MLS Should Shut the Door on Open Cup

By Paul Gardner

Here we go again. It's open Cup time. Ho hum, ho hum, ho hummm. No, you guessed it, the mention of the Open Cup has not set my nerves vibrating uncontrollably, nor raised my adrenaline to burn-out levels.

Frankly, I don't particularly care about the Open Cup. It has a habit -- by design, I'm sure -- of arriving at the very moment of each MLS season when things are getting tough, and all it does is to make matters worse by increasing the schedule congestion.

Last November, just before MLS Cup-2008, Commissioner Don Garber had a few things to say about schedule congestion and how difficult it was for MLS to avoid it. Well, he was asked, why don't you simply withdraw MLS clubs from the Open Cup? After all ... but the questioner never got to spell out the excellent reasons for nixing MLS participation. Because Garber ran smoothly and immediately into his reply. He'd heard this argument before, oh yes, you could tell that ... so he said, with apparent sincerity, something like this: that MLS wouldn't dream of doing anything to lower the value of a tournament that was so highly rated by the U.S. Soccer Federation.

The answer has its merits ... as an exercise in tact and solidarity and Mr Nice Guy-ism. But as a contribution to the health and wealth of MLS, it makes absolutely no sense at all.

What Garber's questioner would have said (I know this, because I was the questioner whom he so comprehensively silenced) was that MLS gets nothing out of the Open Cup. It is a hopeless situation. The interest in the tournament is negligible. Playing teams from the USL is totally lose-lose -- if you win, well that was expected, and if you lose, what a disgrace. Losing MLS clubs suffer an ugly wound to their image as well, as does the league.

How not to sympathize with the Revs coach Steve Nicol when he says "Whatever way you go, you lose." Yes, the Revs certainly did that -- entering the Open Cup game against the Harrisburg City Islanders with only 15 fit players, ending it with only 13, and losing, 2-1.

Quite right Steve -- nothing positive whatever to be taken from that experience, not with crucial SuperLiga and MLS games crowding up.

Of course, MLS coaches know what to do about things. They put out basically reserve teams and hope for the best. Hoping for a win of course (though New England, the Chicago Fire, the Columbus Crew and Chivas USA have all come a cropper against USL teams so far), but also hoping -- praying more likely -- that no one gets injured. Because injuries are a risk in this type of game -- where an obviously smaller no-hope club tries desperately to knock off an obviously favored big-wig club. Not necessarily the result of violent play, more the product of terrific enthusiasm on one side, and a rather half-hearted commitment on the other. Not a good recipe.

And how does putting out reserve teams do anything at all to promote the importance and grandeur and majesty of the Open Cup? (My descriptive terms are ones that I sense the U.S. Soccer people would like to be applied to their tournament.)

Obviously it does nothing but devalue the tournament. But that is inevitable, because the tournament is wildly, hysterically, over-rated. Once the reality of actually playing the games begins, the balloon bursts and there's not much left to see -- except embarrassment and schedule congestion for the MLS clubs.

OK, so that's totally one-sided. Of course it is -- I'm countering Garber's position that the Open Cup has to be supported for the good of American soccer as a whole. From the USL's point of view, the Open Cup is a wonderful opportunity. Take the very same reasons why it's such an incubus for MLS, turn them on their heads, and you've explained why it's win-win time for the USL.

But since when has it been the responsibility of MLS -- still, let us remind ourselves, a pro league struggling to get established -- to sacrifice itself to help the USL? Schedule congestion and embarrassing losses are something that MLS can do without.

The Open Cup is yet another of the blessings that we can thank the Brits for. It is based on the FA Cup, the oldest of soccer's competitions, and the one that really got club soccer started. But that was back in 1872. To spell it out -- one hundred and thirty seven years ago. Times have changed. Even the English clubs no longer treat their own competition with the old level of reverence. Even Manchester United and Arsenal put out basically "B" teams. And no other country in the entire world has ever yet managed to produce a cup competition that carries anything like the prestige -- or the popularity -- that the FA Cup has, or used to have. Least of all the USA.

One day an Open Cup with full MLS involvement might make sense. But I doubt it -- it's not a format that seems to have caught on in other American sports. Or any other pro activity, that I know of.

Right now, MLS Clubs have more important matters to get right than playing Open Cup games. So: remove MLS clubs from the Open Cup. Maybe a single game Challenge final -- between the Open Cup winner and the MLS champion might be feasible. But even that doesn't sound like a barn-burner to me.


7 comments about "MLS Should Shut the Door on Open Cup".
  1. , July 2, 2009 at 9:34 a.m.

    Wouldn't it make more sense to have the USL teams compete and qualify for the Open Cup and have all the MLS teams compete in the Open Cup? This move would certainly bring more prestige to the tournament. MLS has a stronger following and bigger stadiums in the US than the USL. If we have 16 MLS teams competing plus 8 USL teams qualifying then a 24 teams US Open Cup tournament would make more sense. The tournament is a great for US soccer, but is not a marquee tournament. Reserve squads of MLS teams playing as starters in US Open Cup tournament games certainly places low value to the tournament. If the USL and MLS work together we could have USL teams moving up to MLS and MLS teams relegated to USL.

