What’s The Difference Between MLS Cup & US Open Cup?

In American soccer, the quest for glory is embodied in prestigious tournaments such as the MLS Cup and the US Open Cup.

While both competitions share common winning prizes for their champions — a substantial $300,000 prize and the coveted entry into the CONCACAF Champions League — their difference lies in eligibility criteria, the intricacies of tournament structure concerning rounds, and the varying durations that shape their unique identities.

Let’s dig deep into the features that set these two esteemed competitions apart.

The Difference Between the MLS Cup & US Open Cup

The MLS Cup serves as a climactic finale to the Major League Soccer season.

It is a mini-tournament held after the regular season, normally in December.

This competition determines the ultimate champion of the league.

The participating teams are the best-performing ones from the Eastern and Western conferences, making it a showdown between the cream of the MLS crop.

The format involves knockout rounds leading to the conference championships and ultimately culminating in the MLS Cup final, where the victorious team claims the title of the season’s champion.

The US Open Cup stands as the official cup competition in the United States and is a unique tournament that involves a broad spectrum of teams.

Approximately 100 American teams, including those from Major League Soccer (MLS), lower-tier professional leagues, and even amateur teams, participate in this annual event.

What makes the US Open Cup particularly special is its inclusivity across different levels of the soccer pyramid.

It’s a knockout-style competition that unfolds over multiple rounds, with the final usually taking place in late summer or early fall.

The US Open Cup is the oldest continuous football tournament in the United States, dating back to 1914, adding a significant historical dimension to the competition.

MLS Cup vs US Open Cup: The Tournament Formats


The MLS Cup is the pinnacle of Major League Soccer (MLS) competition, organized in the popular American playoff format. Here’s a breakdown of how it unfolds.

What’s The Difference Between MLS Cup & US Open Cup?
  1. Playoff Structure:
    • The top fourteen teams from the regular season qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs.
    • Single-elimination matches are hosted in the home stadiums of higher-seeded teams.
  2. Home Advantage:
    • Higher-seeded teams enjoy the home advantage, a reward for their better regular-season performance.
    • For instance, if your team finished 4th, they host against teams finishing 5th-7th but play away if against teams finishing 1st-3rd.
  3. Final Match Venue:
    • The final match is played at a predetermined venue, typically in the United States, although Canada occasionally hosts.
  4. Conference Face-Off:
    • Teams from the same conference face each other initially.
    • The conference’s first round leads to the Conference semifinals.
  5. Automatic Qualification:
    • Eastern & Western Conference leaders automatically qualify for the Conference semifinals.
    • Other twelve teams compete in the Conference’s first round to reach the semifinals.
  6. Road to the Finals:
    • Winning the Conference Semifinals advances a team to the Conference finals.
    • Conference winners proceed to the MLS Cup Final, vying for the championship.


US Open Cup

The US Open Cup, a major domestic cup competition in the United States, follows a straight knockout format

What’s The Difference Between MLS Cup & US Open Cup?
  1. Early Rounds:
    • Amateur and lower-league clubs start in the early knockout rounds based on geographical pairings.
    • MLS clubs enter in the third round, facing second-round winners.
  2. Group Stage:
    • The remaining 48 teams are grouped into groups of four or six based on geographical locations.
    • Each group includes MLS and lower-division teams, competing in random pairings.
  3. Special Entrants:
    • Eight new entrants, including teams in the CONCACAF Champions League and top performers from the previous MLS season, join in the round of 32.
  4. Round of 16 and Quarterfinals:
    • The round of 16 and quarterfinals involve reshuffling teams according to geographical locations.
    • Random pairings determine the tie outcomes in each stage.
  5. Semifinals and Final:
    • Semifinals see a reshuffling of remaining teams based on geographical locations.
    • Winners from this stage progress to the final, where the ultimate champion is determined.

MLS Cup vs US Open Cup: Eligibility and Participation

The MLS Cup has evolved its format to include more teams, while the US Open Cup embraces a diversified range of teams, including amateurs, from various leagues under the United States Soccer Federation.

For Canadian teams, the MLS Cup is a shared arena, but the US Open Cup is exclusively an American soccer affair.


  1. Number of Contesting Teams:
    • It is currently contested by fourteen teams, comprising the top seven teams from both the Eastern and Western Conferences.
    • The format expanded in 2019 from twelve teams (top six from each conference) to its current structure.
  2. Eligible Clubs:
    • Clubs from both the United States and Canada are eligible for the MLS Cup, determined by their regular season performances.
    • To compete, your team must secure a position within the top seven of their respective conference.

US Open Cup

  1. Participating Leagues:
    • Teams from Major League Soccer, United Soccer League (USL) Championship, USL League One, and National Independent Soccer Association are part of the competition.
  2. Amateur Club Inclusion:
    • Thanks to its ‘Open’ nature, amateur clubs can participate in the US Open Cup through qualification from specific leagues, including USL League Two, National Premier Soccer League, United States Adult Soccer Association, MLS Next Pro, and US Club Soccer.
  3. Geographical Diversity:
    • The tournament’s inclusivity allows for geographical diversity, bringing together teams from various levels of American soccer.

Canadian Teams and US Open Cup

It’s important to note that participation eligibility in these competitions is different for Canadian teams.

  1. MLS Cup
    • Canadian teams can compete in the MLS Cup alongside their American counterparts, contending for the league championship.
  2. US Open Cup
    • Canadian teams, however, cannot participate in the US Open Cup.
    • Instead, they have their competition, the Canadian Championship, to determine the top team in Canadian soccer.

MLS Cup vs US Open Cup: Tournament Structure

Both competitions follow different structures, with the MLS Cup featuring four rounds and 13 matches, and the US Open Cup having eight rounds.

Each round brings its own set of challenges and excitement, ultimately leading to the determination of the champions in their respective tournaments.


  • The MLS Cup consists of four rounds, totaling 13 matches, which culminate in the crowning of the MLS champion.
  • The tournament kicks off with the first round, featuring six matches for each conference.
  • The subsequent round, the Conference Semifinals, includes four matches.
  • The Conference Finals comprise two matches, with the winners advancing to the final.
  • The final match determines the MLS champion and concludes the tournament.

US Open Cup

  • The US Open Cup starts with the first three rounds, where amateur teams and lower-level league clubs compete.
  • Winners from the second and third rounds progress to the next round.
  • From the round of 32, Major League Soccer (MLS) teams enter the competition, facing off against fourth-round winners.
  • Winners of these matches move on to the round of 16, and the knockout rounds continue until the final.
  • The US Open Cup features a total of eight rounds, with the champion being crowned at the end of the tournament.

Winning Prizes for MLS Cup and US Open Cup Champions

Both MLS Cup and US Open Cup champions not only bask in the glory of winning their respective competitions but also gain tangible winning prizes and recognition that extend beyond the national stage.

These honors contribute to the rich legacy of the winning teams in American soccer.

MLS Cup Champions

  • The MLS Cup champions secure the title of holders of the most prestigious football competition trophy in the United States.
  • A monetary prize of $300,000 is awarded to the victorious MLS Cup champions, acknowledging their outstanding performance.
  • The champions earn a coveted berth in the CONCACAF Champions League, providing an opportunity to compete at the regional level and show their prowess against top teams.

US Open Cup Champions

  • The US Open Cup champions also earn a spot in the following season’s CONCACAF Champions League, expanding their opportunities for international competition.
  • In addition to the prestige and regional qualification, the US Open Cup champions receive a substantial prize money amounting to $300,000 for their triumph.
  • The champion’s name is immortalized on the monumental Dewar Challenge Trophy, symbolizing their achievement and adding a historical touch to their victory.