Home SPORTS MLS ditches U.S. Open Cup, sparking outrage and questions throughout American soccer

MLS ditches U.S. Open Cup, sparking outrage and questions throughout American soccer

MLS effectively abandoned the 2024 U.S. Open Cup on Friday, a decision that uprooted decades of history, provoked shock and backlash throughout American soccer, and unmasked the league’s self-interest.

It was a “disgraceful” decision, “absolutely awful” and “f***ing pathetic,” fans cried on social media. It was “shameful” and “insulting,” “dumb” and “gross,” “embarrassing” and “disrespectful.”

It surprised the U.S. Soccer Federation, and infuriated some non-MLS clubs — the chief victims in a one-sided power struggle for control of the sport (and its dollars) in America.

The Open Cup is the country’s longest-running soccer competition, a century-old knockout tournament that anybody can enter. It offered amateur and semi-pro teams an opportunity to spar with top pros, and to dream — until now.

MLS owners voted this week to enter their reserve teams, rather than their first teams, in the 2024 tournament. They dumped the news on U.S. Soccer, on the public, and on the entire soccer ecosystem Friday evening, just as USSF staffers were gathering for a holiday party. They said the league “remains committed to working with the federation to evolve and elevate the Open Cup for everyone involved in the years ahead.” But their intent was clear — because commissioner Don Garber had already signaled it.

Garber, a longtime U.S. Soccer board member, said during the public session of a May board meeting that the Open Cup was “a very poor reflection on what it is that we’re trying to do with soccer at the highest level.” Translation: It was the least glamorous of the several competitions in which MLS teams competed, and the hardest to monetize.

It was also part of a problem whose temperature was rising: MLS calendars were getting crowded. Each team played 34 regular season games. Some played up to a dozen more in the playoffs and the CONCACAF Champions League. The Open Cup, to many, became a burden — and a time to rest starters, and test reserves, even before MLS mandated as much.

Ditching the Open Cup, therefore, “benefits the MLS regular season by reducing schedule congestion, freeing up to six midweek match dates,” MLS said in its Friday statement.

Never mind that it seemingly hurts just about everybody else.

It could harm the second-tier United Soccer League, whose commissioner said in a Friday statement that the news was “a surprise to us.” It will tangibly and intangibly impact soccer’s ability to grow in all non-MLS markets, because it will dampen interest in the Open Cup, which gave non-MLS clubs visibility and platforms they often struggle to build for themselves.

And perhaps that’s the point. By thumbing its nose at the rest of American soccer, MLS is separating from it, asserting dominance over it, and focusing on competitions that MLS and only MLS can control (and profit from).

MLS can control (and profit from) the Leagues Cup, the primary reason for “schedule congestion,” the monthlong midseason tournament that MLS and Mexico’s Liga MX inaugurated this past summer. It is 108 years younger than the Open Cup; but it’s designed to capture new fans — namely Mexican Americans — and their wallets. So it aligns with MLS strategy. The owners, for decades, have artificially restricted competition and their own spending so that they can build sustainable businesses — which, in turn, and in theory, would allow them to spend more and elevate American men’s soccer at large.

And in many ways, they have. The league’s growth, on the whole, has been good for the U.S. men’s national team, and for youth soccer, and for the long-term trajectory and popularity of the sport in this country.

But it sometimes grows by shoving aside and suppressing others.

‘Lamar Hunt should be rolling in his grave’

That, in a nutshell, is why Friday’s announcement sparked such an outcry.

“Trying to own all of soccer in U.S. by killing what they don’t own,” lamented Christos FCa Baltimore-based amateur club that went on a storybook Open Cup run in 2017.

Peter Wilt, a former Chicago Fire general manager who then dedicated his career to lower-division soccer, called on fans to “boycott MLS until they return to the best and oldest tournament in American soccer.”

Lamar Hunt, an MLS founder and soccer pioneer who was so influential that the “Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup” now bears his name, “should be rolling in his grave,” Wilt wrote on X.

Others were stunned or befuddled. Others asked pressing questions. Among them: What about the U.S. Soccer “Pro League Standards,” which state that, if a league wishes to be sanctioned as a “first division,” all “U.S.‐based teams must participate in all representative U.S. Soccer and CONCACAF competitions for which they are eligible”?

U.S. Soccer said in a Friday evening statement that it is “currently reviewing” the MLS decision.

It was only notified Friday, and obviously wasn’t happy. But it has little leverage; it wouldn’t dare refuse to recognize MLS as its top men’s league; and it almost surely wouldn’t levy a severe, politically risky punishment.

Which, of course, is why MLS forged ahead shamelessly. It has been emboldened by its growth (and by Lionel Messi). It can afford to ruffle feathers, because U.S. Soccer now needs MLS more than MLS needs U.S. Soccer.

The flurry of questions continued late into Friday night. They included one about continental qualifying. The 2023 Open Cup winner earned a berth in the 2024 CONCACAF Champions Cup — an expanded, rebranded North and Central American Champions League. Would that hold true for 2024-25? And if an MLS reserve team lifted the Open Cup, would it play against the best of CONCACAF? Or could it simply transfer its Champions Cup place to its affiliate MLS first team?

Those answers are in the hands of CONCACAF, and remain to be determined.

They leave room for silver linings, and perhaps even positive spins. USL teams could realistically qualify for the Champions Cup now. They might not get the publicity that the Sacramento Republic got in 2022 en route to the Open Cup final, via a string of upsets. But their odds of lifting American soccer’s oldest trophy just skyrocketed.

That, in reality, could breathe life into a tournament that has struggled for relevancy in the 21st century. The romance and mere concept of the Open Cup always outpaced the actual product. MLS teams would enter in the third round; roll out fringe lineups until the quarters; get serious when a trophy appeared on the horizon; and invariably lift it. They’d won every edition since 1999. What fun is that?

The MLS Players Association didn’t like it. Relatively few fans watched it. Garber said he actually didn’t mind that, because the quality of the games, on “sub-par fields,” was low. So, throughout the summer and fall, he and his league engaged with U.S. Soccer in discussions about the tournament’s future.

And then, at least in 2024, they ditched it.

‘That dream is now shattered’

They could’ve used their clout and marketing might to boost it. That’s what literally every other major soccer league in the world does. The English Premier League partakes in the FA Cup; German Bundesliga clubs gun for the DFB Pokal; Barcelona and Real Madrid go for the Copa Del Rey.

MLS, instead, took an unprecedented leap away from tradition, away from the many humble shoulders on which American soccer stands, a leap so brazen that many peered through it and saw greed.

MLS could still backtrack. It could return in 2025. It could still work with U.S. Soccer to promote the tournament and unlock its potential. But for now?

“This is incredibly disappointing news to say the least,” Ballard FC, a fourth-tier club based in Seattle, wrote on X. “Clubs like ours dream of the opportunity to compete against the top competition and have worked so hard to try and make that dream a reality.

“That dream is now shattered.”

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