The Improbability of FC Cincinnati’s US Open Cup Run

We are officially 1 week away from the biggest match in FC Cincinnati history, a semifinal appearance in the US Open Cup. If you are unfamiliar or haven’t heard about the success FC Cincinnati has had in our nations oldest & longest continuous soccer tournament spanning 100 years, pay attention.

The US Open Cup allows amateur and pro teams of varying levels to compete against one another in a knockout style tournament. In 2017, 99 teams began the tournament with only 4 teams remaining.

In pro or amateur sports, there are always instances when I have wondered what team X would do to team Y. Can Ohio State beat the Cleveland Browns, could UK beat the 76ers, or how would the Cincinnati Cyclones fair vs. the Columbus Blue Jackets? All these comparisons are purely a stretch of my imagination in those particular sports, but incredibly we get to see these scenarios play out in the sport of soccer in the medium of the US Open Cup.

FC Cincinnati is on a whirlwind tear through the 2017 version and has dispatched the defending NPSL Champions (Division 4), their arch-rival Louisville City (USL) in rounds 2 and 3 of the cup. The Orange & Blue then defeated in-state MLS club Columbus Crew SC 1-0 in round 4 and eliminated Bastian Schweinsteiger and the 4-time US Open Cup Champion Chicago Fire on penalties in round 5. Coach Alan Koch’s side also upset the NASL Spring Season Champion Miami FC away to earn their place in the semifinal.

However great this run has been, we cannot expect as much in the future, if ever again.

Outside of the normal argument to attend this match, “see FC Cincinnati play an MLS club”, I wanted to show how few lower-division clubs earn the chance to play in the US Open Cup Semifinal.

This match is so far beyond the dreams that many lower tier soccer fans have. Advancement to the US Open Cup semifinal has only happened to 7 non-MLS clubs besides FC Cincinnati since 1995. 1 of which (Seattle) is now in the highest tier of soccer in the US (MLS). Two of those clubs are now defunct (Minnesota Thunder, San Francisco Seals), while 4 are still around Richmond Kickers, Rochester Rhinos, Charleston Battery and the USL version of the Carolina Railhawks (now North Carolina FC). These select few lower division clubs that made it this far all reached this place with memorable stories of their own and are looked back on with great pride.

In the 22 seasons since MLS clubs were included in this championship (beginning in 1996), only 22 clubs (including FC Cincinnati) have reached the “Final 4”. Out of 88 total spots, 13 (14.7%) have been filled by non-MLS teams. Since 2008 (including this tournament) only 5 (Richmond, Seattle, Rochester, Charleston & Cincinnati) of 40 spots have been filled by non-D1 sides (12.5%).  That number drops even lower if you only include Richmond & Cincinnati since 2011 (7%).  Currently, there are 24 professional D2 clubs eligible for the US Open Cup. Only 4 others in that group have made it to where we are, not to mention the countless amount of teams that may have folded over this stretch of time. FC Cincinnati is in a very exclusive group once they play next week.

Non-MLS Clubs to Reach the US Open Cup Semifinals Since the Inclusion on MLS Clubs (1996)

FC Cincinnati – 2017
Richmond Kickers – 2011
Rochester Raging Rhinos – 1996, 1999 (Champions), 2009
Charleston Battery – 1999, 2004, 2008
Seattle Sounders – 2007, 2008
Carolina Railhwaks – 2007
Minnesota Thunder – 2005
San Francisco Seals – 1997

The landscape or pro soccer in this country has changed drastically and with the additions of 6 MLS squads over the next 5 years, we might see fewer lower division squads advance. US Soccer has incentivized MLS clubs by offering a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League to the winner. That is a huge payday for clubs and makes a difference in who you will see against lower division sides in these matches. Both Chicago & Columbus played quality sides against FC Cincinnati. One could absolutely argue that both were trying to advance for that spot in the Champions League.

To provide some additional context into how exclusive this appearance is, some MLS sides have struggled to advance. The Portland Timbers, added to MLS in 2011, has reached the semifinals once and San Jose (19 seasons) is reaching the semifinals for the 2nd time this year. New MLS squads Atlanta & Minnesota have of course not reached a semifinal yet, but clubs 1 year older than FC Cincinnati (New York City FC & Orlando City SC) have also not reached this point.

No NASL clubs (included since 2012) have reached a US Open Cup semifinal, while the Carolina Railhawks (NASL), Ft. Lauderdale Strikers (NASL-defunct), Atlanta Silverback (NASL-defunct), Richmond Kickers (USL), Charleston Battery (USL) and Harrisburg City Islanders (USL) are the only teams since 2008 to beat 2 MLS clubs in a tournament.

The Minnesota Thunder which ceased operations in 2009 and would go on to reorganize as Minnesota United defeated 3 MLS clubs in 2005 on their way to the semifinals. None may surpass what the 1999 Rochester Raging Rhinos achieved on their way to winning the US Open Cup. The Raging Rhinos defeated four MLS clubs as the last non-MLS (D1) team to win the cup. Rochester defeated Chicago Fire, Dallas Burn, Columbus Crew & the Colorado Rapids in that tournament.

Of course, those runs were before the “Beckham-era” of designated players and high profile international signings by MLS clubs. However, this does illustrate how tough it is for lower-division sides to knock out their upper-division foes since the rule changes.

Could this cup run be looked at in a different light in the future? Sure! We all know FC Cincinnati has MLS aspirations, and that the USOC favors MLS squads, but it could still be at least 2 or 3 seasons of USL play before we see the club rising to the first division, if at all.

While we may expect success from our great club, we shouldn’t take it for granted. This run has been special and I will look back on it with fondness. Many players have put in amazing showings that will endear them to our fan base for life. Let’s enjoy it for at least one more match and cheer on the Orange & Blue next week.

@BryanWeigel for @CincySoccerTalk

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