By Jeff Kassouf - Special to NPSLSoccer.net
As the National Premier Soccer League enters its seventh season, the league continues to develop amateur talent for the next level. On Feb. 17, U.S. Soccer officially rewarded the NPSL for its rapid progress by granting the league four automatic qualifying spots in the first round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
The Cup, which dates back to 1914, is the oldest competition of its kind in the United States. It provides an open tournament for professional and amateur teams alike to play for a national trophy. Previously, the only automatic qualifying spots for amateur teams were only for the United States Adult Soccer Association and the United Soccer Leagues Premier Developmental League.
As an affiliate of the USASA, the NPSL previously had to qualify along with other amateur teams. However, the league has been granted the opportunity to skip that process and automatically qualify for the first round of the tournament.
“We are finally getting the exposure,” said NPSL Commissioner Dan Trainor. “We are to the point where people see us as a viable organization. People will notice the NPSL.”
The four participating NPSL teams will be determined through regional competitions prior to the May 30 qualification deadline. In the first and second rounds, those teams will be joined by eight USASA teams, nine PDL teams and 11 USL PRO (Division III) teams.
Included among those USL PRO teams are clubs with rich traditions, such as the Charleston Battery and the Rochester Rhinos, which is still the only non-MLS team to win a U.S. Open Cup in the MLS era (the Rhinos won in 1999). Charleston made the 2008 final, losing to D.C. United.
If a NPSL team could draw a home match against a bigger club with significant name recognition, it could help boost attendance and exposure of the NPSL team. The possibilities for exposure also include the best NPSL players getting noticed by the next level of teams, NPSL Technical Director Matt Driver said.
“An NPSL team will have five or six players that can play at the next level,” Driver said. “The problem is they are not playing and training at that level every week. But if they can prove in one game to other coaches watching that they are good enough, they can get invited to train with a team and have the chance to prove themselves at the next level.”
Driver knows the potential for upsets is present in the U.S. Open Cup. He has previously served as assistant coach of the New England Revolution and remembers when his MLS team had to go on the road to play teams from lower leagues in the U.S. Open Cup. The smaller teams have everything to play for, which can be dangerous for teams in higher divisions.
If the NPSL teams can advance beyond the second round, they could be paired up with a MLS team, creating a true David v. Goliath showdown. The first round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup takes place June 14, with winners advancing to the second round on June 21. For exclusive coverage of the tournament, log on to www.thecup.us, the only Web site dedicated exclusively to covering the tournament. Check back soon for details on the NPSL’s qualification process.