In American sports, league formats have always been simple. There’s a regular season, the playoffs follow, and never the twain shall meet. Competitions like the U.S. Open Cup or the NBA’s new In-Season Tournament are the exceptions to a time-tested rule.
USL League One, a third division league in the United States’ misshapen soccer pyramid, is now leading the charge in another direction by re-orienting its entire format around a yet-to-be-named in-season cup. A regular season featuring 22 games in a home-and-home structure will complement the new competition, but there are larger aspirations at play underneath it all.
For Lee O’Neill, League One’s President, the cup is a key plank in forging a compelling, relevant product that stands out across the league’s markets.
“It’s new for the USL,” O’Neill told Backheeled. “The format we’ve arrived at has a lot more local rivalries and a balanced schedule in the league. It gives teams more to play for in the course of the season, which also gives fans more things to support and get behind.”
Inside the new cup competition
Local engagement is at the heart of the third division’s strategy going forward. Heading into 2024, League One has 12 clubs, seven of which are located in the southeast. The cup, which splits those clubs into three geographic pods, will encourage rivalries and cut down on cross-country travel costs. The group stage will extend from April through August, and rule tweaks are in place to encourage an offense-first, television–ready product. Says O’Neill: “We want to make sure people see goals. Let’s face it: that’s what people want when they see a game of soccer.”
To get there, games that are tied after 90 minutes will immediately go to a penalty shootout, with the winning side earning an extra point in the standings, a la NHL shootouts. Three group winners will advance to the knockout stage of the cup, but the fourth team won’t be decided on points. Instead, the highest-scoring remaining team will make the cut.