The more things change, the more they stay the same. I know a lot of people had really hoped that this year's U.S. Open Cup was going to be different. No more bidding to host games before the semifinals. MLS teams being forced to travel to lower-division stadiums. You know, just like England's FA Cup...
As we now know, that's not really the case, after all. Although there is some semblance of a draw, teams are still allowed to make a private arrangement with their opponents. In the case of the Seattle Sounders, that's exactly what they did with the Atlanta Silverbacks. So, instead of traipsing across the country a day or two after coming back from Los Angeles for a game against Chivas USA, the Sounders will host the Silverbacks in the third round of the U.S. Open Cup.
To make that happen, the Sounders are basically cutting a check to the Silverbacks that will apparently help the NASL team fund a free game against the Carolina Railhawks as part of a previously unplanned Fan Appreciation Night, help them sign some players and bring a MLS team to town for a friendly.
"The decision associated with the venue change wasn’t easy, by any means," Silverbacks Chairman Boris Jerkunica said in a statement. "Seattle Sounders FC presented us with an offer that we simply couldn’t refuse, and in the end, it was a decision that was based on the balance between instant gratification and long-term improvement."
The Portland Timbers had announced they intended to do the same thing, although it turned out to be unnecessary. Shortly after the Sounders made their announcement, Real Salt Lake said they'd be doing it, too.
Turns out, the only real change from last year, at least for these early rounds, is that instead of paying off the USSF, MLS teams give that money to their lower-division opponents.
I won't begrudge anyone for feeling that U.S. Soccer pulled a fast one on fans of the U.S. Open Cup, but I refuse to blame the Sounders for looking out for their best interests here.
As is now obvious, other MLS teams are perfectly willing to "buy" home games in the Open Cup and USSF is doing absolutely nothing to stop them, even if they aren't straight up encouraging it. Meanwhile, lower-division teams are getting themselves a pay day that is helping keep them going. In the grand scheme, it's not the worst thing in the world.
With all this as the backdrop, the Sounders were basically given a choice: respect the draw out of some sense of moral superiority or do what they thought was the best thing to help themselves win a record fourth-straight U.S. Open Cup.
No, it's not perfect. But the USSF has done almost nothing to help reach that end. They give teams a paltry $8,000 travel budget to fly an entire team across the country on a week's notice. They spend millions and millions of dollars on the head coach of the United States national team, but spend only a fraction of that on the most prestigious tournament they host.
There are ways to help make this tournament great, but the USSF is not leading the way. The system sucks, but one team hurting themselves isn't going to fix it.
U.S. Soccer is within its power to make the Open Cup better. If you want the Sounders to help make that happen, pressure them to do it on the back end. Don't expect them to play with one hand tied behind their back.