The Best Tournament You’ve Never Heard Of

What makes a great sports tournament? Great competition? The possibility of upsets? A plethora of drama? The truth is that all of the above matter and can all be found in great mainstream tournaments like March Madness, the NFL Playoffs and the World Cup.

There is such a tournament that occurs annually here in the United States that has all these aspects in addition to more history, and sadly, you probably have not heard of it.

On Tuesday night in front of 35,615 people at Century Link Park in Seattle, Seattle Sounders FC beat the Chicago Fire 2-0 to win the 98th Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. In doing so, they became the first MLS team ever and just the third team in the history of the tournament to win it three years in a row.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What exactly is the U.S. Open Cup?

Named after Lamar Hunt, the man coined the term “Super Bowl” in addition to being the long-time owner of the Kansas City Chiefs and three Major League Soccer teams, the U.S. Open Cup is an annual single elimination tournament that includes essentially any team in the country that wishes to enter.

Though any team can enter, an MLS team has won 15 of the 16 tournaments since the league’s inception in 1996.

Unlike most professional sports, where there is only one title to be won, soccer has many, some more prestigious than others. Most countries have a “cup” competition in which every team, minor or major, can participate in. The U.S. Open Cup is America’s version of that tournament.

Each year, the tournament begins in early June. The first round, in which all minor league teams enter the tournament (the equivalent of A, AA or AAA teams in baseball), begin the single elimination tournament. These teams play two elimination rounds before eight MLS teams (chosen by last year’s standings and play-in games), not counting the MLS teams from Canada, are introduced to the tournament in the third round.

The 16 remaining teams play dramatic elimination games leading up to the final, which is always held mid-week at the beginning of October.

Every MLS team has to take even the smallest teams seriously, as losing to a minor league team is seen as a huge embarrassment. When the Rochester Raging Rhinos of the USL Pro division (third division) beat the Colorado Rapids in the 1999 final, it was both one of the most embarrassing stories and most uplifting stories in sports in the last 20 years.

Despite nearing its centennial, this tournament still struggles with attendance issues and a lack of financing, but it has a rich history and always delivers competition, upsets and drama. This tournament deserves to be recognized with the greatest that our country has to offer.

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