Writer’s Block: Magic of the FA Cup

To a soccer lover like me, there’s nothing quite like the Football Association Challenge Cup, commonly known as the FA Cup in England. Not only is it the oldest knock-out or single elimination soccer competition in the world, founded in 1871, it’s also likely the largest.

Peter Bodley
Peter Bodley

The 2013-2014 competition has more than 750 clubs competing ranging from the top professional teams from the English Premier League like Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool to the smallest amateur teams.

Entry is open to all clubs who compete in the English Premier League (seen on NBC TV channels every weekend during the season), the Football League (Championship, League One and League Two) and in steps one through five of the FA National League system, all of whom have promotion and relegation from top to bottom. There are also a few teams chosen to take part from step six.

There are 14 rounds in the competition with six qualifying rounds, the first taking place in August at the start of the English soccer season, followed by rounds one through six, then the semifinals and the final, which has typically, but not always been the final match of the English soccer season in May. Clubs in League One and Two don’t join the competition until the first round, then the teams in the English Premier League and the Championship enter the FA Cup in the third round, which takes place the first weekend of January.

What had made the FA Cup, now called the FA Cup with Budweiser because of the sponsorship of the American brewery, is that there is no seeding and the draw for each of the later rounds is broadcast live on television. The draw is completely random, so a top club can easily find itself playing a smaller club and upsets are always on the cards.

Only the semifinals and the final are played on neutral ground – Wembley Stadium in London. Otherwise, for the draw, each club is assigned a number and the first number drawn is the home team and the second the away club. If the first game ends in a draw, the match goes to a replay at the away team’s home ground. Then if that game is tied after 90 minutes of regulation time, 30 minutes of extra time are played and then if there is no result, a penalty shoot-out takes place to determine the winner, who advances to the next round.

The FA Cup winner is usually one of the larger, more successful clubs, but not always. Take last season, 2012-2013, for example. Manchester City, which finished second in the English Premier League, played Wigan, which was relegated from the English Premier League to the Championship. Wigan won 1-0 and like all FA Cup winners, qualified to play in this season’s Europa League competition against top clubs from other parts of Europe.

There have also been teams from the Championship to make it as far as the FA Cup final in recent years, Cardiff and Millwall, but they were beaten by English Premier League clubs in the final.

But the greatest opportunity for upsets come in rounds three and four when Premier League and the Championship clubs are often drawn against teams from League One and League Two, or even clubs from outside the top four divisions who have survived the preliminary and qualifying rounds. And the chances for an upset increase when the big club has to travel to play at the lower club’s home ground, which is smaller in both field dimensions and crowd capacity than the top team is used to, and come January and February, the condition of the pitch is more than likely to be far cry from the manicured surfaces the top clubs are used to playing on.

The third round of this season’s FA Cup played Jan. 4 and 5 produced its share of upsets with two English Premier League clubs going out to lower division opponents. The biggest surprise was Aston Villa of the English Premier League losing 2-1 at home to Sheffield United, who are desperately trying to avoid relegation from League One, two divisions lower. In the other game, West Ham United, who are one from bottom in the English Premier League and fighting relegation, lost at Nottingham Forest, who are doing well in the Championship. But the 5-0 scoreline was a bit of a shock.

There were also upsets involving Championship teams losing to League One and League Two clubs. Doncaster of the Championship lost 3-2 at home to Stevenage, bottom of League One; Rochdale of League Two won 2-0 at home against Leeds United of the Championship and Southend, also of League Two, demolished Millwall of the Championship 4-1.

Two non-league clubs outside the top four divisions, who survived the qualifying rounds and rounds one and two, lived to fight another day by earning third round replays. Kidderminster drew 0-0 with League One Peterborough, while Macclesfield held Championship club Sheffield Wednesday to a 1-1 draw. News flash: In Tuesday’s replays, Kidderminster won 3-2 in a big upset.

FA Cup games are televised live on the new Fox Sports Channel, FS1. The fourth round will be played the weekend of Jan. 25 and 26.