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Why MLS' attempted withdrawal from the 2024 U.S. Open Cup is everything wrong about American Soccer

The 2024 Lamar Hunt US Open Cup, USA’s premier soccer cup competition, was set to be devoid of Major League Soccer participation. The MLS announced the decision to withdraw its teams on Friday (14th December). However, U.S. Soccer stepped in and forbade the MLS from doing so.  

The 2023 U.S. Open Cup did not draw comparable interest from MLS supporters. However, St. Louis City was an exception; their fans packed CityPark for their sides only home cup game - a win against Union Omaha. (Photo: A sold-out CityPark for St. Louis City's league fixture against the Colorado Rapids)

U.S. Soccer’s official statement, released on the 20th of December, read: 

“Major League Soccer has requested to allow MLS Next Pro teams to represent MLS in the 2024 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. After thoughtful consideration, we have informed MLS that the U.S. Soccer staff recommendation, which was adopted by the Pro League taskforce, is that the request be denied.” 

The MLS responded a few minutes later with a press release of their own: 

“MLS took that step [to remove its first teams] because it believes that there are several essential goals and concerns that must be addressed in connection with the tournament, including developing young professional players and providing them with greater opportunity to play before fans in meaningful competition in a tournament setting, prioritizing player health and safety, reducing schedule congestion for MLS clubs, and enhanced investment from U.S. Soccer." 

It appears as if there is some misunderstanding amongst American Soccer’s elite. Following the announcement of MLS’s withdrawal from the U.S. Open Cup, a spokesperson for the league said the league had been in talks with U.S. Soccer for “several months, probably going back to August”. 

However, U.S. Soccer’s statement said they were only informed of the MLS’s intentions on the day they were announced. 

When the MLS came out and said MLS Next Pro clubs will replace the participation of MLS first teams in the U.S. Open Cup, the immediate reaction was one of uproar from supporters. The U.S. Open Cup is America’s oldest active soccer competition, boasting 109 years of history. To remove the country’s best teams from its most historic tournament was seen as a mockery of soccer’s past in the nation.  

In a league system deprived of promotion/relegation, this move would have severed the only remaining opportunity for lower-division teams to share the field with their top-tier counterparts. 

 The US Open Cup, in its modern form, is a competition of considerable depth, featuring nearly 100 teams starting as low as regional amateur teams. The magic of this competition, like the FA Cup, and the Coupe de France, is that obscure, non-professional teams like Chicago House AC (Midwest Premier League Champions), for example, can play against Beckham’s Inter Miami if remarkable luck and permutations permit. But if MLS plays spoil sport, the Cup will lose its charm. 

From the league’s official statement, the reason for MLS’s intentions appears to be fixture congestion and the need to develop young players.  

“This decision will provide emerging professional players with additional opportunities for meaningful competition. The move also benefits the MLS regular season by reducing schedule congestion, freeing up to six midweek match dates.” 

While it may seem like a sound argument at face value, it is a sorry excuse for a money minded move. 

If fixture congestion was indeed the problem, the MLS could have reduced a few of the many mid-season friendlies its teams tend to play. Or think twice before creating a brand-new competition – the Leagues Cup – to this already busy schedule. Or retain the previous knockout structure, rather than adding a best-of-three first round series. The MLS finds ways to add meaningless games at every turn possible but is unable to incorporate a historically significant tournament. 

As for giving opportunities to younger players, teams have been calling up MLS Next Pro players to play a majority of these U.S. Open Cup games already. If MLS clubs were to quit the competition altogether, in favor of giving young players “meaningful competition”, one would argue the competition would cease to be meaningful. 

It's unfortunate that financial motives drive the MLS away from the U.S. Open Cup. Exhibition games against European superpowers see fans flock to stadiums and global European football supporters turn their eyes to get a glimpse of what the forthcoming season may hold for their beloved club. With Liga MX being one of the most watched leagues in the United States (second only to the English Premier League), the Leagues Cup - a collaboration with the Mexican league - is a lucrative investment. The US Open Cup gets overlooked among all this.  

Furthermore, the supporters of MLS clubs have shown little interest in their side’s Open Cup ventures. Awkward mid-week kick-offs combined with rested first-team players see below-par attendances when a cup fixture is hosted by an MLS team.  

