On what can best be described as a low point for MLS public relations, the league was forced on Wednesday to walk back its plans to replace its teams in the U.S. Open Cup with MLS Next Pro teams after U.S. Soccer rejected the proposal and effectively pointed out that the move would be in violation of its Pro League Standards.
Major League Soccer has requested to allow MLS Next Pro teams to represent MLS in the 2024 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. After thoughtful consideration, we have informed MLS that the U.S. Soccer staff recommendation, which was adopted by the Pro League Taskforce, is that the request be denied. - U.S. Soccer
As a result, MLS officials indicated that they had no real choice but to field teams in the country's oldest soccer tournament. The news came the same day that MLS released its 2024 schedule, which notably did not include any conflicts with planned U.S. Open Cup dates.
MLS is committed to finding a viable solution for the 2024 tournament and is working to find a pathway that addresses its goals and concerns. Moving forward, MLS will remain focused on increasing opportunities for up-and-coming players, a key component of the League’s player development strategy that ultimately benefits the U.S. national team program. - MLS
None of this means that things will simply progress as normal, though. While teams wearing MLS jerseys will compete in the tournament just as they always have, what the actual rosters look like is very much to-be-determined. It would be entirely fair to assume that most if not all teams will now field rosters that lean heavily on call-ups from MLS Next Pro and academy teams. In recent years, especially, teams like the Sounders have already been doing this, but it's unclear if the changes could become even more pronounced or if regular starters will even be used deeper in the tournament.
Aside from largely self-inflicted concerns over fixture congestion, MLS has also expressed frustration at both the presentation and finances of the Open Cup and implied those were the main reasons behind their attempt to pull out. Specifically, MLS claims that its teams lose money whether they host or travel for Open Cup matches as U.S. Soccer keeps an outsized portion of the gate and doesn't fully cover travel costs. MLS is hoping to get these issues addressed.
The concerns MLS has with the U.S. Open Cup are neither new nor hard to understand. For all the history surrounding the tournament, it has never received the attention or investment that it deserves. U.S. Soccer has historically treated it as an afterthought with virtually no resources dedicated to administering it.
MLS had made their concerns well known and had apparently been discussing the possibility of entering MLS Next Pro teams with U.S. Soccer for months with little pushback, but clearly had not actually gotten anything like formal approval.
As a result, MLS comes out of this entire mess looking more like a disgraced bully than anything else. Although Friday's announcement has retroactively been framed more as one-year proposal than a unilateral proclamation, no one forced them to put out a vaguely-worded statement just as everyone was getting ready to go home for the weekend. In the absence of more considerate messaging, the now relatively robust soccer media landscape was left to fill the vacuum with everything ranging from wild-eyed conspiracies to more thoughtful criticism. What was almost completely nonexistent were any prominent voices offering anything like a sympathetic viewpoint. Meanwhile, outlets that rarely cover the Open Cup were more than happy to throw haymakers at MLS over its perceived disrespect of the sport's tradition. The Athletic dubbed the turnabout the MLS's "Super League moment."
The good news is that MLS seems to at least be playing along now. With a little luck, this can result in newfound investment into a tournament that frankly deserves it. This is a unique thing in American sports and with the proper care should be able to thrive.