Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Keeping Interest Alive: The US Open Cup

Article by William Schulz

In case you missed it, there were 16 matches played across the country in the first round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. This season marks the 99th edition of the tournament, though last week’s opening round came and went without much fanfare. The tournament has steadily increased in relevance the past few seasons, but remains a shadow of what many enthusiasts feel it could (and should) be.

One such enthusiast is Josh Hakala of TheCup.us, the premier website for information on the United States’ oldest soccer tournament. From the amateur qualifying matches in April to the final whistle in August, Josh and his all-volunteer staff leave no stone unturned to bring the latest Open Cup news to the soccer-loving masses.

I had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Mr. Hakala and talk about his love for the tournament, how he feels the Cup can grow, and more.

William Schulz: How long have you been covering the U.S. Open Cup, be it on your own or "professionally"?

Josh Hakala: “As a fan, I discovered it in 1999 when the Tampa Bay Mutiny came up to Saginaw, Michigan to play an Open Cup game against the Mid-Michigan Bucks. It was a close game, finished 2-1, but it was a packed stadium at a middle school. Seeing Carlos Valderrama and company on the field at a middle school in Saginaw was enough to hook me. I didn't start TheCup.us until 2003, while I was hosting an American soccer radio show based in Lansing, Michigan ("The Soccer Fanatics Radio Show") and then we launched USOpenCup.com with the website company Demosphere.”
William Schulz: What has been your favorite match or story in that time?

Josh Hakala: “I would say I have two moments where I was hooked on the tournament. 1999 was a good year to discover the Open Cup. I went to see the Tampa Bay Mutiny / Mid-Michigan Bucks game in Saginaw, and then attended the 1999 Final at Columbus Crew Stadium and got to see the Rochester Rhinos become the first, and to this day, the only, non-MLS team to win the title since 1996. It was a pretty special year for me.”

“Funny story, I had Ian Feuer on my radio show in 2003 and we got to talking about moments where we fell in love with the sport, or favorite games we've attended in person. I told him I thought the 1999 US Open Cup Final stands out as my favorite moment, which was super awkward because I had forgotten that he was the goalkeeper for the Colorado Rapids that night and he said, politely, ‘Wow, actually, that's one of my worst nightmares.’”

 William Schulz: What is it about this tournament drives you to cover it as thoroughly as you do without compensation?

Josh Hakala: “I think the driving force behind this, aside from obviously having a strong interest in the tournament is the notion of 'if I didn't do this, who would?' This started 10 years ago, and I really wonder what the tournament would be like if we hadn't started the site. It would probably be relegated to discussions on BigSoccer.com.”

“The tournament also opened the door for me to get broadcasting experience early on in my career. I remember in 2003, for example, there was the Milwaukee derby between Bavarian SC and Milwaukee Wave United and I just called them up and asked if they were broadcasting the game. They said they weren't and I volunteered to do it. Since I worked at a radio station at Lansing Community College, we had equipment we could check out, so I got permission, drove 5 hours or so to Milwaukee and did the play by play for the game. The Chicago Fire played the winner of that game in the next round, so I contacted Peter Wilt and asked if they were broadcasting THAT game, and he said they weren't, and once again, I just volunteered to do it. Great experience for a college kid looking to break into broadcasting.”

William Schulz: The Open Cup is the oldest tournament in American soccer, yet TheCup.us is the only website to really provide in-depth coverage of all its stages. Why do you think that’s the case?

Josh Hakala: “I really couldn't say. Maybe when they were picking teams during the internet boom in the 90s, the Open Cup just didn't get picked? It was already a very niche tournament, unfortunately, and I just think it got missed. You would think the people who run the tournament would have thought of it, but alas, we are where we are today.”

William Schulz: The USSF doesn't seem too interested in promoting the tournament, never any news on the front page of ussoccer.com. Why the lack of promotion?
Josh Hakala: “I honestly couldn't tell you. There's a lot of things like you rarely even see any tweets from their twitter account about it.”

“I think it's just that they have bigger fish to fry. They focus their efforts on the national team programs because that's what makes money. Can't really blame them for focusing on the bottom line, but you could make the case that if they focused even a little bit on the Open Cup, it could be a profitable enterprise.”

