MLS to enter eight teams in U.S. Open Cup along with 11 MLS Next Pro teams


U.S. Soccer and MLS made it official on Friday that eight of MLS’s 26 eligible teams will take part in the 2024 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

The federation and the league announced jointly that this year’s edition of the single-elimination tournament will also include 11 MLS Next Pro teams (including nine MLS reserve teams and two independent clubs), and full participation by lower divisions within the United Soccer Leagues (USL) and National Independent Soccer Association (NISA).

Eight of the nine U.S.-based MLS teams taking part in the CONCACAF Champions Cup will not play in the Open Cup, nor will their MLS Next Pro affiliates. The Houston Dynamo is the lone exception, and will play in the domestic tournament to defend their 2023 Open Cup title. The next seven highest-ranked teams from the 2023 MLS Supporters’ Shield standings will fill out the remainder of the eight slots for MLS teams in the tournament. Nine of the 10 remaining U.S.-based MLS teams will have their MLS Next Pro teams compete. D.C. United is the lone MLS team to have no participation in either the U.S. Open Cup or CONCACAF Champions Cup. D.C. has no MLS Next Pro team and finished 23rd in the Supporters’ Shield standings in 2023.

MLS team competitions in 2024

2023 standing

  

Team

2024 Competition(s)

  

10

Open Cup

25

Next Pro in Open Cup

19

Next Pro in Open Cup

24

Next Pro in Open Cup

1

Champions Cup

28

Next Pro in Open Cup

3

Champions Cup

23

No participation

14

Open Cup

9

Champions Cup + Open Cup

15

Open Cup

26

Next Pro in Open Cup

8

Open Cup

27

Champions Cup

21

Next Pro in Open Cup

20

Champions Cup + Canadian Championship

12

Champions Cup

6

Champions Cup

22

Next Pro in Open Cup

17

Next Pro in Open Cup

2

Champions Cup

5

Champions Cup

18

Next Pro in Open Cup

11

Open Cup

16

Open Cup

7

Open Cup

4

Champions Cup

29

Canadian Championship

13

Champions Cup + Canadian Championship

U.S. Soccer also announced it will make “its largest-ever investment in the tournament” with four new commercial partners and with “enhanced financial incentives for participating teams, including significantly increased travel reimbursement.”

The shift seems to be a direct response to calls from MLS leadership for the U.S. Soccer Federation to do more to promote the tournament and to carry some of the costs associated with the games. MLS commissioner Don Garber said last month that MLS will “support the U.S. Open Cup, but we’re not going to do it in a way where the entire onus on making that tournament work is on Major League Soccer. … At this point we’re subsidizing that tournament.”

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MLS executive Nelson Rodriguez pointed to improved financial conditions as an important improvement in this year’s edition of the tournament. He said the economics for all participants in the tournament was critical, including greater incentives to host games and the federation covering travel reimbursements that will aid amateur teams in the tournament.

“The tournament merits having standards that are befitting a championship,” Rodriguez said. “Those standards can apply to venues and fields and broadcast production. We believe that improved economics were important for all teams. Simply, no team should participate in the U.S. Open Cup at a loss. (It) didn’t didn’t make sense to us; we didn’t think that that was fair or befitting. And the tournament would benefit by improved marketing and prize money.”

The first round of this year’s Open Cup will consist of 32 games with 32 amateur clubs from the open division meeting 32 professional teams from Division III. The Open Division representatives include 11 Qualifying Round winners, 11 USL League Two teams, eight NPSL teams, the USASA National Amateur Cup champion and the UPSL Spring Champion. Division III representatives include 12 USL League One teams, nine NISA teams and 11 MLS Next Pro teams.

The winners of the first round will play each other in the second round of the tournament.

The 16 winners of the second round will then face 16 Division II pro teams from the USL championship in the third round. The remaining eight USL Championship teams and eight MLS teams will then enter in the Round of 32, along with winners from the third round.

The eight USL Championship teams entering in the round of 32 include 2023 league champion Phoenix Rising FC and the next seven best teams from 2023 standings.

“First and foremost, I want to extend my sincere gratitude to all our members for their invaluable input over the past couple of months — sharing with us the reasons the U.S. Open Cup is so great, and what we can do to make it even better,” U.S. Soccer CEO JT Batson said in a statement. “U.S. Soccer values the tradition and importance of the U.S. Open Cup, and we will continue to have conversations with all our members to explore avenues for enhancing future editions of the tournament and how we all work together to grow soccer in every community in the country.”

Rodriguez said MLS was satisfied with the 2024 format and will remain in discussions with U.S. Soccer over the format of the tournament in the future, with the federation creating a working group focused on the Open Cup.

“It remains a great honor for Major League Soccer to participate in the tournament and it’s a valued tournament by our clubs and by fans,” Rodriguez said. “And I’m glad that U.S. Soccer has been able to format the tournament in a way that is satisfactory.”

What does this mean for the USL?

As the league system with the largest number of entrants, the USL saw a crucial part of its teams’ seasons held in limbo over the past few months. As MLS and U.S. Soccer held talks over the tournament without the USL’s presence, some clubs were considering how they would participate in a modified tournament. However, all qualifying USL clubs will partake in the 2024 tournament — and are determined to, in one source’s words, “treat the tournament with the respect it deserves” by approaching it as they would in any other year.

Currently, the winner of the U.S. Open Cup gets automatic entry into the following year’s CONCACAF Champions Cup; no doubt, that would be an incredible opportunity for a lower-division club should they win the tournament.

“The USL has supported the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup for nearly 30 years, and we are proud to be part of it again in 2024,” USL President Paul McDonough said in a statement. “We applaud all the USL clubs who have decided to participate in this year’s U.S. Open Cup, despite being handed the option to decline. We appreciate and share the fans’ passion for our country’s most historic and authentic competition, and we look forward to watching the drama unfold over the course of the tournament.”

What does this mean for MLS Next Pro?

This was a massive win, in some ways, for the relatively new third division in American pro soccer. When MLS first announced it was pulling its first teams out of the tournament, the intention was for every MLS Next Pro team to take part. That won’t be the case in this year’s tournament, but it was clear that a huge priority for MLS was getting its MLS Next Pro teams into the competition.

MLS is investing millions of dollars into MLS Next Pro and now will get some of its teams meaningful knockout games on a bigger stage.

“We felt very strongly that MLS Next Pro should have the right to participate in the tournament,” Rodriguez said. “Major League Soccer is investing a great deal in the development of talent, and we think that the Open Cup is a perfect spot for that talent to have meaningful games of consequence, games under the pressure of results, under the watchful eye of committed fans. So that was important to us.”

(Photo: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports)





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