Cup Fever

The Lamar Hunt US Open Cup kicks into high gear this weekend.  As always, you can follow the lion's share of the action a.  The marquee matchup, or at least the most anticipated, will be the New York Red Bulls against the New York Cosmos. 

It would be easy to call this the Copa del Misnomer, since neither team actually plays in New York City.  At least the Cosmos play in the state of New York.  On the other hand, well, everything else about the so-called Cosmos.

Now that Chivas USA are finally due for a makeover, the Cosmos hold the title for the most irritatingly fake team in the nation - maybe the whole world.  Their connection to the NASL team is tenuous enough to make Portland and Seattle fans shake their heads in contempt.  Their fans have bought into a cynical mixture of fraud and necrophilia funded by the people that brought you Qatar '22.  Their league has turned a number of vibrant, viable fanbases across the nation into a bunch of extras in the back of a struggling marketing campaign to bring back the fun and excitement of the Ford administration. 

It's one thing to reject a New Jersey team, or one awash in corporate ooze.  But if a Long Island team had to be the alternative, what exactly was wrong with the Roughriders?

Red Bulls fans, especially those who began life as Metrostars fans, have had the most difficult, arduous and frustrating experience of all MLS fans, except for MAYBE San Jose fans.  Their generally lousy team goes from a miserable experience in a doomed NFL stadium with troglodytic security to a rebirth as caffeinated corporate billboards in a park that, whatever its virtues, has been a poster child for civic irresponsibility - meanwhile, their own league spends what can comfortably be described as a buttload of money trying to create a competitor and alternative that in its own way is as commercialized as Red Bull.  And they have to put up with the Cosmos too?  It's enough to drive one to drink, even though for many Red Bulls fans it would be a waste of gasoline.

Maybe I'm projecting, and RBNY fans would far rather win regular season games against their main MLS rivals - pretty much everyone east of the Pecos - than concentrate on the Open Cup.  But that leads us to the topic of how the USSF markets its senior competition.

The irony of a team called the Cosmos pinning its hopes on the Open Cup hopefully has escaped few, because the original Cosmos, like the rest of the original NASL, avoided the tournament entirely.  MLS participation has indisputably breathed new life into the tournament, but for many teams the reward is not commensurate with the effort.  MLS has dominated the tournament since 1996, but have also provided on-paper upsets more or less annually.  One of the reasons a lower division team hasn't won the tournament since 1999 is that MLS has absorbed many of the lower division teams capable of winning it.

The Open Cup isn't devoid of advantages for MLS teams, especially those which control their facilities or have unusually dedicated supporter bases.  The Sounders have been given more or less instant credibility by winning the tournament, etching their names into American soccer history alongside Bethlehem Steel and Ponta Delgada.  The benefits of promoting this history are intangible, but nevertheless worthwhile. 

But, as I've probably said elsewhere, the Open Cup, to an MLS team, is brown mustard.  It makes the hot dog of an MLS Cup even better, but on its own, or even spread on the bun of a Supporters Shield, it isn't nearly as satisfying.  (If I've said this before, it's because it's such an awesome metaphor.)  Even getting to spread that mustard is fraught with peril, since MLS teams aren't deep enough to send people to the bread aisle, the condiment aisle, and the lunch meat case at the same time.  (Hm, maybe I'm stretching the metaphor too far.) 

And needless to say, if the tangible rewards for winning the Open Cup are minor, the benefits of nearly winning are miniscule indeed.  Focusing on other competitions (or, if you're the Galaxy, international friendlies) also amplifies the risk of embarrassment.  Let's hope that coaches and general managers can be persuaded or reminded that it is worth their clubs' time - starting with the Red Bulls.

One of the other terrific things about the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup is its status as the...well, this gets confusing.  And I blame myself.  A few years ago I called the Open Cup the second oldest continuously-contested cup competition in the world (which was true) and one of the oldest cup competitions outside the British Isles, if not the oldest (which was not).  I've read a few sites call the Open Cup the third oldest in the world, which isn't close to true.

I've tried to nail this down before, and in fairness, the main conclusion has not been disputed.  The US Open Cup has been contested every year without fail since its establishment in 1913.  Only what is now the Northern Ireland FA Cup has been contested every year for longer. 

Aside from that, the picture is both murky and surprising.  If people are surprised that the United States has been contesting a cup competition for so long, it's even more surprising who has been at it for longer. 

For the purposes of this conversation, we are talking about nationwide cup competitions.  Ideally they would be run by that country's federation, but there are one or two weird exceptions.  I'll let you decide whether they belong on the list.  Most, but not all, of the research here was based on the RSSSF Archive - but even they missed a couple. 

England started the whole business in 1872.

Scotland, tagging along their big brothers as usual, followed suit in 1874.

