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What is the Open Cup?

March Madness. The Stanley Cup. The NFL Playoffs. Sports fans love tournaments. When the stakes are win or go home, the drama and excitement are constant. When the dust settles, the last team standing is victorious.

For soccer, these tournaments – or cups as they are commonly called – run in parallel with the regular season. In between league matches, clubs fight their way through the cup to be crowned champions of their country. The most unique aspect of soccer’s cup tournaments is that every club, from Sunday league amateur sides to the top professional teams, competes in the same tournament. This means David and Goliath matchups, Cinderella story runs and shocking upsets.

In England, it’s the FA Cup. For Germany, DFB-Pokal. Spain has Copa del Rey. And in the United States, we have the U.S. Open Cup.

Started in 1914 as the National Challenge Cup, the Open Cup is the longest running national soccer competition in the U.S. and the third-longest-running open competition worldwide. The first final was played by two teams from Brooklyn at a small stadium in Rhode Island. Today, the single-elimination tournament, which runs from May to September, has grown to 99 teams from across the U.S., all competing for the $250,000 top prize and a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League.

The tournament helped grow U.S. soccer at a time when geography and funding had limited previous national competitions. The cup brought national recognition to storied clubs such as the Fall River Marksmen, Bethlehem Steel and Maccabi Los Angeles.

So how does the tournament work?

The qualifying rounds start in the fall of the preceding year. Various state and regional leagues compete in preliminary rounds within their organizations – the Premier Development League (PDL), National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA) or U.S. Club Soccer – for a spot in the actual tournament. The teams who earn those spots are paired off by geographic proximity for the first round of the Open Cup.

The home side is determined by a coin toss from the first through fourth rounds. If a match is tied at the end of regulation, two 15-minute extra time halves will be played in their entirety regardless of scoring. If the match is still tied at the end of extra time, a penalty shootout will determine the winner.

The winners of the first round move on, where they are joined by clubs from the United Soccer League (USL) and North American Soccer League (NASL) – both second division professional leagues – in the second round of the tournament. Once again, pairings are determined by geographic proximity, with all but one of matchups being between an amateur club and a member of either USL or NASL.

The winners of these matchups move on and are paired up once again by geographic proximity for the third round. No new teams join the competition in this stage.

The fourth round heralds the arrival of MLS clubs. Winners from the third round are pitted against clubs from the top professional league in the U.S., with a few leftover MLS clubs playing against each other. Minnesota will be involved in one of the three all-MLS matchups this year when it takes on Sporting Kansas City. The others are a New York Derby between NYCFC and New York Red Bulls, and a Cascadia clash between Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders.

The winners move on to the fifth round, where the structure of the matchups changes slightly. The sixteen remaining clubs are put in groups of four based on geography, then seeded based on a random draw within those groups. This seeding will determine matchups for the remainder of the tournament.

Winners proceed to the quarterfinals, semifinals and eventually the final match, with the tournament’s champion joining the MLS Cup winner as the U.S. representatives in the CONCACAF Champions League.

So who are the all-time greats of the historic competition? Bethlehem Steel and Maccabi Los Angeles reign supreme with five titles each. Chicago Fire and Seattle Sounders sit right behind them with four apiece, tied for the most titles among MLS clubs.

Though no Minnesota club has ever won the competition, the Land of 10,000 Lakes has been well-represented. The Thunder had several deep runs in their time, including a trip to the semifinals in 2005, mowing down several MLS clubs along the way. Former Thunder striker Johnny Menyongar is tied for the second-most career goals in the modern era of the Open Cup with 13. MNUFC – during the Stars era – pulled off a dramatic road win over Real Salt Lake in 2012, which included a goal from current Loon Kevin Venegas.

For the Loons, the road to the final starts Wednesday, June 14 when they take on Sporting Kansas City at Children’s Mercy Park. The two teams have met in two of the last three Open Cups, and have already faced off twice in MLS play this season.

Five wins separate the Loons from championship glory in the shortest, but arguably toughest, route to a title in U.S. soccer.