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OPINION: My Open Cup Joy is Fading

The magic of the cup is fading for me personally.

SOCCER: SEP 20 US Open Cup - New York Red Bulls at Sporting Kansas City Photo by Andy Mead/YCJ/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Since I learned about it, the US Open Cup has always been one of my favorite parts of the season in MLS. The idea that any team in the US could qualify and play in the tournament was something I at the time thought was really cool. It is a unique feature of soccer that no other sport in the United States does. As a fan of the Kansas City Wizards at the time, and someone who liked to follow the minor leagues in US soccer as best I could it was also appealing to potentially see Kansas City face teams that they wouldn’t normally see in league play. It also had its benefit as being the “easiest” way to qualify for the CONCACAF Champions League, you win four or five games and you’ve qualified for the CCL.

Fast forward 20-25 years and unfortunately my excitement for the US Open Cup has started to fade. I still enjoy watching the games when they’re on ESPN+, or back when they were on YouTube or streamed on team websites. Unfortunately, where my excitement for the competition is fading is when it comes to Sporting KC’s play in the tournament. Seeing them lift three trophies in the last ten years has been fantastic, I always love seeing KC lift trophies. But it comes down to who Kansas City is facing in the tournament that is causing my frustration. Last night US Soccer held the draw for the round of sixteen as well as the quarterfinal hosting options. Kansas City was grouped with the Houston Dynamo and Minnesota United from MLS and USL-1 side, Union Omaha. As we know now, Sporting was drawn to host the Dynamo on Wednesday May 25th at Children’s Mercy Park.

In the last six US Open Cups (2015-2019, 2022), Kansas City has played eighteen games counting the upcoming game against the Dynamo. In those eighteen games, Kansas City has played sixteen against MLS competition and have had sixteen of the last seventeen against MLS competition. It’s become a bit of a drag and a bit boring to continually end up playing against MLS opposition who you are already playing two or more times already in league play.

It becomes even more boring and more of a drag when you end up facing the same opposition time and again in the competition. Over the past eighteen games in the US Open Cup, Kansas City will have played Houston a grand total of five times, more than any other match up among MLS teams over the same six year stretch of tournaments. Basically, it means that Kansas City and Houston have faced each other in all but one of the last six tournaments.

Kansas City has played FC Dallas four times over that same stretch, only the New York Red Bulls and Philadelphia Union have met up as often in the competition. Then Kansas City has played Minnesota United three times in the tournament, though one of those games was when Minnesota was still in the NASL, the year before they joined MLS.

Put a different way, Kansas City has played Houston or Dallas in half (nine) of their last eighteen US Open Cup games. Add in Minnesota and Kansas City has played two-thirds of their games against those three teams. KC’s last five games in the competition (a span of three tournaments) have been against those three teams. Add in games against Real Salt Lake (twice), Philadelphia (one), New York (one), and the San Jose Earthquakes (one) and Kansas City has played sixteen of seventeen against MLS competition, and the one minor league team was less than a year away from joining MLS. The only other team outside MLS that KC has played was St. Louis FC back in the fourth round of the 2015 competition.

The question then becomes, well how does Kansas City compare to the other MLS teams when it comes to facing MLS competition? And if you know me or have read any of my other pieces that involve numbers, you know I’ve dug into that as well. Using the last six tournaments I looked at all the match ups involving MLS teams whether it was MLS vs MLS or MLS vs another league.

What I found first of all is that Kansas City has played the most games in the US Open Cup since 2015, eighteen, tied with their next opponent, Houston. Two teams, Philadelphia and the LA Galaxy have played one game fewer with seventeen games. Four teams meanwhile have played sixteen games; New York, Dallas, Orlando City, and the Chicago Fire.

So, I can see what some people are thinking “Well Mike of course KC has played so many MLS teams, they’ve played more games in the tournament than anyone else. How many non-MLS teams have these teams played?”

Since 2015, the Houston Dynamo have played seven of their eighteen games against teams outside of MLS, the Galaxy have played eight of seventeen, the Union are the closest to Kansas City with four of their seventeen games against teams outside MLS. Of the teams that have played sixteen games, New York has played five, Dallas and Orlando each have played seven, while Chicago has actually played more games against teams outside MLS than from MLS with nine of their sixteen games against teams outside MLS.

I will admit that Kansas City isn’t the worst when it comes to facing MLS opposition in the US Open Cup though. That honor goes to the Portland Timbers, who haven’t played a single team outside MLS in their thirteen US Open Cup games they’ve played since the start of the 2015 tournament. The last time Portland played a team outside MLS was the fourth round of the 2014 tournament. In that regard Portland has played sixteen of their last seventeen games in the US Open Cup against MLS competition, just like Kansas City.

Over the span of the last six tournaments there are a few teams that have played more teams outside MLS. Some like Charlotte FC and Inter Miami are in their first tournament, FC Cincinnati is in their second. The surprising numbers are Chicago, the Columbus Crew, Colorado Rapids, and Atlanta United who have all played at least 50% of their US Open Cup games against teams outside MLS. Overall, the average percentage of games against MLS teams is about 59%, well below the almost 89% KC is at, and even further below Portland’s 100%. In the chart below you can see the break down by team.

