“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
– “Closing Time,” Semisonic (1998)
New York City FC’s US Open Cup run is over, ending Wednesday with a Round-of-32 loss at FC Cincinnati. A heavily rotated squad with no primary scoring threat or focus falls on the road to a set-piece goal from one of the league’s best No 9s — sounds familiar, huh?
OK, don’t get “CUPset” over this… but I think it’s time for Major League Soccer clubs to pass on participating in US Open Cup. And not just because NYCFC hasn’t made it past the quarterfinals in their short history.
Yes, we all love the quaintness of this 109-year-old ancient competition from American soccer’s bygone days, pitting the MLS soccer giants against scrappy lower-level clubs from around the country — back when soccer photos were all sepia-toned and were full of ethnic references.
Yes, if your local sponsored Sunday league squad can last through the opening rounds, YOU can have the honor of losing to a USL or NPSL side 6-0. But hey, it’s not the humiliating beatdown, it’s the friends you make along the way, right?
And for the faithful at the Church of Latter-Day Promotion & Relegation™, this is fine. Because this is the way other world soccer leagues work. Through hard work and competition, you rise to the top after years of success — sometimes after an oil magnate spends $265M to buy your club, then spends nearly $1 billion in salaries.
Except in America, which has rejected pro/rel, and different pro sports embraced the franchise system, to prevent competition and protect media markets, to help create parity though various cost controls (ie. salary caps/floors, collective bargaining, media deals), and prevent leagues from folding like NYCFC’s set-piece defense. (What? Too soon?)
Despite the CONCACAF Champions’ League berth to the winner and a token $300,000 cash prize for five months of mid-week matches, many MLS clubs see U.S. Open Cup not as a true competition, but a way to rotate your rosters and get backups playing time, all the time praying no serious injuries are incurred.
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With MLS and LigaMX introducing the Leagues Cup this season, and taking a month off to play this full-league tournament for three CCL berths in July/August, it’s time for MLS squads to forego the stress and poor attendance that Open Cup mid-week matches. Even MLS Commissioner Don Garber let loose on US Soccer this week, saying the Open Cup matches were not an ideal forum to feature MLS teams, and the playing fields at lower-level facilities were not up to par (never mind the turf and baseball fields used in MLS league play).
In the English Football League, in lieu of a playoff in the top Premier League, you have the prestigious FA Cup and the EFL League Cup (Carabao Cup) tournaments played during the season. But there’s also the EFL Trophy (The Papa John’s Trophy, as it’s sponsored currently), which only the lower Leagues One and Two compete for, plus a smattering of U-21 Championship and Premier League sides. That gives the lower-tier squads a prize to shoot for, and a realistic opportunity to get to Wembley Stadium for a high-profile Final.
Even Wrexham have won the EFL Trophy once (2004) — and by typing that, I’ve reached my mandatated-by-law one mention of that Welsh club in a column about pro/rel soccer in England. You’re welcome.
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So, let’s stop with the low-attended MLS vs USL matches. Let’s stop with half-hearted 720p-at-best broadcasts on yearly-switching streaming platforms. Let’s stop with more than half of MLS clubs not seriously caring about the US Open Cup, and foregoing a serious side for this mid-week showdown.
Let the USL and NPSL sides have their day in the sun and let a sub-MLS side get their glory, a nice wad of cash that can pay for nearly half a team’s salary, and a spot into the CONCACAF Champions League. And let MLS and LigaMX focus on their own Leagues Cup glory.