I wonder why people keep forgetting about Wales, which has run a cup competition since 1877.  Okay, they let English clubs in for a long time, and nowadays have kicked out a couple of Welsh teams.  But still.  I mean, how do people think teams like The New Saints get into the Europa League, by winning a sweepstakes?

I've gone on about Northern Ireland in the past, but the next year they miss a competition will be the first.  Considering the, er, troubles due to its ambiguous political status, it's pretty amazing they've kept at it since 1880.

The Durand Cup of India has been around since 1888.  They bill themselves as the third oldest competition in the world, which, as you can see, is a howling lie.  It's also not organized by the Indian FA, and for a big chunk of its history was contested only by British military teams.  Still, it's a national tournament, the oldest outside the British Isles, and it has a more or less traceable history.  It's not the shakiest inclusion on this list.

I realize it's not its own country by any means.  I realize its association is a member of neither FIFA nor UEFA.  And I realize that it's a nation with the population of Sioux City.  Nevertheless, all hail the FA Cup of the Isle of Man, contested since 1889.

Speaking of the British Empire, what do you do with Singapore?  Their cup competition began in 1892 as an amateur cup, became pro-am in 1953, sputtered a bit until being renamed the President's Cup in 1975, then the Singapore FA Cup in 1995 - and then turned back into an amateur competition in 1998.  Meanwhile, the city-state was part of the British Empire, part of the Japanese Empire, British again, briefly a part of Malaysia, then its own republic. 

And then there's nonsense like Gibraltar.  The competition begins in 1895, takes a little break until 19-freaking-35, then takes another break, not for World War II, because of all the military teams, but from 1953 to 1973?  BullSITH that's the same competition.  But I can't prove it, yet.  Hopefully Spain annexes the place, abolishes their independent league, and we can get on with our lives.

The Netherlands have had a cup competition since 1899...with more than a few hiccups.  What was it about the 1950's that made everyone want to cancel their cups?

I didn't realize Norway were such early adopters of the cup format, considering in 1902 they hadn't yet divorced from Sweden.  Only Nazis kept them from holding it every year since then.  Sweden, in case you were wondering, didn't start its own cup until 1941.

Spain has held the Copa del Rey, aka Copa del Presidente and Copa del Generalisimo, since 1902.  Weirdly, Real Madrid is third on the list of most frequent winners, after Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao (who have not won it since 1984).

Hungary first awarded the official Magyar Kopa in the 1909/1910 season - and I think I didn't look these guys up the first time because I didn't think they had their own country until after World War I.  My bad.  They've taken several breaks with the usual pitiful excuses of wars and Soviet invasions.  Weirdly, they did contest the competition in the heat of World War II.

And now for something completely different.  Barbados has contested a cup competition since 1910...with quite a few breaks.  They played through World War I, but took a break between 1928 and 1947.  Then they missed 1951.  Then every year from 1953 to 1959.  Then from 1960 to 1990, it was contested 14 times.  They've since gotten it going again consistently - their semifinals are this weekend - but it's a pretty checkered history, even by this subject's standards.

Belgium isn't a surprising entry here, I guess, beginning in 1912.  What's unusual is that it was contested a grand total of eight times from 1912 to 1964.  It's this sort of thing that leads one to question whether it is really the same tournament today as then.  It would be like reviving the name of an NASL franchise and claiming it's the same team, or something ridiculous like that.

The Shetland Islands is a surprising entry, and I don't know how to classify it at all.  They have their own FA...recognized by no one, and they are affiliated with the Scottish amateur FA.  The Madrid Cup has been contested since 1912.  I don't know why it's called that, or whether the whole county's teams (which can't be that many) were represented.  Maybe Spain can take this over, too.

The Canadian National Challenge Cup is...okay, well, you tell me whether it belongs.  Established in 1913 as an amateur competition, it was opened to pros in 1927...but a few years ago, the CSA established a top level cup competition that now gets most of the oxygen in the room.  But the Challenge Cup is still around, and there's not really anything apart from the risk of humiliation preventing Canada's pro teams from returning.  Sorry about the Wikipedia link, but the CSA doesn't show as much history on its site

And then there's us.

So, to conclude, the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup is:

The seventeenth oldest cup competition in the world (whee).

The eleventh oldest cup competition outside the British Isles (whee).

The fifth oldest cup competition outside Europe (whee).

The third oldest cup competition in the Western Hemisphere (which in general could take or leave the whole nationwide cup thing).

And, of course, the second oldest continuously-contested cup competition in the world.  Which is pretty good. 

At least it shows we're not going to let a few Germans spoil our fun.

(Edited, after some thought, to include Gibraltar and Shetland.  I'll probably change my mind again.)