While the fate of the 2011 edition of the oft-maligned Superliga tournament is still up in the air — and the San Jose Earthquakes rumored inclusion — the schedule for another one of the in-season tournaments for MLS teams has been announced. Qualifying for the 98th edition of the venerable Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup for the Earthquakes begins with a first round match at Buck Shaw stadium against the winner of a preliminary round match-up of Chivas USA at the Portland Timbers. Win that match, date and time still to be determined, and the Quakes will host the winner of another first round match between the Chicago Fire and the defending MLS Cup champions Colorado Rapids.
As has been the case over the last few seasons, Major League Soccer will be limited to entering just eight teams in the national “open” tournament, with all entrants scheduled to enter the third elimination round. Currently, the league assigns six teams automatically to the group of eight, while the two remaining spots are contested by the remaining U.S.-based MLS teams in a qualifying tournament. The eight remaining MLS teams will be matched up against eight teams represented by the alphabet soup pool of the USL-Pro, PDL, USASA, and NPSL. Those 16 teams then play a single elimination tournament that culminates in the U.S. Open Cup final on October 4th. The Seattle Sounders are the two-time defending champion of the nation’s longest running soccer competition.
Since their reentry into the league in 2008, San Jose has been required to participate in the MLS qualifying competition for entry into the U.S. Open Cup. In those three seasons, the Earthquakes have been eliminated in their first match — 4-0 at Real Salt Lake in a driving snowstorm in 2008, a tough 2-1 home loss to the New York Red Bulls in 2009, and an exciting but ultimately disappointing PK shootout loss at Buck Shaw Stadium against RSL in 2010. Despite the loss last season, a starting line-up that featured many regular season players was an encouraging sign that the coaches look at the U.S. Open Cup tournament more like an opportunity to succeed and less like a distraction to their MLS schedule. An expansion of the team roster for the 2011 season will give head coach Frank Yallop plenty of options in filling out his game-day 18 — let’s hope he sees the relatively clear path to the third round enticing enough to play his best available players.