other’s teams annually it would help with provide better insight into their league counterparts. This could help further develop partnerships between each league.
- It’s nice (and often underappreciated) that there’s a professional/semi-professional women’s soccer team in nearly every state in a country as big as the United States. A Women’s U.S. Open Cup would only help highlight that.
- It could create local rivalries or derbies that wouldn’t otherwise be there. Imagine the traveling support if say, Pali Blues was drawn against FC Gold Pride. Or the Long Island Fury matched up with Sky Blue FC.
- It would create storylines, drama and there would be the opportunity for an upset. There’s nothing sweeter than a small, amateur side defeating a team stacked with internationals. This tournament could be rife with that.
- It’s footballing tradition. Plain and simple, league cups hold just as much tradition as the seventh-inning stretch does in baseball. It harkens back to the community-driven, egalitarian heart of the sport.
- Fixture congestion. In the format that I’ve sketched up, a WPS team who would advance to the Final would have played 6 Open Cup matches. And considering the W-League and WPSL really operate as summer leagues, that would mean the tournament would probably take place over the course of the summer. Would this be too taxing on the teams who already have full schedules? And how would international competitions play into this? Also, teams of the top flight usually don’t enter a tournament like this until the later rounds but I only included every WPS team in the second round because it made sense mathematically.
- To continue on this point, would WPS teams take it seriously? A reason why the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup just doesn’t have the gravitas of other league cups around the world is because a lot of MLS teams just don’t care. They field poor squads in case of injury or for the sake of resting their starters. Thus the quality suffers. Would anyone care if WPS teams don’t?
- Who would run and organize it? And who would market it? National football federations around the world typically run their own league cups but it appears as if the U.S. Open Cup is independently run and the U.S. Open Cup is run by USSF (thanks for the correction). Would USSF care to shoulder the responsibility of a women’s counterpart? Who would make the rules, conduct the draw, and oversee day-to-day operations of the cup? How much more responsibility would WPS or the W-League or WPSL have to carry to get the competition up and running?
- How would the draw work? Typically it’s done randomly but who would get to host the individual matches? Would smaller teams who could potentially earn more money be favored or would WPS teams who would also be happy to earn more match day earnings be entitled? Or would picking the hosts be random?
- Technicalities. A lot of W-League and WPSL teams field college players who want to continue playing during the summer. Would it be an NCAA or FIFA violation if these teams travel and play against fully professional sides? (I would assume not as per NCAA rules, a collegiate player can play against professional teams bu tnot alongside them. And a team is still an amateur team if none of its players get paid)
- Travel expenses. Would teams be willing to hoof the bill to travel all the way across the country for a weekday game against an obscure team? Perhaps the tournament would need to be regionalized.
- Media coverage. The U.S. Open Cup still does not have a TV contract so what chances does that give its female counterpart? Next to none maybe. Would the media (even the soccer media) be interested in this kind of thing?
- Would it just be a burden? WPS is still a very young league obviously and perhaps it’s too premature to start thinking about adding an additional tournament that its teams would need to play in. Maybe it’s better to keep all of its eggs in one basket for now.
- Would attendance figures really be that high? Recent U.S. Women’s National Team matches have been, uh, sparsely-attended as of late so would it be too much to expect high gates at places like Tulsa and Spokane? Even if it could feature some of the world’s top player it’s still women who play soccer which doesn’t typically move the dial.
- Would it even matter? Again going back to relative lack of interest in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, Americans don’t seem to care or understand the romance of a league cup. Women’s league cups have a place in countries like England and Germany because there’s a set tradition for that, but here in the States would people generally care?
So what are your thoughts? Could we ever see a Women’s U.S. Open Cup?