U.S. Soccer announced this week their plan to host a smaller U.S. Open Cup tournament for 2021, in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The current plan is for the competition to be a 24-team tournament, scaled well back from the usual years where the size of the tournament is three or four times that. U.S. Soccer also announced they have plans to scrap the opening round and make the tournament even smaller if necessary.
Since the tournament will be smaller, that means not every pro American team that’s independently owned will get in as per usual. In fact, the USL Championship is tabbed just eight entrants total for 2021, although MLS is also getting just eight entrants, too.
So how will the eight USL Championship clubs get their berths? Well, short answer is to be determined, but I can see a few potential scenarios:
2020 regular season finish
If the league goes with this as the method, Sacramento Republic would appear to have an inside track at a berth. In 2020, the league was divided into eight groups. That symmetrical math is great, because they could neatly go with the group winners to get the USOC berths, right?
But wait, you may recall, Sac Republic did not actually win their group. That is correct, of course, but the team that finished ahead of them, Reno 1868 FC, has subsequently gone out of business. Sac Republic is the top finisher in Group A among teams that still exist.
I would think this would be the easiest way to mete out the eight slots, and obviously Republic FC would like it to be like this because then they’ll get a ticket. And with a 24-team field, they would have to like their chances to possibly make a deep run. Oh, it gets exciting just thinking about it all...
But what about:
2020 playoff performance
Yeah, this could be the way, too, and it’s not as kind to Sac Republic. The playoffs had 16 teams in it, and Sacramento were knocked out in controversial fashion in the opening round by Phoenix Rising. If the USL just picks the conference semifinalists, then SRFC are out in the cold. And since the league didn’t get to crown a champion because the final between Phoenix and the Tampa Bay Rowdies was called off, they may be tempted to go this route as a “reward” for the final eight teams in the playoffs last year. So it’s possible, too. We’ll see.
And then there’s...
Flip a coin
Here’s the literal chaos option, having some kind of coin flip or randomizer algorithm to decide which teams get in. I find this option to be paradoxically extremely fair — it’s just the luck of the draw! — and the most unfair — there’s no competition tie-in, maybe the worst teams or teams that don’t give a damn about the tournament will get in. With 23 eligible USL Championship sides, the odds would be somewhere between 35 percent and 50 percent, depending on the random method used.
Given the USL Championship season is supposed to start on or around May 1, and the Open Cup opening round, with USL Championship clubs, is supposed to start on or around May 4, it seems unlikely that 2021 performance could have any bearing on berths for the Open Cup. I think there’s a good chance, therefore, that they’ll use 2020 regular season performance as the method, but we’ve never seen something like this before, and honestly who knows how they’ll figure it out. I hope Sac Republic is in it, but we’ll have to see what happens.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.