We can hear the chides now. Seattle Sounders FC supporters are sure to wave their two consecutive championships in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in the faces of Portland Timbers fans.
Good for them. It’s just what we would do, had our team won two consecutive national championships.
We can also hear the reply from the Timbers faithful: Who cares?
Sure, it’s a lame response. But (sadly) it also rings true, and reflects the apathy — both within the soccer community and everywhere else — about what could be a signature event for the sport.
The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup is a true national tournament.
Amateur, semi-pro, and lower-division pro teams have a chance — admittedly small, but a chance — to compete against MLS teams in a single-elimination tournament.
It also has tradition. It dates to 1914.
What it doesn’t have is a consistent or understandable structure.
The tournament proper doesn’t start until June, when eight lower-division qualifiers and eight MLS teams mix it up. Fine. But why can’t U.S. Soccer promote the qualifying rounds?
Another question. Why does MLS agree to the current format?
Sure, the Open Cup helps promote the game, and in Seattle at least creates a real buzz. Trouble is, U.S. Soccer doesn’t make the Cup a priority.
Why, then, should MLS teams be asked to squeeze qualifying games between league matches?
Consider this: There had to be some first-timers among the 11,000 fans who showed up at Jeld-Wen Field on Tuesday for the match between the Timbers and San Jose Earthquakes. How many of them will give the game another chance after watching a game with no flow, and limited offense?
I don’t mean to knock the effort of either team. There was passion and effort in the game. But both teams had mix-and-match lineups indicative of the lack of importance to both coaches.
John Spencer, Portland’s coach, said as much:
“You realize we have a game on Friday,” he said after Tuesday’s 1-0 overtime loss to the Quakes. “It’s Major League Soccer, there are points on the table to be had (Friday) and I think that’s the reason why we had so many (regulars) not starting. We put a team out there that we felt could win the game.”
Translation: Tuesday didn’t really matter.
Oh, it mattered for the rookies who got their first starting chance, and to players coming off injuries who got in a good 120-minute training game.
The problem with the show wasn’t the effort or the passion. There was plenty of both. There just wasn’t enough quality.
And don’t blame the coaches. They are paid to win MLS games. If the coaches earned a bonus for an Open Cup title because it mattered, you’d see different lineups.
San Jose president David Kaval wrote a piece at sjearthquakes.com suggesting changes to the Open Cup. He had some good ideas. Among Kaval’s suggestions: Have MLS teams play lower-level teams earlier in the tournament. Soccer, for all its beauty, isn’t a game where the best team always wins. Imagine the thrill if the Timbers’ under-23 PDL team eliminated the Sounders (OK, I’m pandering to Timbers fans).
Before the Timbers were in MLS, a visit by San Jose and Landon Donovan for an Open Cup was the highlight of the season. Ditto visits by Seattle during its two runs to the Open Cup.
Those moments are what makes this tournament special. What ruins it are nights like Tuesday.
For the Open Cup to become relevant, it needs the best teams in American soccer to give a darn. Here are a few ideas that might work:
• A rivalry play-in for MLS. Add a third rivalry match to the MLS schedule with the winner advancing to the Open Cup. With 18 teams this season, this plan would leave nine teams for eight spots, meaning two teams would play in extra qualifying match. That’s far better than the three play-in games the Timbers needed to win this season.
• Tie Open Cup qualifying to league results so that teams aren’t playing extra games in an already busy schedule. Give the top two regular season MLS teams from the previous year spots in the Open Cup. Then take the next six best teams through the first 10 MLS games of the season.
• Anything that doesn’t force MLS to schedule extra games for its teams in the regular season. If games like Tuesday’s must be played, get the schedule out early so it’s played in an open slot in the league schedule.
Those are some ideas.
Not that anyone — including U.S. Soccer — seems to care.
Paul Danzer covers the Portland Timbers for The Columbian. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.