MLS 101: A primer on the 2011 tournament structure

The lowdown on U.S. Open Cup qualification

U.S. Open Cup

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The 2011 edition of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup has a bit of a different look to it than past years. The only professional-level entries in the 98th edition of the Open Cup are eight sides from MLS and 11 USL Pro teams [the third tier of the U.S. Soccer pyramid]. Also different for this year, the United Soccer Leagues Premier Development League [PDL, fourth-tier amateur league] was awarded an extra spot in the tournament, giving it a total of nine berths.

Due to late provisional sanctioning, the five U.S.-based teams from the North American Soccer League (NASL) — Carolina RailHawks, FC Tampa Bay Rowdies, Atlanta Silverbacks, NSC Minnesota Stars and Miami FC — are not included in the 2011 tournament.

U.S. Open Cup play-in round, MLS qualification

Of the 16 U.S.-based MLS teams, the top six finishers in last year’s standings automatically qualify for the Open Cup Round-of-16 that starts play in late June. A series of qualification play-in games are required to determine the final two entries to the Round-of-16 from MLS and that is where the Portland Timbers match against Chivas USA at the University of Portland’s Merlo Field on Tuesday, March 29, comes into the picture. While the game bears the U.S. Open Cup’s name, it is not the U.S. Open Cup proper.

With the Timbers hosting  Chivas USA Tuesday night, the Philadelphia Union face D.C. United on April 6 in the other play-in match, while six addition MLS teams are already lined up and waiting in the qualification semifinals. The semifinal winners advance to the qualification finals, with the two match winners earning the final MLS spots into the true U.S. Open Cup tournament.

The extra match puts the Timbers at a slight potential disadvantage to advance all the way through to the U.S. Open Cup, but with many teams focusing on the MLS season, roster depth becomes a big advantage as most teams rest their biggest stars during the qualification rounds.

Here’s a look at the U.S. Open Cup MLS qualification tournament:

U.S. Open Cup play-in round

Chivas USA at Portland Timbers; Tuesday, March 29
Philadelphia Union at D.C. United; Wednesday, April 6

Qualification semifinals

Portland Timbers/Chivas USA at San Jose Earthquakes; TBD
Colorado Rapids at Chicago Fire; Wednesday, March 30
Sporting Kansas City at Houston Dynamo; Wednesday, April 6
Philadelphia Union/D.C. United at New England Revolution; TBD

If Portland advances all the way to one of the qualification finals, it will face either the Colorado Rapids or the Chicago Fire for a berth in the U.S. Open Cup.

Like recent editions, the U.S. Open Cup -- qualification rounds included -- is a single-elimination tournament, with games tied after regulation extended by two, 15-minute overtime halves. If a winner is not determined in overtime, advancement will be determined by kicks from the penalty spot.

U.S. Open Cup tournament

Following is a breakdown of the teams participating in the 2011 Open Cup:

Major League Soccer (8 teams): Six automatic qualifiers based on the 2010 regular-season standings and two qualifiers from a play-in competition that features 10 teams.
Automatic Qualifiers: Columbus Crew, FC Dallas, Los Angeles Galaxy, New York Red Bulls, Real Salt Lake, Seattle Sounders FC.
Play-in Qualifiers (2 berths): Chicago Fire, Chivas USA, Colorado Rapids, D.C. United, Houston Dynamo, New England Revolution, Philadelphia Union, Portland Timbers, San Jose Earthquakes, Sporting Kansas City.

United Soccer Leagues PRO (Division III – 11 teams): All U.S.-based clubs automatically qualify.
Automatic Qualifiers (11 berths): Charleston Battery, Charlotte Eagles, Dayton Dutch Lions, Harrisburg City Islanders, Los Angeles Blues, FC New York, Orlando City, Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Richmond Kickers, Rochester Rhinos, Wilmington Hammerheads.

United Soccer Leagues Premier Development League (Amateur – 9 teams): The top U.S.-based club from each of nine PDL divisions will qualify based on the results of four pre-selected 2011 regular-season games. Each of the 54 eligible teams will play two home and two away matches that will serve as qualifiers.

U.S. Adult Soccer Association (Amateur – 8 teams): The first-and second-place teams from each of the four U.S. Soccer regions will advance to the tournament. Approximately 50 teams entered qualifying at the local or state level.

National Premier Soccer League (Amateur – 4 teams): The 36-team national amateur league is affiliated with the USASA. In previous years its teams participated via USASA regional qualifying.

The 2011 U.S. Open Cup champion will earn a $100,000 cash prize, while the runner-up will collect $50,000. The top Division III and Amateur Division clubs will each receive a $10,000 prize.