US Soccer announces 16-team Open Cup format

US Soccer announced their format for a 16-team Open Cup on Monday. Back in February, US Soccer confirmed that contingency plans were in place in case the opening round was deemed unplayable. The committee decided not to hold the opening round, citing “challenges still in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic given the competition is played across the country involving clubs from multiple professional and amateur divisions and leagues.”

“After meeting with the Committee and listening to our members and our medical professionals, it became clear that the difficulties of staging the Opening Round given the current environment made the decision to not play the correct one, as we will always prioritize the health and safety of the players and staff first,” said U.S. Open Cup Commissioner Paul Marstaller in the official press release. “We will continue to monitor the situation and hope for more positive news in three weeks as it relates to the Round of 16. Crowning a champion in the most history-filled soccer competition in the USA, something we missed doing in 2020 for the first time in 107 years, is an annual highlight in the U.S. Soccer calendar that we always look forward to.”

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While the reduction to 16 teams is disappointing and fundamentally changes the nature of the tournament, it’s good to see the Open Cup played this year (knock on wood). The circumstances certainly aren’t ideal, but an abbreviated tournament is better than no tournament. Hopefully 2022 will be back to normal and will allow the competition to return at full scale.

Qualification methods

With a condensed format, US Soccer announced the method of qualifying for the 16 participants.

  • Division I (8 slots) – Top eight USA-based Major League Soccer clubs from 2021 regular season play based on average standings points per game as of May 3 (after three weekends of action)
  • Division II (4 slots) – USL Championship 2020 semifinal playoff teams: El Paso Locomotive FC, Louisville City FC, Phoenix Rising FC, Tampa Bay Rowdies
  • Division III (2 slots) – National Independent Soccer Association 2020 Fall Champion Detroit City FC, USL League One 2020 Regular Season Champion Greenville Triumph SC
  • Open Division (2 slots) – Random draw to be conducted on April 7 to include the following:
    • One Open Division Local Qualifier drawn randomly from among 12 eligible
    • One National Premier Soccer League team drawn randomly from among 13 eligible
    • One USL League Two team drawn randomly from among 10 eligible
    • 2019 U.S. Adult Soccer Association National Amateur Cup champion Newtown Pride FC (Conn.)

Tournament format

The teams will be split geographically and into groups of four. Each group will consist of two Division I (MLS) sides and two lower division side, with each MLS side playing a lower division opponent. The Round of 16 draw will take play on May 4, and will set the pairings and home teams for the Quarterfinals, as well as setting the bracket for the remainder of the tournament. A separate draw following the Quarterfinals will determine hosts for the Semifinals and hosting priority for the tinals.


  • April 7 – Draw held to determine Open Division participants into Round of 16
  • April 19 – Date for confirming Round of 16*
  • May 3 – Date for determining MLS participants into Round of 16
  • May 4 – Round of 16/Quarterfinal draw
  • May 18-19 – Round of 16
  • May 25-26 – Quarterfinals
  • May 15-16 – Semifinals
  • June 29 or 30 – US Open Cup Final

*If conditions for holding Round of 16 cannot be met on April 19, 2021 tournament will be canceled

Nashville SC outlook

With MLS sides getting in based on points per game over three matches, Nashville SC look likely to participate. They start their 2021 campaign with three home matches against three sides who they finished above in the table: FC Cincinnati (14th – 16 points), CF Montreal (9th – 26 points) and Inter Miami CF (10th – 24 points). While 2021 is a fresh start for all three sides, Nashville did well against Montreal and Miami, going winning three and drawing one against the two sides. Nashville beat Miami 3-0 in their playoff meeting.

It’s not at all unrealistic for Nashville to start the season with three wins. Their favorable opening schedule should put them firmly in position to qualify for the Open Cup, with chance at silverware in just their second year in MLS.

Author: Ben Wrightis the Director of Soccer Content and a Senior MLS Contributor for Broadway Sports covering Nashville SC and the US National Team. Previously Ben was the editor and a founder of Speedway Soccer, where he has covered Nashville SC and their time in USL before journeying to Major League Soccer since 2018. Raised in Louisville, KY Ben grew up playing before a knee injury ended his competitive career. When he is not talking soccer he is probably producing music, drinking coffee or hanging out with his wife and kids. Mastodon

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