By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (June 8, 2012) US Soccer Players — Beyond the notable upsets, this year’s edition of the US Open Cup has another interesting subplot, closely tied into the David v. Goliath story line that has dominated proceedings thus far. Not only are the lower division teams doing well, they’re doing well in spite of some very poor league records. Clubs like the Dayton Dutch Lions (last in USL-PRO) and the Carolina RailHawks (last in the NASL) knocked off heavy favorites while at the same time registering their first competitive wins of the calendar year.
The revised tournament structure sowed the seeds for upsets. MLS teams – their routines interrupted by midweek trips to small markets, sometime on the other side of country – haven’t prioritized the tourney as a general rule. Lower division teams were presented with an opportunity to take a high-profile scalp, and made the most of it. For whatever reason, the way their league campaign was going hardly mattered.
So it seems America’s open knockout tournament has its very own version of the classic “Cup team.” Nebulous factors come together to create teams perfectly suited to making a run in a knockout format even while they struggle to pick up points in their primary competition.
What makes these runs even more impressive is the logistics involved. The bragging rights that come with knocking off one of the big boys (or any team that plays in a higher division, for that matter) are nice. But when going deeper into the tourney means expensive trips in the middle of the week, one has to wonder if it's truly in the best interests of lower division teams to keep fighting on. Until the quarterfinals, teams that enter in the first round are required to play four games in the span of three weeks. There’s almost no time to make arrangements.
The goal of every team is the win trophies, and in a perfect world, every trophy would be of the highest priority. But in reality – especially here in the United States where travel is particularly burdensome, rosters are especially thin, and club budgets a consistently marked with red ink – the league typically trumps the Cup by a large margin. That’s true even for the relatively rich MLS clubs, in part because the competition tires legs that must make it through a hot summer, because refereeing is often questionable, and because fan interest is lacking. There’s little to no pressure on MLS head coaches to treat the Open Cup seriously, so they normally don’t. Or they manage the Cup as a logistical exercise as much as a competitive one.
From their first days as an MLS franchise, the Seattle Sounders have made the Open Cup a priority. They’ve won the tournament every year since moving into the League, successfully balancing the midweek distraction with MLS play. To a point, anyway, because it could be possible that the emphasis Seattle places on the Open Cup saps just enough energy from the squad to make them less effective in the MLS playoffs. Each year the Sounders claimed the Open Cup trophy, they went out of the playoffs in the first round.
An unlikely connection, but a possible one.
Remember though, that the Sounders almost never go on the road in the US Open Cup. If they can buy the ability to host, they do. Prior to this season, the Sounders took advantage of the closed bidding process. Now, with a coin flip dictating the host for each match, the Seattle are perfectly willing to pay a lower division opponent for the right to switch the game, as they did with the Atlanta Silverbacks for their third round match.
This policy is Seattle both valuing the Cup (by giving themselves the home-field advantage whenever possible) and minimizing the effect on their League campaign. In that way, the Sounders are a very specific kind of Cup team. For the Sounders, the trophy and the CONCACAF Champions League berth are more than enough motivation. Seattle isn’t suffering from poor League form and using the Open Cup to salvage a bit of pride or jump-start their season, but they are conducting a very separate, very focused plan to bring home a fourth consecutive title.
Of course, if the team is bad, and the standings show you at or near the bottom, a victory in the Open Cup might be just what it takes to turn things around. The Carolina RailHawks beat the LA Galaxy in front of a sellout crowd in the third round. In no small part, that's the high point of a season regardless of how strong a squad LA chose to send to the East Coast. It doesn’t hurt that they beat the defending MLS champions in front of several thousand fans who might have been enticed to come back. For the RailHawks, at least one Open Cup win (conveniently at home) could be more about drawing new fans than it is about winning a trophy. That’s incentive, but it's not the same as charting a route to the final.
Does a birth in the CONCACAF Champions League (more expensive travel, more disruption, the possibility for embarrassment) have any pull? What about the $100,000 in prize money, which may or may not make up for expenses brought on by a long Cup run? Beyond simply the joy of winning, can small clubs with small margins justify giving the Open Cup their all?
That's the situation the lower division clubs find themselves in. That cramped schedule and not enough planning time to reasonably avoid higher priced travel, the temptation of selling off hosting rights even if the coin flip goes their way. Making it to the quarterfinals only to find every game involves a topflight team.
When Seattle coach Sigi Schmid complained about the coin flip and the travel, he got the expected response from the organizers. What's missed is the broader issue for the lower division clubs. Being a Cup team under the current setup is an expensive endeavor with limited reward. Changing that changes the Cup, creates the potential for more Cup teams, and makes for a competition worth everyone's time.
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