Open up and say ... Ahhhh!
Why the U.S. Open Cup is doomed to second-class
Posted: Tuesday September 4, 2007 11:09AM; Updated: Tuesday September 4, 2007 12:03PM
OK, settle down, settle down. I know. You're all excited about the U.S. Open Cup semifinals taking place Tuesday night, but if you're not careful, you're going to spill your Yoo-hoo on your new Carolina RailHawks scarf.
Yes, the U.S. Op ... what? Tennis? Roger Federer? You mean you're not spazzing about the U.S. Open Cup, the "oldest cup competition in United States soccer"? You've never heard of it?
Truth be told, I understand. And trust me, you're not alone in your ignorance. In theory, the U.S. Open Cup is a wonderful tournament, ripe for Cinderella stories, nail-biting finishes and, of course, March Madness bracketological gambling on a national scale.
But theory only applies in Einsteinian physics and conspiracist circles, and in reality, very few people know jack about the U.S. Open Cup. Heck, I don't know much about it myself: I had to look up semifinalist Carolina's nickname. (Is a RailHawk a mythical locomotive bird of prey? And would sports franchises please stop capitalizing mid-word?)
Partly, the lack of awareness is residue from soccer's long under-the-radar status in the U.S. From the cup's inception in 1914 until the early '90s, it was usually contested by semi-pro teams like San Francisco's Greek-Americans and the Brooklyn Italians, clubs that never quite caught the nation's imagination.
After the '94 World Cup, when U.S. soccer became "major," the tournament gained a little notoriety, but nothing to write home about. The current tournament is poorly organized (the size of the country doesn't help), feebly publicized, hindered by financial difficulties, unavailable on broadcast TV until the final and viewed almost as a nuisance by MLS teams.
This last bit hurts it most. The MLS schedule, with its furious pace, mid-summer heat and long-distance travel, is brutal enough. The U.S. Open Cup just adds to that.
And for what? A bit of hardware that resembles an oversized chess pawn piece with a soccer player glued on top. It's nice, actually, even if most people could care less about it.
The lower-division teams, of course, embrace the whole thing with gusto. They should. This is their tryout, their screen test, their one shot, one opportunity, to seize everything they ever wanted. Team administrators like to slay the bespoke MLS dragons, while the players see it as a chance to turn a few important heads, maybe get a shot in MLS themselves.
The fans? Well, there aren't really any fans to talk about. Only 6,619 showed up for the USL First Division side Seattle Sounders' 5-0 quarterfinal win over the Colorado Rapids. A mere 3,262 watched FC Dallas' 2-1 quarterfinal victory over the Charleston Battery. Those are WUSA-like numbers.
Can anything be done? Probably not. The U.S. Open Cup, as a knockout competition, is like the playoffs without the regular season. Problem is, MLS -- and the USL, for that matter -- already have playoffs, and there are only so many playoffs people -- and the media -- can handle. The win-or-go-home thrill of the U.S. Open Cup is not unique.
League cups around the world, however, have long generated big-time excitement. Many people think this is because the lower-division teams get a chance to play Cinderella. That's certainly a part of it. But equally, I'd argue, the excitement stems from the knockout nature of the tournament.
The do-or-die mentality required in a league cup taps into something primal in all of us. It's simple to understand, simpler to appreciate than a round-robin system. Most global leagues don't have playoffs, so the league cup serves to satiate the fans' knockout craving.
Interestingly, though, that's changing. Take for example, the FA Cup in England. It's the oldest in the world, inaugurated in 1871, yet it too is beginning to lose a little of its luster. Former Manchester United midfielder Roy Keane has called it an "afterthought" and Patrick Vieira said Arsenal's '05 FA Cup trophy was little consolation to losing the league title.
This, of course, gives the old-timers the bends. But in England and elsewhere, the league has simply grown so successful and lucrative -- not to mention the many continental cash-cows -- that the FA Cup has become a second-tier event that causes more fixture congestion and fatigue than joy.
There's a second reason, too: promotion playoffs. In England and Italy, there is now a playoff system in place to determine the third team promoted from a lower league. Teams third through sixth in the standings battle it out in a no-hold-barred knockout madness that satisfies all the adrenaline junkies -- and the bookies.
The U.S. Open Cup has a long, storied history. Unfortunately, unlike the promotion playoffs in Europe, there simply isn't enough at stake. The trophy is nice and all, but compared to an MLS Cup, it might as well be a Roger Federer bobblehead.
Seattle vs. FC Dallas can be viewed free online at USLlive.com on Tuesday night at 10 p.m. ET.