Football in America needs the Rivalry Cup
In March we are witness to one of the greatest spectacles in sport with the NCAA Basketball tournament. One of the great appeals of the tournament is the idea that an underdog can take out a giant. Upsets happen! Despite financial advantages and talent advantages, the game is played for 40 minutes, five on five on the court and a small team like Lehigh from the Patriot League can knock off the future pros of Duke.
This year’s FA Cup in England is also basking in the glow of two teams from their fifth-tier who made it to the Quarter Finals (Lincoln City) and Round of 16 (Sutton United), both being knocked out by a close to full strength Premier League (Arsenal) side. The oldest tournament in world football has brought fans of English club football some of the most thrilling moments over the years.
American soccer has the US Open cup but the tournament barely registers on the sporting landscape and is likely even a surprise for some Playingfor90 readers. Like the strange idea last week for a 48 team MLS, American soccer needs an outside the box tournament idea to generate both national interest (outside of MLS) and local interest (increase supporters of the local club). The proposal here is for U.S. Soccer to create the Rivalry Cup or if a sponsor wants to bet big on this tournament being a success, The (Sponsor’s Name Here) Million Dollar Cup.
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How will it work? The U.S. will be divided into 16 regions with entry available to teams from the region playing with professional players. The draw will not be perfect (ie. 16-32-64 teams) with each region having a different number of teams so a draw will take place that determines home and away for each round (borrowing from the F.A. Cup) and which clubs get a bye until we reach a regional Round of 16.
Imagine the interest from local soccer fans and players if Kingston Stockade FC of Div 4 NPSL hosted NY Red Bull of Div 1 MLS. Then imagine if they won. It would become a memorable part of the club’s history. It would be equivalent to the tournament runs made by Lincoln City and Sutton United in this season’s FA Cup.
But the FA Cup doesn’t have regions? The territory of the U.K. (including Scotland) is about a third the size of Texas and 57% the size of California so to save on travel costs for small clubs, a regional tournament makes sense. From a soccer perspective, local rivalries are a fantastic part of any sport and tournaments like this would only add competitiveness and breed familiarity between regional clubs at all levels of the U.S. Soccer pyramid.
MLS is just one division of the U.S. soccer pyramid and U.S. Soccer should consider any proposal to raise the profile of “minor league” or lower level soccer clubs at all levels, as people who have lived in countries where football is religion can tell you, it is the local club that is part of a community’s fabric.
The Rivalry Cup would give local clubs the chance to bring big name players to their communities (former Ballon d’Or winner Kaká and Orlando City FC are in Naples to take on the SWFL Adrenaline) and create rivalries within driving distance.
This would help clubs playing outside the MLS and while it is not a pure version of promotion / relegation that many American soccer fans are looking for, the Rivalry Cup would give local clubs a chance to test themselves against the biggest clubs in the country.