The U.S. Open Cup is coming back in 2021 but it will look rather different than fans remember. America’s club soccer cup competition was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and will return this May with major changes. The 107th edition of the tournament will be reduced to just a five-round tournament with just 24 teams, instead of 84 from 2019. Only eight of the 24 teams for the Open Cup will be from Major League Soccer.
The Open Cup is scheduled to begin on May 4 and 5 with the preliminary round and conclude on June 29 or 30 with the tournament’s final. This congested schedule to complete the tournament is due to COVID-19 complications alongside hectic league schedules across America’s top four divisions in the fall.
“As we looked at our scheduling options, the Open Cup Committee first prioritized the health and safety of the players and decided against scheduling matches in both March and April due to the ongoing circumstances with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Open Cup commissioner Paul Marstaller said in a statement. “We also took into consideration the extended June FIFA window and the Concacaf Gold Cup taking place through August 1, along with the semifinal and final rounds of the 2021 Concacaf Champions League being scheduled in the fall.
“In the end, we all felt a shortened version for this year was the best format, and we’re excited to have the opportunity to crown a champion after not being able to in 2020.”
The USOC committee does have a contingency plan for an even shorter tournament if the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t improve heading into May. The contingency tournament would cancel the opening round and start with just a Round of 16 on May 18. It would still feature eight MLS teams. March 29 will be the set date where the committee determines if they go ahead with the opening round or not. If by April 19, the pandemic still hasn’t changed, the tournament will be canceled.
Outside of the eight MLS teams, the other 16 participants will be allocated between the next three top American soccer divisions. Eight teams will come from the USL Championship, two from the National Independent Soccer Association, two from USL League One and the last four from the Open Division.
Currently, there is no set way to determine which eight MLS clubs will play in the U.S. Open Cup this summer. The method of determining who qualifies will be announced later but based on common qualification methods (Standings, championships, etc.), it seems more than likely the 2020 MLS Cup champion, the Columbus Crew will compete in this competition.
In the case the Crew does play in the Open Cup, May could potentially consist of matches in three different competitions. If the Black & Gold advance to the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Champions League, the team would play a second leg between May 4-6. The MLS regular season is expected to begin in April, although there are reports that the new CBA could push back the start date, and potential Round of 16 and quarterfinal matches in the Open Cup would make for a more condensed schedule for Columbus.
The Crew has won the Open Cup on one occasion in 2002 with a 1-0 win against the LA Galaxy in Columbus. The Black & Gold made the final again in 2010 under manager Robert Warzycha and lost to the Seattle Sounders 2-1 at Qwest Field. A decade later, Columbus got its revenge on the Sounders in the 2020 MLS Cup Final.
This year’s Open Cup will look different but things changing in sports has become normal over the past year. Matches in the 2021 Open Cup will be shown on ESPN+ and begin in May.
2021 U.S. Open Cup Schedule
March 29: Date confirming Opening Round
March 31: Opening Round matches announced if confirmed
April 19: Date confirming Round of 16
April 21 or 28: Round of 16/Quarterfinal Draw
May 4-5: Opening Round
May 18-19: Round of 16
May 25-26: Quarterfinals
June 15-16: Semifinals
June 29 or 30: Final