William Schulz: Do you think increased USSF presence and promotion could benefit the Open Cup?

Josh Hakala: “Absolutely. I think that's the main problem, really. I think the tournament sells itself. It's something we don't have in any of the other major sports in this country. Americans love a good underdog story and drama and this tournament has it”.

“If you can just increase the awareness, a lot of other things would fall into place. Attendance would go up; games would be more attractive to TV. If you get more games on TV, that increases your revenue with advertising. It would really be a snowball effect, in my opinion. It wouldn't be an overnight thing by any stretch, but I think if you just start by promoting it to your base, then that would be a tremendous first step. I mean, there are soccer fans in this country who don't know what the Open Cup is. That I think is the biggest head-shaker of this entire situation.” 

William Schulz: Some states have few or no entries year after year. Would you attribute that to the absence of what you just listed, or is something else afoot?

Josh Hakala: “Well, in talking to a lot of teams and state officials, a lot of it is cost. It does cost a lot of money to play in a national tournament. But I just have a hard time believing there isn't a SINGLE team in over half the states in this country who, if asked, would turn down a chance to get a bye into the regional tournament and put themselves 2-3 wins away from the US Open Cup proper.”

“Take a state like Ohio, who, according to my records, has had THREE teams since 1995 enter Open Cup qualifying. THREE. And last I checked, they play a little bit of soccer in the state of Ohio. Between Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland, Akron, Dayton, there has to be ONE team.”

“My home state of Michigan is the same way; they seem to promote the Amateur Cup, but not really the Open Cup. Not sure why. I think it’s a lack of awareness for the teams. I don't think a lot of the state associations even promote the tournament to their teams. That's just the impression I get in talking to people. Especially the teams that contact me and ask how to qualify. They tell me, 'a friend asked me why we don't compete in the Open Cup, and I said I don't even know what that is.' Sadly I've heard some version of that story more than a few times over the years.”

William Schulz: Next year will mark the 100th edition of the U.S. Open Cup. What would you like to see done to commemorate the occasion?

Josh Hakala: “I had planned to write a book ready for the 100th year, but I realized that with everything I have on my plate, kids, full-time job, freelance broadcasting, I barely have time to keep up with the current tournament and keeping the site going, so that might have to wait a while. Maybe I'll pick some random year like 'The US Open Cup: The first 106 years.' I'm not really sure what anyone can do. We've got some great ideas that we have planned that will honor the past on TheCup.us, but that's really all I can worry about is what I do.”

William Schulz: Any final thoughts you would like to add?

Josh Hakala: “The US Open Cup is the most underrated sporting event we have in this country and I'm doing what I can to promote it and preserve its great history. Hopefully people appreciate the work we've put into it and maybe someday it'll get the recognition it deserves. We're working on a complete redesign of the site, which takes a lot of volunteer work, so if anyone wants to get involved, there's always something to be done. If anyone is interested in being a part of it, just use the 'contact us' link on the website, or send us a message on Twitter.”

Is the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup worthy of more USSF attention, or is it a relic best left in the proverbial closet next to the defunct leagues of days gone by? That is for the fans, the lifeblood of American soccer, to decide.


  1. Hakala's website definitely helped me when I was eating up everything I could about US soccer and Open Cup is something I'd love to see grow every year.

  2. I think it is a valuable relic that should continue to grow. It seems Seattle laid the groundwork for the new MLS interest in the Cup. However, the most important push has been MLS teams' desire to qualify for Champions Leauge. It's very valuable that the winner competes in CL. Good tournament that will continue to grow in importance.

  3. Not sure why the USSF doesn't work out somethign with Fox since they lost the MLS. They should go after dead periods in the sports world like the Sunday before and Wednesday directly after the MLB all star game allowing them to get on TV without a lot of other competition which would help with getting highlights shown around to places like ESPN. Do the quarters on that Sunday using all afternoon and evening if desired and use Wednesday prime time for 2 nationally televised games as the Semi's, and hope that it can bring in interest from the common people for the Final as well. Just a thought since you have less competition on those days and it seems to fit timing wise. Sure the MLS would have to work with them as far as scheduling, but I think they would want to if they're wanting to promote this tournament as well!