"Arsenal are a great team. But we lifted the trophy eight times in 11 years." - David Gill
This past Tuesday, Rapids competed in the Lamar Hunt United States Open Cup. The Cup, with its first competition held in 1913, is the oldest soccer tournament in the US. From a soccer fan perspective, the tournament is fairly interesting in that it is open to any team affiliated with the US Soccer Federation and therefore open to pretty much anyone. While the MLS teams get slotted in towards the end (4th Round), numerous lower rung teams go through a series of qualifying rounds just to get the potential shot at facing the top tier teams. Since the MLS became involved, a MLS team has won the tournament each year except 1999 when our Rapids lost to Rochester.
One of the many interesting things to me about soccer throughout the world is the many subplots of competition in any one season. In no other professional sport, do teams, during the season, dip their toes into other levels of play. For instance the English Premiership teams play their premiership games, they also play for the FA Cup (similar to our Open Cup), and then the top tier teams play in either the Champions League or Europa League. The MLS has a similar arrangement where they play 34 MLS matches, then anywhere from one to five additional Open Cup matches, and if qualified, the CONCACAF tournament. For the casual fan this flip flopping of competition must seem an oddity. For a team's marketing department it must be maddening. Trying to promote and sell tickets for a competition that just magically appears on the schedule.
It is especially unusual that in years past, teams put in closed bids to host matches. Invariably the lower rung teams won out and hosted; but this year the rule changed and home matches were determined by coin flips. With such unknowns, I wonder what MLS players think especially the foreigners. I can only imagine the locker room conversations might go something like this, "Is this a real match?" "Yes, we wear uniforms and everything." "But no one is in the stands?" "Yeah, well, think of it as a fancy scrimmage..."
In the Rapids debut for the Cup play on Tuesday, about 1,000 people paid a token fee to watch some pretty good soccer. With the Rapids facing Orlando City, a team which will enter MLS play next year, the Rapids certainly weren't playing some no name amateur club team. In a somewhat surprising turn of events, Rapids management decided to dress the full A-Team. There has been some debate that if Rapids are on the World Cup break why would they field such a team? With the A-Team dressed and on the pitch, the Rapids came away with a 5-2 victory, with Deshorn Brown scoring a hat trick.
It was an interesting match as a spectator. Rapids had moments of brilliance paired with moments of head scratching. Overall the match felt somewhat like a Reserve game - no one in the stands. In support of playing during the World Cup break, I believe the actual play will help once the MLS starts up play again at the end of the month. The positives out weigh the negatives - Brown appears to have found is scoring stroke, no one got injured, and Sanchez and Buddle got on the pitch. The few negatives included some defending miscues, Irwin looking a bit rusty, and no Torres. Whatever is going on with Torres needs to be settled because paying DP money to a bench warmer is not going to cut it on a team that has limited resources.
With the win, Rapids get to face the Atlanta Silverbacks, at home, next Tuesday, June 24th. With the MLS season back in full swing on June 28, what level of team the Rapids will field next week is anyone's guess? If they win next week, they will then play the winner of the Sporting KC/Portland matchup. A win there and they would be in the final four with the potential for two more matches. Any trophy is worth competing for (just ask Arsenal), at any level, but one has to wonder the commitment at the MLS level. Last year's winner, DC United, finished last in the MLS with total points so for them they had nothing to lose; but for a team trying to win the MLS Cup, can you truly add five potential matches to your player's legs? This raises an interesting conundrum. As fans we will see the level of commitment from Rapids management next Tuesday against Atlanta with the Whitecaps coming to town four days later.
Rapids history in the Open Cup is tepid at best. MLS started playing in the Cup in 1996. In that inaugural year, the Rapids took the place of the Colorado Foxes and then went on to beat the KC Wiz only to fall to Rochester. Overall, the Rapids record in Cup play is 10-13 (and outscored 29-43). With last night's match, which marked only the fourth time in 18 years of Cup play, that the Rapids hosted a match they came away with a win. In all Cup home matches, the Rapids have been victorious, although only one of the matches was against a MLS opponent. In fact, in the 23 Open Cup matches played by the Rapids they are 4-5 against other MLS squads and 5-8 against lower divisions.
With Atlanta coming to town next week, and with Klute and Berner who both previously played for the Silverbacks, I personally would like to see another A-Team. Competition is competition. Going through the motions, to me, sets a bad example plus it's not fair to the opponents. I think Orlando was put on notice Tuesday night about what it will mean to play in the MLS next year. While the part of their team we saw Tuesday night had some talent, they have some work to do before hitting the MLS next year. I wish them luck, although they will probably hope we visit them versus making a return to altitude.
And finally, to the Rapids organization. I understand the MLS Cup is the ultimate goal, but as a fan, I like to think you put forth a level of expectation that the organization is top notch and that all competition is taken seriously. I applaud the decision to play an excellent side. For our players let's fill the stadium next week against Atlanta. Give tickets away during the World Cup viewing, open the stadium gates wide open to anyone who wants to attend, put an A-Team product on the field, and let potential new fans see what Dick's, MLS and US soccer is all about.