By Ridge Mahoney
Though the end is valuable in itself, the means of the U.S. Open Cup continues to vary wildly for its
It strikes me as ironic that U.S. Soccer has banned the USL teams run by MLS clubs, such as Red Bulls II and their ilk from the Galaxy, Timbers, Sounders, etc., from the
Open Cup. For its Open Cup match Tuesday with bitter rival Portland, the Sounders signed nine – nine! – Sounders 2 players to short-term contracts. It is permitted to do this four times a
season to supplement its squad for any games beyond the league schedule, which include friendlies but also competitive obligations such as the Open Cup.
Seattle and Portland both sent out
teams of mostly backups for a fourth-round match and the Sounders prevailed, 2-1. Eliminating the USL teams run by MLS teams streamlines the competition and also prevents the problem of such USL teams
fielding weakened rosters so as not to cup-tie players the main club might need later in the competition.
MLS teams regularly send out squads laden with backups when they enter the competition
in the fourth round and tend to field stronger selections as they progress. The carrot at the end is a tasty one – the Open Cup winner lands a spot in the Concacaf Champion League, which
ironically is yet another competition for which a team can sign players from its reserve team if it wishes.
There were several derby matches in the mix, which are inevitable since the
early rounds are arranged geographically, and in the biggest such match -- at least on paper -- the Red Bulls beat New York City FC, 1-0.
Most of the games matched teams from different divisions
and though the MLS teams for the most part held serve, Columbus fell to FC Cincinnati of the USL, 1-0, and in another MLS-USL matchup, Colorado needed to rally from two goals down to beat OKC Energy,
3-2. Yet struggling Real Salt Lake played the kids against Sacramento and paid the price, 4-1.
For the expansion San Francisco Deltas of the NASL, a trip to gleaming Avaya Stadium to play
the Earthquakes turned out to be a derby too tough. San Jose scored twice in the first six minutes against the jittery Deltas and though the teams battled more or less evenly the rest of the way, the
visitors fell, 2-0.
San Jose rested a few regulars, which it must do in any case due to restrictions on foreign players for Open Cup matches. A game-day squad of 18 players can include no
more than five players classified as internationals, and this affected the Deltas as well. Their starting goalkeeper, French native Romuald Peiser, was one of the players excluded by head coach
Marc Dos Santos, who -- like his San Jose counterpart Dominic Kinnear -- also had to look ahead to a league match on the weekend.
“Unfortunately we came in a little
too anxious and you’re sleeping on two plays and you’re down, 2-0,” said Dos Santos of the Deltas, which had beaten a PDL team (Burlingame Dragons) and USL foe (Phoenix Rising) to
reach the fourth round. “In their stadium its not the dream start that you wanted but the other 80 minutes we were never inferior, we created a lot of opportunities. Their goalkeeper [Andrew]
Tarbell was good. Overall, being an expansion team and playing a game like that it’s a huge learning moment for us.”
San Francisco, which played in Puerto Rico last
weekend, hosts Edmonton Saturday. The Quakes welcome Sporting Kansas City to Avaya Stadium that same evening. Despite expanded rosters and bigger salary caps, many MLS teams still struggle to field
quality squads when assigned midweek league matches as well as weekend assignments. In the pecking order of priority, at least until the later rounds arrive, the Open Cup is well behind a league
While fans pine for an Open Cup that is truly open in the sense that MLS teams regard it as important as do their NASL and USL counterparts, the reality is more realistic. MLS teams
use the games to build depth and test inexperienced players, and while losing to a team from a lesser division can be an embarrassment, such a defeat isn’t likely to get a coach fired or cause
attendances to plummet.
But a lesser team beating an MLS team can be a big deal, especially on the road, as did Miami FC in Orlando by a score of 3-1. “For us it’s
amazing,” said Miami FC head coach Alessandro Nesta, perhaps extra motivated to face his former AC Milan teammate Kaka. “It was the most important game in Miami
FC’s short history.”
Orlando City’s rabid fan support isn’t likely to dim in the wake of a home loss to a team regarded as inferior. But Miami FC can certainly use
the victory as a stepping stone to credibility, deserved or not, and its coaches and players can take credit for a game well won.
For the time being, the Open Cup is what teams need it to
be, and that perspective is what drives how they prepare and regard a competition with more than a century of tradition.