MLS Cup vs US Open Cup – What’s The Difference?

If you’ve just started following American soccer, you may be confused about some of the competitions played in the country. The MLS Cup and the US Open Cup are two big competitions played in the United States

But what’s the difference between them?

Here’s what you need to know: 

The difference between the MLS Cup and US Open Cup

The MLS Cup is a mini-tournament held at the end of the MLS regular season to decide the final winner. It is contested by the best performing teams from the Eastern and Western conferences. 

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Meanwhile, the US Open Cup is the official cup competition in the United States which is contested by about 100 American teams each year. It is the oldest ongoing football tournament in the United States.

Here is an in-depth explanation of the differences between the two competitions:

Competition format

The MLS Cup is a tournament organised in the popular American playoff format. The top fourteen teams from the regular season compete in the playoffs. 

MLS Cup Playoffs are single elimination matches hosted in the home stadiums of higher seeded teams. This means that teams that finish higher during the regular season gain the home advantage ahead of their lower-placed opponents.

If your team finished in 4th place during the regular MLS season, they will host the playoff match against a team that finished 5th-7th. However, they will be hosted by a team that finishes 1st-3rd if they face each other .

The final match is played at a venue announced before the tournament commences. Such venues are usually in the United States, but Canada occasionally hosts the final.

In the playoffs, teams from the same conference face off against each other first. It starts with the Conference first round, where teams progress to the Conference semifinals.

However, the Eastern & Western Conference league leaders of the regular MLS season automatically qualify for the Conference semifinals. In contrast, each of the other twelve teams faces off against each other in the Conference first round to reach the semifinals. 

This means that if your team finished in the top 7 of the Eastern Conference, they would qualify for the playoffs. Once they do, they play against other teams that made the top 7 in their conference to reach the Conference semifinals. 

However, if they finished as Conference leaders, they would automatically qualify for the conference semifinals. Once your team wins the Conference Semifinals, they will advance to the Conference finals. 

Both Conference winners will then advance to the MLS Cup Final to contest for the outright Cup

This means that only the best team from each conference will make it to the final cup match.

The US Open Cup is the major domestic cup competition in the United States; it is organised in a straight knockout format

Amateur clubs and lower level league clubs begin competing against each other in the first two knockout rounds based on geographical pairings to avoid unnecessary travel. 

MLS clubs enter the competition in the third round, where they meet the second-round winners. At this stage, the remaining 48 teams are grouped based on their geographical locations into groups of four or six.

A total of eight to twelve groups is usually achieved. Each group will contain MLS and lower division teams who face off via random pairings. The victor of each tie will progress to the round of 32.

Some new entrants commence their cup journey in the round of 32. Eight of these teams include:

  • Four American teams participating in the CONCACAF Champions League
  • Top two teams in the previous season’s Eastern Conference 
  • Top two teams in the previous season’s Western Conference

These teams are grouped with the other 24 teams that progressed from the third round. Eight groups of four teams emerge depending on geographical locations, and the teams face off in random pairs. 

The winners of the round of 32 will advance to the round of 16, where another grouping is formed. Here, four groups of four teams emerge, and random pairings decide the tie once again. 

The round of 16 pairs determines the quarterfinals pairs. The remaining teams are reshuffled according to geographical locations at the semifinal stage, and the winners advance to the final.

Eligible teams

The MLS Cup is contested by fourteen teams: the top seven Eastern and Western Conferences teams. 

This is a relatively new format that began in 2019. Before that, the tournament was contested by twelve teams: the top six teams from both conferences. 

Clubs from both the United States and Canada are eligible for the MLS Cup, depending on their performances in the regular season

Your team must finish in the top seven of their conference to compete for the MLS Cup. 

Meanwhile, the US Open Cup is competed by around 100 teams each season from the leagues under the United States Soccer Federation. These leagues include:

Due to its ‘Open’ nature, amateur clubs are allowed to participate in the Cup via qualification from their respective leagues, which include:

This means that only football teams in the United States can participate in the US Open Cup. If your team is Canadian, they cannot participate but will play in the Canadian Championship instead.

Frequency and duration of competition

Both competitions are held annually

The MLS Cup, and its playoffs, are the culmination of the Major League Soccer season. MLS regular season kicks off in late February or early March.

After the MLS regular season ends in October, the playoffs usually start after a two-week break and end with the Cup final in November. 

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However, the schedule was affected due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the last MLS Cup final was held in December. 

On the other hand, the US Open Cup begins in March with the first round. Several rounds are contested until the final match is played in September.  

The Covid-19 pandemic also affected this competition, leading to a two-year hiatus after cancelling the 2020 and 2021 editions for the first time in 106 years.

Atlanta United was the last team to win the Cup before the hiatus period. 

Number of rounds

The MLS Cup features four rounds and 13 matches in total, including 12 playoff matches (6 for each conference) and one final match to decide the MLS champion. 

The first round features six matches for each conference, and the next round – the Conference Semifinals, features four matches. The Conference Finals feature two matches, and the winners progress to the final match.

The US Open Cup starts with the first three rounds, in which amateur teams and lower-level league clubs compete. Winners of each round (second and third rounds) progress to the next round.  

From the round of 32, MLS teams enter the competition to play against fourth round winners. Winners progress to the round of 16, and the knockouts continue until the final, where the champion is crowned.

The US Open Cup features eight rounds in total.

Presence of double-legged ties

There are no double-legged ties present in either competition. 

Home teams in the MLS Cup playoffs are determined by the team’s final season rankings. 

If your team finishes 5th in the conference, they will host the 7th placed team if they face. However, your team will be hosted by the 1st place if they meet.

In the US Open Cup, teams are determined by random selection in the pairings. However, a team’s stadium must meet the tournament’s requirement to be favoured.

Prizes for winning competition

The MLS Cup champions become the holders of the most prestigious football competition trophy in the United States. 

MLS Champions are also awarded a prize money amount of $300,000 for their victorious efforts. In addition, they are granted a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League.

Likewise, the US Open Cup champions also receive a spot in the following season’s CONCACAF Champions League

In addition to prize money of $300,000, the champion’s name will be engraved on the monumental Dewar Challenge Trophy.


Here is a summary of these 2 competitions:

MLS CupUS Open Cup
Competition formatEastern & Western Conference
Playoff format with a final cup match
Straight knockout format
Eligible teamsAmerican and Canadian MLS teamsOnly American teams
Frequency and durationRegular season: February to October
MLS Playoffs: October to November
March to September
Number of roundsFourEight
Double-legged tiesNILNIL
Prize money for winningTrophy
CONCACAF Champions League spot
$300, 000 
Champions name engraved on Dewar Challenge Trophy
CONCACAF Champions League spot
$300, 000 


The MLS Cup and US Open cup are the main football competitions organised in the United States. 

Winners of both competitions gain $300,000 in prize money and a CONCACAF Champions League spot. However, they differ based on their eligibility, the number of rounds and duration.

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