In the United States, the opening day of March Madness, college basketball's NCAA tournament, is something close to a national sports holiday. People either take off of work, or only pretend to work, in order to watch the games. It is something American sports fans enjoy each spring.
England has a soccer equivalent. It's the weekend of the third round of the FA Cup. And it is happening this coming weekend (Friday to Monday).
How the Tournament Works
The FA Cup is England's annual nationwide soccer tournament. It is open to any qualifying squad playing in the top ten levels of English soccer. This year, the competition began with 736 teams.
Only 64 teams remain for the third round this weekend. To this point, all of the non-league (5th level and below) clubs have already had to qualify for the tournament. The teams in League One (3rd level) and League Two (4th level) already joined in the competition during the first two rounds.
The top two levels (all 44 clubs) of English soccer -- the Premier League and the League Championship (2nd level) -- join during this third round. Which is when things start to get really good.
An American Comparison
If you are a baseball fan, it will make more sense within a baseball framework. Imagine if, every year, a big baseball tournament was held for all of the major and minor league teams. How cool would it be to see your local minor league team play against the Boston Red Sox or Los Angeles Dodgers as part of this national baseball tournament?
Take it one step further. What if the Red Sox or Dodgers came to play in your minor league's team stadium?
That is what happens in the FA Cup, thanks to the tournament's format. It's how Graham Carey's dream can come true this weekend.
Graham Carey plays for Plymouth Argyle, a League Two (4th level) side. He scored the winning goal to send Argyle into the FA Cup's third round. In the random draw that determined the third round matches, Argyle were picked to play Liverpool at Anfield. Carey, a lifelong Liverpool fan, cannot wait for his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Intriguing Tournament Format
Carey gets to fulfill his dream because of the tournament's format. No clubs are seeded in the contest. All 64 teams remaining in the tournament are entered into a random draw to determine the matches. Any club can be randomly drawn to play any other club in the tournament, regardless of level.
This is why some matches this coming weekend feature two Premier League clubs (e.g. West Ham-Man City, Everton-Leiciester, etc.) and others features two lower-league sides (e.g. Wycombe-Stourbridge, Wigan-Nottingham Forest, etc.). This random draw determines the matches for each remaining round of the tournament.
This is also why Premier League clubs, in a few cases, will be traveling to lower-league pitches to play. For instance, Arsenal will play at Preston North End, even though Preston are a Championship side.
Above, we mentioned that this weekend's third round is the first time the Premier League and League Championship clubs enter the tournament. Of the 64 clubs, here is the breakdown of how many come from each level of English football:
- Premier League: 20 (all PL clubs)
- League Championship: 24 (all Championship clubs)
- League One: 9
- League Two: 6
- Non-league: 5
Those 20 clubs from League One and lower are all hoping to play the role of sports Cinderella.
The Chance for Cinderella
Non-league sides are the teams who do not play in the top four levels of English football. Usually, the players on these clubs are not full-time professional footballers. They may have other full-time jobs while playing football for their club part-time. They are the true Cinderellas in this tournament.
Of the five non-league teams remaining, four are in the fifth tier, just below the Football League (top four) levels. The lowest remaining club in the tournament is Stourbridge FC. They play in the seventh tier.
This weekend, Stourbridge plays Wycombe, who comes from the fourth tier. Any football fan who is not a Wycombe supporter should be pulling for Stourbridge to continue their Cinderella story -- from the seventh tier to FA Cup glory.
The Chance for Numerous Upsets
Upsets tend to abound in the FA Cup. All of the Premier League clubs are coming off of three matches in 10 days or less. The FA Cup does not always feel like a major priority right about now. This is amplified for those clubs who are battling for the title, a top-four position in the table, or against relegation.
If you pay attention to the FA Cup this weekend (something we strongly recommend), you will notice that Premier League teams will not play all of their best players, especially if they are playing lower league sides. This can provide some scorelines that look like major upsets. In fact, don't be surprised when Premier League teams this weekend lose to lower-league teams.
It is, as "they" say, the magic of the FA Cup.