By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (June 26, 2012) US Soccer Players — The 2012 US Open Cup, the 99th edition of a tournament filled with eternal promise but not always so venerable, has reached the quarterfinal stage. Tonight, four games will determine the four semifinalists, bringing us a step closer to crowning a new national champion. Will Seattle keep their bid for a record fourth consecutive trophy alive, on the road? Will any of the lower division underdogs shock their MLS opponents? How strong will the MLS lineups be, with the League season remaining packed and the standings so tight?
Whatever the answers to those questions, this year’s Open Cup has already been a rather unique one. A format change that allowed for hosts to be determined by a coin flip shook things up. With no rule against a club selling hosting rights once decided, MLS teams tried to use that to their advantage. A rash of upsets ousted more more than half of the top tier clubs. Those MLS clubs that did survive showed a real commitment through their lineup choices to winning the tournament.
Yet the biggest factor in the new “feel” of the US Open Cup was the run of Cal FC into the fourth round. Underdogs make for good copy, and underdogs with boisterous head coaches make for more attention than the tournament might have ever received in the modern era. Seriously, when was the last time the Open Cup got this much attention?
In a way, this is still Cal FC’s tournament, even though they were beaten comprehensively by a Seattle team that did not make the mistake of taking them lightly. The enthralling nature of an underdog was the greatest promotion the Open Cup could receive. Everything from here on out is reflecting in the light of Eric Wynalda’s ragtag club.
There are five MLS teams and three clubs from USL-Pro competing in the quarterfinals, with just one of the games an all-MLS affair. If you weren’t paying close attention, you might have missed the build-up to the four matches that will take place tonight, or the news that the semifinal hosting rights were awarded via the closed bid system that formerly applied to the entirety of the tournament. If and when the MLS teams advance, we already know who will be playing where. Now we just need results.
Tonight’s quarterfinals pit Seattle against San Jose, Philadelphia again Harrisburg, Chivas USA against the Charlotte Eagles, and Sporting Kansas City against the Dayton Dutch Lions. Again, just in case you missed it.
You might have missed the build-up mostly because there wasn’t any. Maybe it’s down to the recent international break and the resumption of MLS hostilities, or the number of lower division teams this deep in the competition, or the usual lack of interest in the Open Cup, but the tournament has receded into the background again, at least for those of us without a rooting interest. The heat has dissipated. The early stages made for a tournament that is different and special, but only in a big picture sense. This far in, with the biggest story already told and eight teams left that possess less of the romantic about them, leaves us with an Open Cup that no longer feels quite as interesting.
These underdogs, the three USL-Pro teams still alive in the competition, don’t have the pedigree of Cal FC. It’s not that soccer fans wouldn’t delight in them knocking off their bigger, better opponents, it’s just that these teams aren’t far enough down the ladder to stir the same basic sports fan response.
They also don’t have a Wynalda, charismatically leading the charge, fighting against a system that has both left himself and his players behind (the picture as painted by Wynalda, making Cal FC not only underdogs, but rebels). Wynalda’s divisive opinions, combined with a stated noble cause sitting atop an obvious cynical bitterness, drew in soccer fans who might not have otherwise paid attention. With that gone, the storylines have returned to the mundane.
It doesn’t help that without the interest generated by Wynalda and his team, the tournament goes back to web-only broadcasts. Fox Soccer, perhaps smartly, jumped on board the Cal FC bandwagon, sponsoring the team for their last hurrah in Seattle and broadcasting a game that would have otherwise gone uncovered. Take away the national availability until the final, and it all but relegates the quarterfinals and semifinals to the background.
There are storylines. They take slightly more effort to find, and they have less of the easy accessibility of Cal FC, but they are there. There’s Seattle’s quest for an unprecedented fourth title in a row, which must go through a very good MLS team in San Jose. There’s Philadelphia, somewhat uncomfortably, facing their lower division affiliate in the Harrisburg City Islanders and hoping to continue progress made under their new head coach. The USL-Pro teams are still underdogs, not matter how un-Cal FC they might be, which gives them a modicum of appeal and the backing of MLS fans not actively rooting for any of the remaining top-level clubs. In other words, it’s the usual kind of US Open Cup tournament, which is neither inherently uninteresting nor overly enthralling.
If the Open Cup is going to grow in stature, the interest brought to it by Cal FC (and, to a lesser extent, the rash of upsets) must have a permanent effect. The little amateur club’s run was a lovely thing. It injected some of the romance and charm that proponents of open knock-out tournaments will point to as a reason to watch. Then again, like a lot of those other tournaments, we’re already risking a return to the Open Cup as usual. For the good of the competition, let’s hope for another upset. After all we’ve seen so far, it would be nice to have this new feeling last a little longer.
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