  2. David Borts, July 2, 2009 at 10:02 a.m.

    Not everything English in Football is evil. The thought that a "minnow" amateur or pdl team can have an opportunity to knock off an MLS team is great. The problem is that the MLS has stayed in the competition without committing its resources to it. You have teams like the Revs competing in the "farcical" Superliga against Mexican teams that are in preseason and really do not want to be hear while US Open Cup games are going on. MLS team rosters have been reduced and certain MLS coaches are not interested in the Cup.
    The US Open Cup needs Corporate sponsorship, and a much larger cash prize to be divided amongst all finalists and the Cup will become a premier event in US Soccer

  3. Matthew Martin, July 2, 2009 at 10:39 a.m.

    Paul Gardner who hits the nail on the head so often is wrong on this one. MLS still needs to Expand its fanbase and one way is to support what amounts to grassroots soccer. That is what the FA Cup and the US Open Cup support at their best. I love driving out to the countryside to attend these matches - like last season when Rochester played DC United or two nights ago when PDL side OCEAN CITY matched DC United for 80 plus minutes and some debatable calls or non calls bailed DC out at the end! From DC'S VIEW: How else are Boyzz Khumalo, Devon McTavish, Brandon Barklage, and John Diraimondo going to improve and incorporate into the team? Greg Janicki is a solid defender who doesn't start because of DC's 3 man backline....Kocic played....give me a break - if you can't stand the sub par footie how do you live in this country as a fan? There have to be even MORE CRAPPY GAMES if we're going to improve as a footie nation. And as for the couple hundred Ocean City fans who made the trip? Do they do that if its just Richmond? There was a lot at stake and as for me - I enjoy seeing the development of the game at all levels....Congestion? Stop being elitist! No one who follows the game in this country should be and those who are HOLD THE GAME BACK! Hey, but I enjoy your writing otherwise!
    BUT One more thing....IF AS COMPETITORS WE SHIED AWAY FROM EVERY LOSE LOSE WE'D SKIP HALF THE SCHEDULE! Why should any team be afraid of losing? Its a GAME FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! You get paid to play a game! I have a fulltime job but I still spend 20 hours a week scouting these games and I can tell you its not always pretty....but I LOVE IT! AND I imagine that most of the players do too! EVEN THE Open Cup!

  4. Gus Keri, July 2, 2009 at 10:42 a.m.

    A little statistical information:

    Assuming that MLS teams win every game against lower division teams, how many extra games would they have played in a season?

    The answer: (in 2009 Open Cup)

    2 teams would have played 4 or 6 extra games (the finalists)
    2 teams would have played 3 or 5 extra games (the semifinalists)
    4 teams would have played 2 or 4 extra games (the quartefinalists)
    2 teams would have played 2 extra games (second qualifying round)
    4 teams would have played 1 extra games (first qualifying round)

    Total number of extra games is 21 games only

    Congestion? what congestion do these games cause?

  5. Kent James, July 2, 2009 at 11:33 a.m.

    For the MLS the Open Cup does not make sense, but for everyone else, it does. The problem is that the MLS rosters are not deep enough to support their participation in a meaningful way. Much of the country only has access to lower division teams, and the prospect of them playing an MLS team (even if it has many reserves playing) helps the aspirations of the smaller clubs, and gives the fans something to look forward to. Gardner makes some very valid points, but I think the benefits to everyone else outweigh the costs to the MLS. Strengthening soccer's fan base around the country will eventually benefit the MLS. Additionally, it's not a total loss for the MLS clubs; as Matthew Martin pointed out, it gives the understudies a chance to show what they can do.

  6. B F, July 2, 2009 at 12:41 p.m.

    Don't forget that in New England's case, they finished the cup tie with 8 men on the field: 1 player received two yellows and 2 were injured after NE had used its last sub. I suspect NE was happy to avoid yet another match... especially considering how fixture congestion ruined their season last year.

  7. Dragos Axinte, July 4, 2009 at 1:59 p.m.

    Mr. Gardner gives us the opportunity to disagree with him for one in every few of the articles he writes. This is definitely one! The Cup tournaments are a great opportunity for lower-division teams to compete at a higher level and for their best players to be noticed for advancement. The games also provide excitement for the fans who may have a rare opportunity to watch a big team come to their town. And certainly the giant killers become everyone's favorites... So what's not to like? Exhaustion is not a factor, just part of the coaches' usual complaints, which would occur anyway.

    The Cup tournaments provide progress for players and excitement for fans and they should be encouraged, not criticized. The clubs should be given incentive to participate with a full effort, possibly by the organization of international tournaments akin the retired European Cup Winners' Cup, the most exciting tournament in international club history.

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