Wednesday, November 9, 2011
Extreme Makeover – Open Cup Edition: What It All Means
While the reported changes likely upcoming for the 2012 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup and future editions of the tournament will create a simpler competition calendar for Major League Soccer, it will certainly be a paradigm shift for the amateur levels of the sport.
Major League Soccer
For MLS, there are two main changes. The first is that it will mark the first time since 2006 that all of its clubs have competed in the event, marking an end to its internal qualification process used since 2007. In 2006, however, the league had 12 clubs based in the United States to the 16 it now has.
The second change is in the schedule. With the change in the confederation’s club championship to the new CONCACAF Champions League, club competition schedules have grown in complexity, burden and exertion. Seattle, Los Angeles and Dallas – for example – were all balancing the US Open Cup, CCL and the race for the Supporters’ Shield at the same time. They also had to manage the loss of players for international duty, primarily for the Gold Cup. Whilst the Open Cup and CCL are midweek contests, the travel demands to hot and humid nations in the vast confederation make the off days just as demanding as game days.
Bumping the Open Cup up earlier and concluding the competition before August greatly streamlines the MLS calendar. The Open Cup would begin for MLS clubs approximately two months into their campaigns. If MLS again lightens its schedule during heavy international dates, teams will be able to manage the additional Open Cup matches while players are away. Last year, the CCL Preliminary Round was held the last week of July and first of August with the Group Phase beginning two weeks later. The six group matches were spread mostly throughout August and September, wrapping up after a three-week layoff mid-October, just prior to the final weekend of the league season. This year, the Open Cup champion Sounders had only two midweek dates off from the time they began the Preliminary Round of the CCL July 26 to the Open Cup Championship October 4 – a span of nine weeks.
But what does this mean for the lower divisions?
USL Pro & NASL (pending sanctioning)
For the pro leagues, this would also reduce congestion prior to the postseason, which begin earlier than MLS. Teams who are fortunate to find success in the Open Cup will not be penalized with having to sacrifice their race for a playoff berth or the ability to win a league championship in favor of trying to make Open Cup history.
PDL, NPSL & USASA
The amateur flight, however, is not so fortunate. For nearly all of the Modern Pro Era (95-present), the amateur leagues and organizations have had until approximately June 1st to determine the qualified teams for the berths allotted to each. That proved workable in the USASA regional qualifying calendar with the four regions holding their respective tournaments in the month leading up to the deadline. For the PDL, and newly added via direct berths NPSL, it meant at least a month of league play could be fit in, allowing the leagues to determine in their own fashion how to determine berths.
For USASA regional and state associations, moving Open Cup qualifying events is no small task. Regional competitions are often held in conjunction with other tournaments, possibly affecting the entire slate of events within the system in a given region. That is not an easy process to manage changes given the fairly independent nature of the state associations and their own varied qualifying processes to determine entrants for the regional events.
While the leagues will not have to change their schedules, one of the great byproducts of that previous June 1 deadline has been the longstanding system utilized by the PDL. Four matches doubled as qualification contests with the winners from the conference or division, depending on number of berths available, advancing to the tournament in what were essentially must-win matches. It created a dynamic start to the season and delivered berths on recent merit to clubs that had proven a capability to play under pressure.
That drama will very likely be lost now. With collegiate players, who make up the majority of PDL and NPSL rosters, unavailable until May 1, the same date as the proposed new deadline, the two leagues will undoubtedly resort to handing out berths based on the previous season’s performance – the exact qualifying method MLS has been using for six of eight entrants since 2007.
With the Open Cup First Round slated to now be May 15, there is still very slight hope we could see some early season drama in the PDL.
Here is what I would like to see in PDL Qualifying:
With the expansion of the amateur pool doubling to 32, it is possible the PDL’s allotment of berths will at least double based on the league’s size and success over the years, along with the off-field standards most can meet in comparison to the USASA sides. With that doubled number being 16, it would not be hard to fathom an extra two slots (18) to make it a balanced tally of two per division.
It’s easy to assign those to berths to the top two in the table from the year before, but that would basically just be the playoff teams, adding little in exchange for the loss of intrigue from the opening of the season. It would also expand the gaps between the elite sides and the others as having Open Cup berths in hand will drastically alter the player recruiting landscape throughout the league, reducing parity. The top two teams would attract better players with the allure of facing professional clubs, possibly MLS, and cement themselves as the better teams for the whole of the season, increasing the odds of finishing in the top two once again – the same cycle seen in collegiate sports.
One of the longstanding issues in the PDL has been increasing the depth of the playoff chase within divisions beyond the top two or three teams in the final weeks. The Open Cup berths could be the answer
If USL could get an exemption from US Soccer to hold a special Qualification Match Window of May 1-4 (Tue-Fri), the league could expand the qualification pool to four per division and hold playoff matches with at least 11 days to spare before the First Round. The First Round scenarios would still be fully known and prepared for as the division champions play the fourth seed while the second and third seeds square off in the other match. With those seeds and matchups predetermined, the league can easily arrange the matches as part of the league schedule, doubling them up as they have before, or add them in as special independent contests.
The most important thing is that it would expand the late-season intrigue from the usual depth of 2-3 teams to 4-6, in some instances keeping nearly the entire division in competition at the close of the campaign. It would keep a taste of the early-season drama in the league’s profile, and would also serve as a filter to ensure the teams entering the tournament have some recent merit to there resume – an important element considering the high amount of player turnover in the PDL from the close of the previous season nine months prior.