By J Hutcherson (May 22, 2015) US Soccer Players - It's tough for me to be objective about the US Open Cup. I'm one of those people who sees the potential for the tournament, in part because of personal ties. I was there for the 98 US Open Cup final when Chicago pulled off its expansion season double. The first game I ever covered professionally was the 2000 Open Cup final. It has meaning, ticking all of the boxes for a certain type of nostalgia prone sports fan. It also might not matter at all from an MLS perspective.
Of course, there's history here. The original NASL had no time for the Open Cup, leaving it alone in an era when playing up history and longevity made no sense for a new forward-looking league. It's hard to consider that a mistake. The original NASL was a short season league, done by the end of August in its brief glory years in the late 1970s. They had their own international competitions and friendlies to consider. Adding games meant compacting a schedule. It wasn't worth it, all things considered.
For the nostalgia prone, that's borderline heresy. Then again, what did the NASL teams of that era really have to prove lining up against the lower division and amateur teams in the Open Cup? They certainly had plenty to lose, and it's easy to imagine that was a motivation against the Open Cup when the original NASL looked at its schedule and teams early on. By the time some NASL teams were showing up with world all-stars in their lineups, the Open Cup wasn't even a consideration much less an issue.
MLS saw it differently. They embraced the Open Cup as part of being real American soccer clubs. Their redefining of what that meant in the mid-90s deserves credit, of course. That doesn't mean it was the best idea.
Don't get me wrong. I've seen enough Open Cup games over the years to understand the charm. It's nice to think of American soccer as a true pyramid based solely on merit rather than set leagues without promotion and relegation. I would imagine most American club soccer fans get that. However, just like with the original NASL, all you need to do is look at the schedule.
The MLS schedule is a travesty. It's unbalanced, puts teams on the road for long stretches, and somehow makes putting professional soccer games on a schedule seem like one of the labors of Hercules. It's 2015, well into the era of soccer-specific control of venues, and it got worse rather than better. When opportunities are there for prestige friendlies, MLS takes full advantage. More games on a lousy schedule, adding to the basic issue of trying to make sure a team plays at home every other week. It's not even a question of fitting the Open Cup in. It's asking why MLS insists on bothering.
As competitions go, there's very little upside in the Open Cup for MLS. DC United and Seattle somewhat salvaged seasons by becoming Open Cup teams, but especially with DC United we saw the obvious problem. They gamed the tournament, playing mostly at home. US Soccer allowed this because they couldn't come up with a justifiable way to resist the temptation of allowing bids for hosting the later rounds. Why not get something back from a competition that's probably not revenue positive?
The changes came slowly, but US Soccer continues to make meaningful adjustments. Though Seattle won last year's Cup by playing four out of their five games at home, the away date was the final. This season, US Soccer regionalized the Cup to keep amateur teams from having to finance cross-country expeditions in an unlikely pursuit of a trophy.
If you're not an MLS team, that's another problem with the current version of the Open Cup. By design, itstacks the deck in MLS's favor. Make it to the Fourth Round when MLS teams enter and you're playing one of them. Well, at least on paper. There's still the tendency for some MLS clubs to look at their screwy schedule complete with the occasional prestige friendly and wonder if the Cup is really worth it. Their pragmatic idea is to field what we'll politely call a non-representative eleven. That squad wears the appropriate shirt, but looks closer to the level of the team that they're playing than what we'd see in an MLS game.
Hey, some MLS teams to the same thing when they lineup against Manchester United, so it's not that much of a knock. Still, it prioritizes the Open Cup in a way that makes it clear what those teams think. It's an obligation that's not worth their full commitment.
What if they're right and the Cup teams are wrong? Yes, we now have a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League dangling as the carrot for the winner, but even that isn't much of a prize. Some MLS teams have the same habit of prioritizing MLS over CCL when it comes down to games on the schedule. That same bizarre league schedule that is a major part of the problem.
This isn't going to end with an argument for MLS straightening out its schedule for the good of the Open Cup. There's no point in clearing a path for the domestic cup when MLS can't even do that for its own games. Instead, it's about MLS prioritizing itself. Figure out the league schedule two decades in, and then consider whether or not the US Open Cup makes sense.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.
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