By Simon Evans
BRIDGETOWN Barbados (Reuters) - The excitement and surprises provided by a successful knockout cup competition, similar to England's F.A Cup, could help massively boost interest in soccer in the United States, the head of the country's second flight believes.
Bill Peterson, commissioner of the North American Soccer League, which includes teams such as the New York Cosmos and Tampa Bay Rowdies, says the 100 year old U.S. Open Cup could be revamped to play a major role in the growth of the game.
The Cup, which is open to professional and amateur clubs, has been competed for since 1914 but still has a low profile and appears a low priority for clubs form the top tier Major League Soccer (MLS).
"I think that property is the next big (sports) property in this country, it certainly should be," Peterson told Reuters at the Soccerex Americas Forum.
"Here is a chance to get three leagues and the amateurs involved and light up over 70-80 communities at once. Why wouldn't you do that?
"We are working to advance that agenda. We hope we get there at some point because that is an important competition," he added.
Peterson has long been in favour of the introduction of promotion and relegation to the U.S system in the face of opposition from the MLS, a 19-team single entity franchise-based league.
While acknowledging such change is not currently on the agenda, Peterson believes putting greater emphasis on the Open Cup could bring new impetus to smaller clubs which, unlike in most of the world, have no chance of rising to the top of the pyramid.
"It has the capacity to be followed by the whole country and ultimately that is what you are looking to do. You are not going to do that with one league or 20 teams, it is going take some competition," said Peterson.
"You have got 340 million people in the United States alone – in order to really fully ignite that fan base you are going to have to have some big competitions.
"I think having us in the picture, having the Open Cup step up, those are the things that really take this from being a fledgling sport to 'we are on top'."
Peterson said he is also working to have the NASL, which currently has ten teams but intends to grow to 18 clubs in the coming years, be given an automatic place in the CONCACAF Champions League.
"We have started to have conversations asking the question - 'why not us?'," he said.
"Why can't our champions have a direct entry? I would argue we have got the third strongest league in CONCACAF behind (Mexico's) Liga MX and MLS.".
(Reporting by Simon Evans, editing by Nick Mulvenney)