This morning, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) released the format for this year’s U.S. Open Cup, which gets underway on June 14 with 16 first-round games. Controversy has ensued since USSF president Sunil Gulati said on Monday that the eight U.S.-based NASL—who were granted provisional D-2 sanction by the USSF Board of Governors last weekend—would not be eligible to participate in this years’ Open Cup.

“It was simply too late to incorporate them into the process in the various stages of the tournament,” Gulati said during a joint teleconference with NASL CEO Aaron Davidson.

“The timing does not work for the five U.S.-based teams to participate. They will not be playing this year.”

In response to Triangle Offense’s request for further explanation, USSF spokesman Neil Buethe confirmed that the reason NASL teams were not eligible was, indeed, “a timing situation.”

“I know in the past the tournament [format] has been announced later. But, it’s also been announced earlier as well,” Buethe said.

“The actual format was well along, and that’s the situation why NASL was not included, because they were still up in the air and we were making the final decisions on the Open Cup.”

In reviewing this year’s format, there are 40 automatic berths that comprise the tournament field, the same as last year. Major League Soccer (MLS) continues to have eight qualifiers, while the amateur Player Development League (PDL) of United Soccer Leagues (USL) and United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA) retain 17 spots total.

All 11 U.S.-based sides in division-3 USL PRO have automatic berths in this year’s tournament. The remaining four first round spots were awarded to the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), a fourth-tier league whose members previously competed through USASA qualifying for inclusion in the Open Cup.

Last year, NPSL did not have any automatic berths, while the 15 sides that competed in D-2 and D-3 all automatically qualified for the tournament.

Barring sheer coincidence, the speed with which USSF released this year’s USOC format appears partly a reaction to the incredulity many soccer fans expressed over the past few days to USSF’s position that there was not enough time to include NASL sides in the Open Cup.

Indeed, over the past two years, USSF did not announce the tournament format until April 30, 2009 and May 5, 2010.

Still, the release of this year’s format raises the question of whether the U.S.-based NASL teams were ever going to be included in this year’s Open Cup at all. The USSF Board of Directions initially granted provisional division-2 sanctioning to the NASL on Nov. 21, 2010. Formal approval of this sanctioning was expected during last weekend’s USSF annual general meeting in Las Vegas.

On Jan. 20, 2011, the USSF board of directors voted to remove this provisional sanction and allowed the NASL to reapply for D-2 sanction. This reapplication was considered at last weekend’s AGM, during which provisional sanctioning was granted again for the 2011 season.

Theoretically, there was no reason to exclude NASL D-2 clubs from the USOC tournament prior to Jan. 20, 2011 since the league was already provisionally sanctioned and expecting formal approval at February’s meeting. NASL went without D-2 sanctioning for approximately 22 days (Jan. 20—Feb. 11). The only way USSF’s explanation of NASL exclusion from the USOC bears credence is if the entire planning for this year’s tournament format took place during that three-week window.

At a press conference yesterday in Cary, N.C. to introduce the new ownership and staff of the Carolina RailHawks, NASL CEO Aaron Davidson reacted to NASL’s ineligibility from the USOC with a mixture of resignation and concurrence.

“Frankly, from our perspective—I don’t want this to come out the wrong way—but we need to focus on our league right now,” said Davidson. “The US Open Cup is a phenomenal tournament, it gives you a chance to play MLS teams in games that matter, and it gives you a chance if you win it all you get to go to the [CONCACAF] Champions League. But, at the end of the day, we all know we’d rather focus on this league this season.

“The U.S. Open Cup games still cost you money, it’s hard to draw serious gates there because you don’t have a lot of lead time to promote them, they’re on weekdays, [and] they’re usually Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays. Obviously, if you get to the later rounds there are chances at really top matches. But, we look forward to coming back to the U.S. Open Cup in 2012. Let’s focus on NASL this year.”