U.S. Open Cup, green smoke, USOC
Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer

USOC: A quick primer into the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup

Steeped in nearly a century of American soccer history, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup competition already made its 2012 debut at JELD-WEN Field with a Timbers U-23s loss in May, but returns to the Rose City this week for the MLS Timbers’ third-round clash against amateur U.S. Adult Soccer Association (USASA) side Cal FC on Wednesday (7:30pm PT, Webstream at www.portlandtimbers.com, 750 AM The Game).

The 2012 U.S. Open Cup, the 99th edition of the tournament, began in mid-May with a 64-team field, which is the largest in the modern era (1995-present), and will conclude with the championship final in the first week of August.

Unlike previous editions of the tournament, all U.S.-based MLS, NASL and USL PRO professional clubs — totaling 32 teams — are participating in the tournament proper.

Earlier this May, the Timbers U-23s kicked off the 2012 U.S. Open Cup at JELD-WEN Field in the tournament’s first round against California-based USASA club PSA Elite. The Timbers U-23s suffered a 3-1 loss to PSA Elite, ending their first appearance in the 64-team field.

The tournament’s first round consisted of 32 amateur teams, including 16 USL Premier Development League teams competing against each other, while second and third-division professional clubs entered in the second round. The Timbers U-23s qualified for the 2012 U.S. Open Cup by finishing the 2011 PDL season as one of the top two teams in the Western Conference’s Northwest Division.

All but three of the 32 clubs remaining in the competition are professional sides, except for the Timbers’ opponent on Wednesday, Cal FC, as well as PDL sides Ventura County Fusion (which features former Timbers midfielder Rodrigo Lopez) and the Michigan Bucks.

For those in need of a comparison, the U.S. Open Cup is like an extremely downsized version of England’s prestigious FA Cup, where a club’s season could be a success just by knocking off one of the Premier League giants in the FA Cup.

It is this same element that can make U.S. Open Cup games intriguing as tournament games often feature the likelihood of upsets and thrilling action with lower-division clubs hoping to topple an MLS side.

In 2011, the Richmond Kickers of the American third-division USL PRO, made a run to the tournament’s semifinals, upsetting the Columbus Crew and Sporting Kansas City before falling to the Chicago Fire.

Three years ago, four of the tournament’s final eight teams hailed from lower divisions.

However, since MLS was founded in 1996, an MLS side has won the trophy in all but one year (the Rochester Rhinos won it in 1999). The Fire lead all MLS clubs with four wins all-time, while Sounders FC comes in second with three; D.C. United and the LA Galaxy each have two wins and Columbus, FC Dallas, New England and Sporting KC have all won it once.

Each tournament-winning team’s name is engraved on the Dewar Challenge Trophy, which is housed at the U.S. Soccer House in Chicago, but there also are financial incentives to do well in the tournament. The competition’s 2012 champion will earn a $100,000 payout while the runner-up collects $50,000. In addition, the top finishing NASL, USL PRO and amateur clubs each receive $10,000.

More importantly, since 2008 the champion has been awarded the right to play in the CONCACAF Champions League, entering into the tournament’s preliminary rounds.

Last year, MLS clubs that didn’t automatically qualify for the U.S. Open Cup were forced to go through a play-in competition in which the final two teams earned spots to the tournament proper. The Timbers earned their first-ever win as an MLS side when they defeated Chivas USA 2-0 in a play-in match at the University of Portland on March 29, 2011.

That makes Wednesday’s match against Cal FC, coached by National Soccer Hall of Famer and former U.S. international Eric Wynalda, the Timbers’ first official U.S. Open Cup match as an MLS club.

The Timbers have, however, experienced the U.S. Open Cup as a second-division side.

In each of their last two appearances in the U.S. Open Cup as a second-division side, the Timbers made it to the tournament’s third round and ran into Cascadia rival Seattle Sounders FC.

In 2009 and 2010, the Timbers suffered a defeat at the hands of Sounders FC, once on penalty kicks (2010).

As fate would have it, if the two clubs win their third-round games (Seattle plays the Atlanta Silverbacks on the NASL on Wednesday), the fierce rivals will meet in the fourth round on June 5.