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April 26, 2007

Open Up! Changes should come to Open Cup
By Andrea Canales, Associate Editor

It’s strange to note the phenomenon that is taking place when American soccer is garnering more attention than ever – its most long-lasting competition is being shunned and marginalized.

The U.S. Open Cup is the granddaddy of soccer tournaments. It began in 1914 and is one of the oldest sporting events on the entire continent.

There’s an incredible history there that actually connects soccer to roots that many have forgotten or ignore. The Chicago Fire, who have won the Open Cup four times, need another title to match the likes of Bethlehem Steel FC, one of the earliest clubs to dominate in U.S. soccer.

Yet there has been little notice of the Open Cup this year, though the tournament also now bears the name of one of the sports greatest supporters, Lamar Hunt.

There was hoopla and a one million dollar prize attached to the launch of the SuperLiga, the new competition between Major League Soccer and the Mexican League.

A CONCACAF Champion’s Cup berth is now awarded to a team who does not even win a tournament proper, but who claims the best MLS regular season record.

Of course, prize money, a CCC spot and a nationally televised title game accompanies the MLS Cup, the trophy prize of a league only a dozen years old.

Besides the long tradition, what makes the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup so special is that it truly is an open competition. Any team registered with the U.S. Soccer Federation, from amateur to pro level, is eligible and can theoretically hoist the title.

That’s why the tournament continued strong even in the dark days when there was no pro league in the country. That’s why, though MLS teams have won the trophy most of the time, the Rochester Raging Rhinos title in 1999 is so meaningful, because they proved a lower league team could do it.

Similarly, Dallas Roma FC turned heads last year when they became the first amateur team to defeat an MLS squad, downing Chivas USA in penalty kicks.

Those amazing stories got little attention partly because the Open Cup is something of an orphan tournament. Though it is run by the U.S. Soccer Federation, that organization is primarily focused on the national teams, and does little to promote the tournament it manages.

Some MLS teams treat Open Cup matches as little more than inconvenient interruptions to the league schedule, running out reserve sides for the games.

In order to reduce game congestion later in the year, MLS took the unusual step this season of requiring teams who finished the season low on points to “play-in” to the Open Cup tournament.

This created a weird scenario, where an Open Cup finalist (the Los Angeles Galaxy), was forced to fight against a former Open Cup champion (the Columbus Crew) to even enter the competition.

Meanwhile, teams that have seemingly never bothered to put much stock, effort or their top players into the Open Cup (the New England Revolution comes to mind) are safely through to the tournament’s late stages.

Though the Galaxy successfully fended off the Crew, they now must defeat New York in another “play-in” to get to that same point.

Bottom line, with a much smaller amount of prize money than the SuperLiga, little fanfare and the chance of humiliation against non-league teams, the incentive for many MLS teams to go all out in this competition is low.

One standout exception is the Chicago Fire. Not surprisingly, the team’s concentration on the Open Cup has paid off with wins. No other MLS team has as many.

“Every year we talk about two trophies,” said Fire coach Dave Sarachan. “It’s not easy to win trophies, and yet the Open Cup has been something we’ve been very successful in. I would attribute that to a couple of things. One is the fact that we treat it very seriously – we don’t just talk it – we walk it. The second thing is that we’re not afraid to divide the minutes up among our roster. Last year, we did a pretty good job of calling on guys that late in the season to step in and do a job.”

The current Open Cup holders don’t let distractions get in the way of their goal.

“It sort of bothers me when I hear the notion that other teams may not take the Open Cup that seriously and that the Major League Soccer trophies are more important,” Sarachan declared. “We say baloney. We start from day one knowing that that is an attainable thing and our guys have just done a great job preparing for those games. They’re not easy games. We just feel very confident that we can win those competitions.”

While winning the regular season is a notable attainment that receives acknowledgement from the Supporter’s Shield trophy, it would seem to make more sense to award a CONCACAF Champion’s Cup berth to a team that has proven itself as the champion of all the club teams in the U.S., not just the one from a single league.

“I absolutely believe that,” said Sarachan of the scenario. “I think it would once again validate the importance of a champion in a tournament that’s domestically our oldest tournament running.”

In one fell blow, the prestige of the U.S. Open Cup would be greatly heightened, and the trophy could represent not only all the soccer history of the U.S. with pride, but also part of its future on the international stage.

“We’ve often said that it’s a big tournament,” pointed out Sarachan. “There’s more teams that enter the Open Cup than any other competition. I do believe that that team should be recognized in future competitions.”

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