For example, the Colorado Rapids were only able to fill 2,280 seats (of their 18,061-capacity stadium) during their 2023 U.S. Open Cup round-of-16 defeat against Real Salt Lake. The average league attendance for the Rapids was 15,409.  

FC Cincinnati burst onto the soccer scene through their 2017 U.S. Open Cup run, which included victories against two MLS opponents. If MLS teams do not participate in the future, the cup will lose its significance and so will ambitious lower-division sides. (Photo: FCC supporters marching to TQL Stadium for their home league meeting with Nashville)

Similarly, LAFC (renowned for having one of the best fan bases in the country) hosted local rivals LA Galaxy in the 2023 US Open Cup round-of-16. That fixture drew 16,362 spectators. The same fixture, at the same venue, in the MLS later in the year drew a capacity crowd of 22,132. 

The MLS has repeatedly criticized the US Open Cup, and U.S. Soccer, for not maintaining the standard required for MLS participation. Don Garber, MLS Commissioner, said the tournament displayed “a very poor reflection on what it is we’re trying to do with soccer at the highest level” at the U.S. Soccer Board meeting in May of 2023. It seems reasonable to assume his stance has not changed. 

There is a lot of truth to the MLS’s argument – not all the tournament’s games are broadcast (especially in the nascent stages), playing surfaces are not always comparable to MLS quality (when hosted by lower-division teams), and the entire competition can benefit from better marketing. However, the shortcomings of the U.S. Open Cup are not unique to the U.S. Open Cup. It is shared by cup competitions across the globe – including the FA Cup, DFB Pokal, Copa del Ray, and so on. 

While The U.S. Open Cup may not suite the financial interests of the MLS, it is a huge benefactor to lower division clubs. Apart from giving these teams the opportunity to play MLS opposition, it supports these small market franchises in numerous ways.  

When a USL Championship, USL League 1, or an even lower division club, hosts an MLS team in the U.S. Open Cup, it brings about much larger excitement and turnout compared to these teams’ league games. For local supporters of these clubs, who also follow a team in Europe, it gives them a chance to experience what they see on television – games across divisions with the chance of improbable upsets. For locals who are not aware of soccer traditions worldwide, it provides them with the opportunity of seeing a major league team take the field – something they could not do otherwise from a city like Louisville, Albuquerque, Charleston, or Birmingham. 

While there is a lot of romanticizing about the odd underdog story in the U.S. Open Cup, there has only ever been one non-MLS champion since MLS clubs joined the competition in 1996. That history-making side was the 1999 Rochester Raging Rhinos who defeated four MLS teams, including the Colorado Rapids in the final, to win the 85th edition of the competition. Since then, there have been two lower-division finalists – Charleston Battery in 2008 and Sacramento Republic in 2022 (of USL League 1 and USL Championship respectively). 

Despite the lack of ultimate success, non-MLS clubs are rewarded handsomely by U.S. Open Cup runs. FC Cincinnati is the first team that comes to mind, after their cup run in 2017 – which ended in a semi-finals defeat to New York Red Bulls – brought national attention for large attendances and enthusiastic fan following. Playing at University of Cincinnati's Nippert Stadium at the time, FCC drew over 30,000 fans for each of the final four rounds it played in, breaking numerous attendance records. Nine months after the heartbreaking extra-time loss to the Red Bulls, the MLS announced FCC’s inclusion as an expansion club. 

FCC’s story epitomizes what the U.S. Open Cup means for lower division clubs. If fans of MLS clubs are not keen on buying tickets to watch their team host a cup fixture, the solution may lie in allowing the lower ranked side (in each fixture) to host the game. This would ensure capacity crowds – given that the lower ranked side (likely a non-MLS team in the early rounds) would have a smaller venue and more vigorous fans.  

While U.S. Soccer did a commendable job in exercising its rights and protecting this age-old competition, it is up to the governing body to improve the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and create a stronger soccer culture around it. With the MLS having made its intentions public, U.S. Soccer will be pressurized to act fast in this long-overdue reformation. 

The threat of MLS's withdrawal may also stop MLS fans from taking the competition for granted. Meanwhile, fans of lower division clubs are sure to savor the 2024 U.S. Open Cup as if it were the last. With all this in mind, this year’s tournament may see better attendances and a more active fan following. 

MLS’s sly attempt at skirting the 2024 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup was an awkward moment for American Soccer and its governing body, but perhaps it will provide the ignition required for a move in the right direction (and with haste).


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