The U.S. Open Cup once did a great deal to widen the horizons of American soccer. No, I’m not talking about 1996 and MLS teams joining in. I’m talking about old stuff, about how different the first U.S. Open Cups were from what had gone before.
The first U.S. Open Cup was held in the 1913-14 season, starting seven months after the formation of the organization that ran it, the U.S. Football Association. It wasn’t called the U.S. Open Cup back then. It was called the National Challenge Cup.
Prior to the advent of the National Challenge Cup, the leading cup competition in the United States was the American Football Association Cup, the closest thing that existed to a national championship. The National Challenge Cup superseded it, and if you look just at the results of the 1914 final, there doesn’t seem to be much improvement, if any. The finalists were Brooklyn Field Club and Brooklyn Celtic, two teams from the same familiar neck of the woods. At least the AFA Cup final the year before had featured teams from two different states, Paterson FC from New Jersey and Philadelphia Tacony from Pennsylvania.
But look a bit below that surface. The AFA Cup had been around since 1885 and had never been won by a team from farther west than Philadelphia. Teams from the Midwest didn’t enter it. But in that first season of the National Challenge Cup, in addition to the familiar New England and Middle Atlantic teams, the field included teams from Buffalo, Detroit and Chicago. Within a few years, teams from Cleveland and Pittsburgh had joined in. By 1920, not only had teams from St. Louis joined, but one of them, Ben Millers, had won it. By the time the AFA Cup breathed its last in 1924, it still had not had a single finalist from farther west than eastern Pennsylvania. The National Challenge Cup by that point had had seven finalists from St. Louis, two from Chicago and one from Detroit.
The 1912-13 edition of the AFA Cup, the last in which it was the premier event, had included 31 teams, from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The 1913-14 edition of the National Challenge Cup enlisted 40 teams, from New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan and Connecticut. That wasn’t a huge increase, but by the 1914-15 National Challenge Cup, some of the AFA loyalists who had been holdouts from the first one had changed their minds. This time there were 80 entries, from Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Illinois, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Michigan, Ohio and Delaware.
Soccer games between eastern and midwestern teams had existed before the start of the National Challenge Cup. Games during the Christmas-New Year’s holidays between St. Louis teams and visiting eastern teams had been a feature of the St. Louis soccer calendar for several years, and some St. Louis teams had made eastern tours, but those were just a few friendlies. The National Challenge Cup was an official tournament with a championship on the line. From its start, it meant that meant that the East and the Midwest were no longer separate universes in soccer.
A version of this article originally appeared at Roger’s Big Soccer blog on Sept. 28, 2011