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
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
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.