To me, the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup has always been an idea that's great in theory, but flawed in execution.
I've been a long time detractor of the Cup, but I've always maintained that there are ways that the USSF could make it into a premier cup competition like it was way back in the days when it was the only trophy to be won in the United States. In fact, I'm certain that considering the growth we've seen this year, it will be the 100th anniversary of the cup in 2013 that will see it flourish into a truly great competition, the Cup that we've always wanted it to be but it never was.
But wait, you're saying. With all the excitement we've seen in this year's third round, you mean it hasn't become a truly great competition? Not now, and not yet. This year, however, is sowing the seeds for an exciting future that could see the Cup become a trophy to be fought for, rather than 'the consolation trophy if we can't win any other trophies' like it has been the past decade.
What do I mean? Join me after the jump and I'll tell you.
My biggest problem with the Open Cup in the Pro Era has always been the rules in place. The ability to essentially buy the Cup by buying home field advantage -- though as Real Salt Lake can tell you, that only works most of the time and not all -- and the strange rules that kept top teams out of the running made it a farcical tournament that was most often won by teams who built themselves around winning it just so they could get some manner of silverware -- the Chicago and Seattle types.
The Open Cup is often said to be the FA Cup of the United States. And certainly, it's the closest competition we have to that, minus some of the awful rules that used to be in place. There's a bit of a difference though, in that every single team that gets into the knockout rounds of the FA Cup cares deeply about the competition. In the Open Cup, for years teams have played lower than reserve players in lazy games, hoping to luck their way into Finals at times. It was even worse before, when MLS teams were being left out of the actual tournament.
I've heard arguments that all of the upsets in the third round are absolute proof that the Open Cup is now a truly great competition since the smaller teams have caught up to MLS, but there's a bit of a flaw in that argument. It's partially small sample size -- as any good baseball nerd will talk about -- and partially the whole 'teams not giving it their all' thing.
Almost every single MLS team that lost had either been immensely unlucky or were playing a reserves filled side. It's the old story, a lot of teams don't take the start of the Open Cup all that seriously. The Timbers loss to Cal FC was historic, but by any measure the Timbers should have won that game. If not for a shanked PK by Kris Boyd and all sorts of bad luck, we would have been talking about a dominant but unlucky 1-0 win by Portland. Cal FC won on sheer luck, not on skill or great coaching. There are always upsets in the Open Cup, this was just the first season that featured every MLS team going against a lower division team so it was inevitable that there would be more upsets than the norm.
I play Football Manager quite a bit, so I see this sort of crap all the time. I once got Leyton Orient of League One to beat Bolton of the EPL in the FA Cup, thanks to a game that featured 30 shots to six in favor of Bolton but the one goal coming from a counter attack on the O's side. I was absolutely destroyed in the next round by Championship side Derby County because of regression to the mean. These kind of games happen in football, Cal FC aren't some super sleeper American heroes team that are going to storm the ranks and win the cup on grit and skill.
Plenty of MLS teams won too, and most of those teams were playing their first sides. The Rapids traveled almost everyone from their 3-2 win over Montreal and beat Tampa Bay handily. After an embarrassing showing last season in the Open Cup, New York came out looking for blood and won in a crushing manner. As close as some people want to believe the lower leagues are getting to MLS due to these results, it's an illusion. A first team MLS squad is head and shoulders above anything from NASL down no matter how you slice it.
Let's be honest, Cal FC is going to get smashed by the Seattle Sounders. In fact, I would be surprised if any of the lower division teams manage to get past MLS competition in the next round because the MLS sides will more than likely all be playing their first teams. All those third round upsets were fun, but we should have expected a couple of them and something makes me doubt that another 1999 situation will happen -- that's the last time that a team that wasn't in MLS won the cup, when the Rochester Rhinos beat our Rapids in the final.
If you want to grow the game in the lower divisions, make them work for it. How do you make them work for it and make the upsets a lot more special? Get the upper division teams to care more. They've taken steps to make that happen and this year we're starting to see results. The first step was giving the winner a CONCACAF Champions League spot, which perked up the ears of some MLS teams but didn't do much considering the format.
It was absolutely a mistake by the Open Cup to have that knockout round set for MLS teams that kept all of the top teams from being in the tournament for so many years. That's why most teams didn't care, they didn't want to bother putting their all into the knockout rounds when there was a chance they wouldn't even make the final tournament in the middle of MLS play. Can you imagine if the FA Cup made EPL teams face off before the tournament proper so that only 1/3 of them could make it in?
That was changed this year, and to great fanfare they also changed the ability to buy home field for yourself... sort of. Removing that loophole and also removing the stupid $12K hosting fee that punishes lower division teams for making it far in the competition are really the only two things left to fix. And both can easily be fixed this off-season. After that? Just find a big name sponsor and a TV contract of some sort -- if not just doing official streaming, which has boosted interest this year since almost every game has been visible on the net -- and you have yourself a pretty awesome cup competition that's much easier to take seriously.
It's very close to ideal, and this year has been more fun to watch than years past, but I'm considering it a bridge year and until further notice, it still isn't a 'cup that matters.' Not until the ability to buy home field is gone and almost every team takes it seriously will that change. It's up to the USSF now, and considering they made so much movement this season to try and improve the competition, I don't think it's too much to ask for them to make those few adjustments this time around.
So this season, I'll still regard the Open Cup with a shake of the head and a chuckle, even if the Rapids somehow win it. I'm keeping my eyes and ears open though, because the seeds are sewn for a brilliant revitalization of the country's oldest soccer trophy in 2013. Your move, United States Soccer Federation.