MLS teams vs MLS US Open Cup

Since 2015 GP v Other v MLS % v Other % v MLS
Since 2015 GP v Other v MLS % v Other % v MLS
Portland 13 0 13 0.00% 100.00%
KC 18 2 16 11.11% 88.89%
Seattle 10 2 8 20.00% 80.00%
Philadelphia 17 4 13 23.53% 76.47%
LAFC 10 3 7 30.00% 70.00%
Salt Lake 10 3 7 30.00% 70.00%
New York 16 5 11 31.25% 68.75%
New England 14 5 9 35.71% 64.29%
Minnesota 11 4 7 36.36% 63.64%
San Jose 13 5 8 38.46% 61.54%
Houston 18 7 11 38.89% 61.11%
Orlando 16 7 9 43.75% 56.25%
Dallas 16 7 9 43.75% 56.25%
NYCFC 9 4 5 44.44% 55.56%
DC 11 5 6 45.45% 54.55%
LA 17 8 9 47.06% 52.94%
Nashville 2 1 1 50.00% 50.00%
Atlanta 10 5 5 50.00% 50.00%
Columbus 9 5 4 55.56% 44.44%
Colorado 9 5 4 55.56% 44.44%
Chicago 16 9 7 56.25% 43.75%
Charlotte 3 2 1 66.67% 33.33%
Inter Miami 3 2 1 66.67% 33.33%
Cincinnati 4 3 1 75.00% 25.00%
Mike Kuhn

After looking at the number of games Kansas City had played against MLS opposition, I decided to see just how many different opponents Kansas City had faced in the tournament. Because my complaint with the draw for Kansas City had centered not just on continually playing MLS teams in the competition, but continually playing the same MLS teams in the competition. Given the fact that Kansas City has twice made the finals in the six tournaments Kansas City has surely faced a variety of opponents in the tournament.

Unfortunately, that would be incorrect, of Kansas City’s eighteen games in the tournament, they’ve faced only nine different opponents in those games. The only team that’s faced less variety over that time is the previously mentioned Portland Timbers who have played just six different opponents in their thirteen games.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Orlando City, who has played sixteen games in the tournament since 2015 have faced an astonishing fifteen different opponents in those sixteen games. You can see the full list of unique opponents below.

MLS teams vs unique opponents

Since 2015 GP Different teams % vs different teams
Since 2015 GP Different teams % vs different teams
Portland 13 6 46.15%
KC 18 9 50.00%
Seattle 10 6 60.00%
Philadelphia 17 10 58.82%
LAFC 10 8 80.00%
Salt Lake 10 8 80.00%
New York 16 11 68.75%
New England 14 13 92.86%
Minnesota 11 9 81.82%
San Jose 13 8 61.54%
Houston 18 12 66.67%
Orlando 16 15 93.75%
Dallas 16 9 56.25%
NYCFC 9 7 77.78%
DC 11 10 90.91%
LA 17 14 82.35%
Nashville 2 2 100.00%
Atlanta 10 9 90.00%
Columbus 9 8 88.89%
Colorado 9 7 77.78%
Chicago 16 12 75.00%
Charlotte 3 3 100.00%
Inter Miami 3 3 100.00%
Cincinnati 4 4 100.00%
Mike Kuhn

US Soccer has taken steps to improve some of this though. This year for example sixteen MLS teams entered in the third round of the tournament and were all grouped against teams outside of MLS for their game. Because of Kansas City’s finish in MLS in 2021 they were given a bye into the fourth round of the tournament where the only caveat was, they couldn’t be put in a pod with a team that had also entered that round. That led to the match up this past week against Dallas. Given Kansas City’s league form this year KC could find themselves entering in the third-round next year unless they qualify for the CCL. Assuming US Soccer keeps the same format for MLS teams next year. With another MLS team entering in 2023, and that team being close to Kansas City, it would be Sporting’s luck that they’d somehow be matched up with St. Louis SC in the third round of the US Open Cup next year to make sixteen match ups with the other 15 MLS teams playing winners of round two.

I don’t have a great answer for this, US Soccer puts teams in geographical pods to cut down on travel costs, which is certainly understandable considering in years past there were times the Galaxy would get matched up with the Carolina Railhawks and have to travel across the country for games. One idea to assist with the travel costs that I’ve seen thrown around is to do similar to the Coupe de France where the lower division side always hosts. The idea I’ve seen would have the geographical pods go away once MLS teams enter the tournament and MLS teams would be traveling to whoever they would be matched up against. Unless of course the lower division team can’t/don’t want to host. It’s not the same as a Premier League team traveling to a League 2 side, but it is something that would build a little bit of excitement while putting the travel expenses on teams that are more equipped to deal with a flight from Kansas City to Richmond as an example.

Obviously, this plan isn’t fool proof, because do you go back to a pod for the next round when there are cup sets and you have the potential of drawing someone like Central Valley Fuego traveling to play the Maryland Bobcats?

Would a title sponsor help with the cost of travel? Maybe but would it help that much that you could do away with geographical pods? I don’t think so, the US Open Cup for its uniqueness and fun is also a fairly niche competition in the US still. I’m not convinced a title sponsor would be that big of a monetary boom for the competition.

There’s really not a great answer to the question of how you improve the tournament in terms of the draw. The spread of the teams around the country makes geographical podding make a lot of sense. As I said above, it just gets frustrating that a cup that I love and enjoy has become less so because of the fact that the team I support continually gets draw not just against the same opponents, but against the same opponents that they already see multiple times over the course of the league season.