What Is The FA Cup? Can You Americanize It For Me?

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Over the past weekend if you were tuning in to Fox Sports 1 or Fox Sports 2 expecting to see your weekly installment of “Drag Racing Boats” (I realize the name is probably more official sounding, but I don’t remember it and I’m not looking it up), you were disappointed to find that it had been bumped by soccer–and not EPL soccer, FA Cup soccer. It looked like Liverpool were playing UConn at UConn for some reason. For all intents and purposes, they were. Let me explain why.

The FA Cup (the FA stands for Football Association) is a tournament that includes all professional and semi-professional soccer teams from England (currently 762 teams). Every team is assigned a number, ping pong balls with the numbers are dumped into a hat. The first ball out of the hat is the home team, the second ball out of the hat is the away team. To help conceptualize using Major League Baseball it would go something like this: “Home team, number 113, Omaha Storm Chasers, will host number 13, New York Yankees” (author’s note: The Omaha Storm Chasers are a real team). The Seattle Mariners could be drawn against the Port St Lucie Mets for a long distance road game. The Portland Sea Dogs could find themselves in the semi-finals after having drawn single and double A teams throughout the earlier rounds. And occasionally, the Dodgers would draw the Angels, and the Yankees would draw the Red Sox. Endless fun, endless chaos, endless stories.

At first you’d think that the competition might be a bit boring because the smaller teams would always lose. They lose often, but not always. Barnsley beat Chelsea in 2008 (Barnsley squad value 350k, Chelsea squad value 212million). Premiere League teams routinely lose to lower division competition, not always but certainly enough to keep it interesting. Lower division teams even make the final now and then. They haven’t won since 1979, but it’s still quite easy to throw your support behind the minnow if you don’t have a horse in the race.

I became a part-time fan of Cardiff City after seeing their performance in the 2008 FA Cup final versus Portsmouth. They lost 1-0, but put on a gritty performance against a team that on paper should have beaten them easily.

It’s not even always about winning for the lower league teams. A few years ago Havant & Waterlooville FC were drawn away to Liverpool. H&W featured a team full of players who had full-time jobs as janitors and teachers and bank tellers when they weren’t playing soccer. As they waited in the tunnel at Anfield (essentially England’s Fenway Park), they looked like they were going to pass out from excitement. Although they lost the match, they did have a lead in that game and the excitement amongst the fans was nearly incomprehensible. For a minor league journeyman playing center field for the Boise Hawks an away date versus the Cubs at Wrigley field would be an absolute dream come true even if they lost the game 10-0.

For lower league teams there is a financial incentive for these matches as the teams split the revenue. It might be an advantage to play at home and have your 5,000 or so fans behind you, but it would be a huge financial boost to be drawn away to Manchester United or Arsenal and play in from of 60,000 or so of their fans who likely paid about 40 dollars per ticket. So while it would be a long expensive trip for the Bridgeport Blue Fish to travel to San Francisco to play the Giants, it would probably still be a financial windfall provided Giants fans turned up in decent numbers. Because of the potential payday, the Blue Fish would likely get to travel by plane instead of bus!

As the whole tournament owes a lot to chance odd things do sometimes happen. After the conclusion of the fourth round of matches this weekend, the draw for the fifth round was held, and the random ball hat produced two matches that will pit the top four teams in the Premiere League against each other. For our purposes, the hat produced the Red Sox versus the Dodgers and the Cardinals versus the Tigers.

Of the three lower division teams still alive, two were drawn against each other, ensuring that at least one will reach the tournament’s quarterfinals. The third lower division team, Brighton, was drawn at home versus Hull City. And while Hull City are a Premiere League team, they do not inspire the fear that Chelsea, Arsenal, or even a Tottenham might. Brighton might actually like their chances in that one. If Brighton can win that one and then get a favorable draw in the form of either Sheffield Wednesday or Charlton Athletic (the two remaining lower division teams), that would ensure that there will be a lower division team in the Semi-Final at London’s Wembley stadium.

The next round of matches is February 15th and 16th. Tune in and throw your support behind the smallest team you can find (or Manchester City, that’s fine too, but I’m unabashedly biased).

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