In Its 97th Year, U.S. Open Cup Remains in Limbo
The U.S. Open Cup is a 97-year-old adolescent, rife with potential but still vulnerable, immature and unable to support itself. There had been signs over the past couple years, however, that the tournament finally may be growing up. But confusion on Tuesday afternoon -- just hours before the final in Seattle -- leaves its future now in as much doubt as ever.
On Tuesday night at Qwest Field, the Seattle Sounders will attempt to become the first club in the MLS era to defend the Open Cup title when they take on the Columbus Crew (10 PM ET, Fox Soccer Channel). It's a title both clubs want to win, and it's a game both organizations wanted to host. That's an auspicious development.
Last year, the Sounders raised a stink when the U.S. Soccer Federation selected RFK Stadium, rather than Qwest, as the site of their final showdown with D.C. United. The capital club responded to the expansion franchise's complaints with an all-out blitz to produce a Seattle-like crowd. The resulting "We Win Trophies" PR campaign was a cheeky swipe at the newbies from the Northwest and helped boost attendance to more than 17,000, just short of the MLS-era Open Cup record.
But Seattle made its point. They won the game and their first trophy as an MLS franchise, and then returned to the final this season. This time, the club's bid to host was accepted, and Sounders fans have responded. As of Tuesday afternoon nearly 30,000 tickets had been sold. The club and the community put its money where its mouth was, and did so emphatically.
Now it's Columbus that's dissatisfied. The Crew had to travel to RFK for its semifinal and then was the only one of the final four competitors denied the opportunity to host the championship game (D.C. would have played host to Chivas USA, who would have in turn hosted Columbus, had either of those final pairings resulted). In control of its own stadium and founded by Lamar Hunt, for whom the Open Cup is named, Columbus was indignant.
"You make it to a final, but you have to go to Seattle on Sunday after playing a home game on Saturday," Crew coach Robert Warzycha told The Columbus Dispatch. "You've got to fly all day, play on the (artificial) turf on Tuesday and then you go play an important MLS game in Chicago on Friday. Great."
Midfielder Guillermo Barros Schelotto said, "The field is for Seattle. The stadium is for Seattle. Everything is for Seattle. But that does not matter. We have the final. We have 90 minutes to win a trophy. Nothing is more important."
The fact that a player as decorated as Schelotto (four Copa Libertadores, two Club World Cups, etc.) is so eager to get his hands on the Open Cup is as promising a sign as the clubs jousting to host the final.
MLS teams, coaches and players seem to care now more than they used to. There are fewer instances of teams fielding the massage therapist and equipment manager in the earlier rounds, and the recognition of the Cup as the one real piece of soccer tradition we have in the U.S. is growing.
U.S. Soccer did its critical part as well in 2008, offering one of the four berths to the expanded CONCACAF Champions League to the Open Cup winner. The tournament now offered an even greater prize and served as a link between the lower levels of the American soccer pyramid and the global game.
All of these -- the PR campaigns, the bids to host, the increasing attendance and the Champions League berth -- were hints that the ancient adolescent finally was approaching maturity.
But for this late bloomer, there's trouble on the horizon.
Crew technical director Brian Bliss told Shawn Mitchell of The Dispatch that U.S. Soccer planned to withdraw the CONCACAF bid reserved for the Open Cup champion and award it instead to a team based on its MLS record (the other three berths go to the MLS Cup champion, runner-up and the Supporters Shield winner/non-MLS Cup finalist with the best regular season record).
U.S. Soccer's fear is obvious: What if a minor league team upsets its way to the Cup? The Charleston Battery advanced to the final in 2008, and the Rochester Rhinos won the whole thing in 1999. It's possible.
A U.S. minor league side likely would be thrashed by CONCACAF opposition -- just look at how much trouble MLS sides have been having -- and could add fuel to an argument from down south that the U.S. doesn't deserve twice as many bids as Costa Rica, Honduras and others.
After much tweeting and fan/blogger consternation on Tuesday afternoon, FanHouse (through MLS) and Mitchell (through U.S. Soccer and CONCACAF) confirmed that Bliss was mistaken, and that Tuesday's winner will play in the 2011-12 Champions League.
But after that, all bets are off. Bliss must have heard something that led him to his conclusion, and none of the governing bodies would commit to sending the Open Cup champion to the 2012-13 edition. Had those bodies been asked about 2010-11 before the last minor league team was eliminated over the summer, perhaps they would have been reluctant to offer a definitive answer. It's obviously a concern.
Such a decision would be a huge blow to the tournament's credibility. It also would be a further insult to lower-division clubs not offered the possibility of promotion and the opportunity to earn one of MLS's Champions League spots.
What would be left to play for? A trophy that few but the most die-hard fans value. A paltry $100,000 in prize money to be split among an entire team of professionals. The glory of playing minor league sides before crowds in the four figures.
Lots of people have ideas about how the Open Cup could be improved, made more relevant and self-sustaining (here are a few from the eminent Steve Davis from Dallas), but the truth is that American soccer fans and MLS clubs have had 15 years to commit to the Cup, and they just haven't (outside Seattle).
The only way to ensure it ever grows up is to make it worth something. And that's U.S. Soccer's call. First, take the risk and leave the CONCACAF bid in place. If you're that nervous about a minor league team advancing, create some kind of playoff system under which a second-division Cup winner would have to play the best remaining MLS team for the spot.
And raise the prize money. U.S. Soccer probably earned about $6 million in revenue from the friendly against Brazil in early August alone. Steer just a small percentage of those funds toward the Open Cup, and the value of the entire property would increase. Sponsors might come aboard. More fans may come out.
It will take that kind of commitment.
Until then, enjoy Tuesday's final. Here are a couple of comprehensive stats-and-facts preview packages from U.S. Soccer and the brilliant TheCup.us Web site. While you're at the latter, read up a bit on the long history of the tournament. Hopefully, the powers that be in American soccer soon will make sure that the Open Cup doesn't slide back into another decade or two of anonymity.