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Format for abbreviated U.S. Open Cup a devastating blow to amateur clubs

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Field for 2021 competition reduced from 36 amateur clubs to 4

Matt Ralph

After waiting through the cancelation of the 2020 U.S. Open Cup, local amateur clubs were met with even more devastating news about the 2021 competition this week with the announcement that the field will be narrowed from 101 teams to just 24.

That means clubs like Vereinigung Erzgebirge, which qualified for the first time since 2002 way back in November 2019, first-time qualifier Atlantic City FC and West Chester United are likely to be waiting yet another year to participate in the oldest competition in U.S. soccer.

Out of 36 amateur teams that qualified through local qualifying rounds like VE did in 2019 or through performance in the NPSL during the 2019 season like Atlantic City and West Chester, just four will be represented in the field.

Reading United, which qualified after making the USL League Two final in 2019, withdrew from the 2020 competition when the first round (that was never played) was moved to March so they are presumably not in consideration for one of the four spots.

The Philadelphia Union, meanwhile, will likely be seeded as one of the eight MLS squads by virtue of winning the Supporters’ Shield in 2020. A blind draw or going off where teams finished in the 2019 competition (the Union lost their first and only match in the fourth round) though could mean that there isn’t a single local team represented in the competition field for 2021.

U.S. Soccer hasn’t yet announced how the teams will be chosen, just that the field will be drastically reduced to the point of it no longer being the same competition.

This leaves little hope for local teams that have already lost so much from competitions being suspended or canceled to at least have the Open Cup back on their calendar.

While the MLS teams that miss out on the competition will be fine — some of them barely take it seriously as it is — so much of the magic of the tournament and the frenzied early rounds of “cupsets” will be missing.

Even for the four amateur clubs that do get invites, it will be hard to justify why they belong and not so many of the other teams that worked just as hard to get to what is one of the pinnacles of amateur soccer.

As painful as it was seeing the U.S. Open Cup canceled last year because of Covid-19, it’s hard not to argue that canceling it again might not be the best option considering the oxymoron of calling a competition “open” that is anything but.