As far as Friday news dumps go, this one was a doozy: MLS announced that its first teams will not compete in the 2024 edition of the U.S. Open Cup. Instead, MLS Next Pro teams will effectively take their place in the country’s oldest and most storied soccer tournament. Put another way, the 120-year-old tournament will lack first-division participation, potentially in violation of the USSF’s own Pro League Standards.
Here’s how MLS explained it in a press release: “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."
Using fixture congestion as a justification is, of course, a rather rich and convenient excuse. The main cause for that congestion is MLS launching Leagues Cup, a tournament that involves all 29 teams and takes up an entire month of the calendar. In recent years, MLS has also added Campeones Cup and expanded the playoffs, which further contributed to teams like LAFC playing more than 50 games in a season.
Although no officials are going on the record to say this, the justification for pulling out of the Open Cup seems to be more than purely about money. MLS has long expressed frustration with U.S. Soccer over the rather ramshackle way the tournament has been organized, whether it's the very limited resources that are used to organize it; the lack of facility standards; the paltry prize money; or the inability and/or disinterest in turning it into a viable commercial product. Leagues Cup, while lacking any sense of history, at least can credibly accomplish all of those things.
There's a way of looking at this where MLS is justified in its decision. It's not hard to find players, coaches or front office staff who think the Open Cup is not worth their time and it's become increasingly common even for teams like the Sounders – who have a rich history in the tournament – to effectively field reserve teams, especially during the early stages. You could maybe even talk yourself into believing that this is MLS's attempt to finally get U.S. Soccer to start investing real resources and to actually turn this into our version of England's FA Cup, an idea that's often given lip-service but very rarely the resources that might make that a reality.
If you were so inclined to believe in that possibility, it could be noted that MLS did not pull its first teams out of the Canadian Championship, which is at least run more like a professional tournament.
But that's all conjecture at this point. Nothing about the way MLS announced this decision hints at any of that beyond this vague statement: "MLS remains committed to working with U.S. Soccer to evolve and elevate the Open Cup for everyone involved in the years ahead."
Absent any other assurances from league officials, all that we're left with is the impossible-to-ignore reality that MLS is completely shirking its responsibility as the only first-division league in the United States and underming its legitimacy in the eyes of hordes of fans. Badly run as it may have been, the Open Cup still provided tons of positive memories and has an important place in American soccer culture. It also had a unique place in the sporting landscape, the one tournament where a literal pub league team could plausibly face off against a first-division opponent.
Dating to their time in USL, the Sounders seemed to understand that more than anyone. Coming off several successul runs as a lower-division Cinderella, the Sounders became the tournament's Goliath as they played in five Open Cup finals – winning four – from 2009-14. That included a lot of games at Starfire where the minor-league nature of the facility was part of its charm, even if it could be credibly argued that games should never have been played there. Similarly, one of the most legendary games in Sounders history was played at a facility – San Francisco's storied Kezar Stadium – where the wifi was so bad that the only livestream was shot off a fan's phone.
But the Sounders' attitude about the tournament seemed to shift after the infamous Red Card Wedding in 2015, a result that was so disastrous that it couldn't help but alter the way they approached the tournament in later years. Not only did Clint Dempsey get suspended for ripping up the referee's notebook in the eventual loss to the Portland Timbers, but Obafemi Martins suffered an injury that kept him out for months. It would be unfair to pin that entirely on the underqualified referee, but his inexperience was at least one contributing factor to how out-of-control that game got, as were the tinder-box nature of the stadium and overly familiar rivals.
As a fan, matches like those are some of my most cherished memories. But I can still see why MLS players, staff and owners feel like they've outgrown it all.
Instead of making a point about U.S. Soccer needing to do a better job stewarding the tournament, though, MLS is taking its ball and going home with only the most mealy-mouthed of explanations. If history tells us anything, it's that U.S. Soccer probably won't be spurred into action and MLS will just take the PR hit and move along. If we're lucky, maybe this provides an opening for USL Championship teams to get some extra spotlight and maybe even a taste at the international stage. I could see myself getting excited by a deep Tacoma Defiance or even Ballard FC run. But even then their achievement will be clouded by not getting to test themselves against the country's most talented teams. It's very hard to imagine the Open Cup ever regaining whatever glory it once had.
I'm not inclined to buy into the idea that the Sounders' four Open Cup trophies are now worthless, but some of the sheen has undoubtedly worn off. The banners hanging at Lumen Field feel a little more tattered. Even if I can understand the logic behind the decision, I can't bring myself to excuse it. An important part of Sounders and MLS history has just be severed and fans are unfortunately the biggest losers.