Cookie Consent by Free Privacy Policy Generator Skip to content

Trip to Sacramento serves as reminder of Open Cup’s value

This was something close to the platonic ideal of the U.S. Open Cup.

Last Updated
7 min read
Maciek Gudrymowicz / Sounders FC Communications

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The concept of American Soccer culture has always been somewhat muddied. Although professional soccer leagues have been around in this country since at least the 1920s, it wasn’t until MLS that we had a top flight league that reached its 25th season.

The one almost completely unobstructed through line we had during that time was the U.S. Open Cup, a tournament that is now being played for the 109th time and has been contested in all but two years since 1914 (in 2020 and 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic).

Despite that rich history, MLS apparently felt it had outgrown the tournament and attempted to unilaterally remove its teams from this year’s competition. Luckily, U.S. Soccer was able to engineer a compromise that at least kept some teams in. One of the eight MLS teams to be entered into the Open Cup was the Sounders, giving them a chance to tie the tournament’s all-time record of five titles.

I was reminded of how lucky we were when I traveled to watch the Sounders play the Sacramento Republic in the Open Cup quarterfinals on Tuesday.

There is absolutely nothing ostentatious about Heart Health Park, the Republic’s home stadium for 10 of their 11 seasons in what is now called the USL Championship.

Located about seven miles from downtown on the grounds of the Cal Expo and State Fair, Heart Health Park is effectively an erector-set of a stadium that fits about 11,500 fans on mostly aluminum bleachers. The “VIP” space is a tented area behind one goal and what pass as “luxury boxes” are really just seats that have backs. There’s not so much a concourse as there is an area outside the stands. A fair amount of that space is given to sponsors, who hand out trinkets while asking you sign up for their mailing lists. The concession stands are mostly local food trucks, with plenty of tasty looking options. There was even stage with a band playing Tejano music. Shaded spaces were at a premium, something that became immediately apparent when I showed up around 6:30 PM and the temperature was still hovering around 95 degrees.

From the press box — uncovered bleachers that have been outfitted with a table — you can also see the now-closed waterpark immediately behind one set of stands and the amusement rides that are being tested for the California State Fair, which officially opens later in the week. The lights from the rides provided a neon glow that blended nicely with the horizon of the setting sun. Once the fair begins, there will even be a monorail that travels so close to the field that one Republic employee told me they’ve considered trying to sell it as a “premium” viewing space.

As the game approached kickoff — and temperatures had blissfully dropped to closer to 80 degrees — there were more reminders that this was not MLS. The game ball was delivered by a California Highway Patrol Officer rapelling from a helicopter; the players marched in while fireworks were set off from a wagon; and an on-field presenter implored the crowd to “make some noise” while the DJ blasted music interspersed with air-horn sounds.

It was more of the same during the match, with the announcer reading ads during the run of play and players who were believed to be delaying the game taunted by a “milking the clock” graphic that was sponsored by a local dairy.

At halftime, they lined up hundreds of kids and just let them run the length of the field. That’s it, just hundreds of kids running on the field for no reason other than it looks fun.

While possibly a bit kitschy, it was also undeniably charming. Yes, the sellout crowd was clearly here to see their local team attempt to upset one of the biggest clubs in North America — and drink some $2 Modelos — but that didn’t mean they couldn’t have fun, too.

This is American soccer culture.

“It’s great, I love it,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer said. “It’s absolutely what [the Open Cup] is about. I love the trailer we are changing in, love the atmosphere, their barbecue, their beer garden. I thought it was great.”

For Schmetzer, there’s obviously an added attachment. As someone who played not just in the NASL but also in various indoor leagues and then coached the Sounders when they were in the USL, this is all a bit familiar and possibly a tad predictable that he’d find it nostalgic.

The players seemed to like it just as much, though.

“I loved it,” Sounders midfielder Josh Atencio echoed. “The fans were loud. The announcer does a good job getting the fans into the game. It’s a cool atmosphere. We’re the away team, but it got me amped up.”

It obviously helped that the Sounders also came out victorious. The spongy and divoted field may have gotten a little more negative attention if goalkeeper Andrew Thomas hadn’t managed to recover after whiffing on a back pass and nearly giving away a goal in the 2nd minute. If the referee hadn’t correctly ruled a player offside to disallow a would-be equalizer, maybe the Sounders wouldn’t have been quite some complimentary of the various potential distractions.

The Sounders’ feelings aside, this was something close to the platonic ideal of what we all want the Open Cup to be. Lower-division team hosting the big guys — who brought most of their star players — in front of a packed crowd, fueled by cheap beer and clanging on metal bleachers. This is the stuff worth fighting to preserve.

Almost poetically, there was a counter-example going on across the country.

Atlanta United, who routinely draw 40,000 to inconsequential, midweek regular-season games, couldn’t even break 2,500 for their quarterfinal against Indy Eleven. That left the Kennesaw State University football stadium about three-quarters empty, with the entire televised side virtually devoid of fans. It was the kind of awful optics that MLS Commissioner Don Garber bemoaned when he was badmouthing the tournament during the State of the League address earlier this year.

Of course, Atlanta only has themselves to blame for that, as I’d imagine they could have presented something much more attractive if they had decided to. Fittingly, Indy Eleven won the game 2-1, with Atlanta not even scoring until second-half stoppage time.

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

As the Sounders have enjoyed more and more success over the years, the importance of the Open Cup has seemingly begun to wane. In the beginning, it was a way to differentiate themselves, a trophy they could point to as tangible evidence that this was an organization that took winning seriously.

But that was also a little convenient. Winning four titles and going to five finals during their first six years of MLS were good things, but they were never the most important thing. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that once the Sounders starting regularly competing for bigger trophies that the Open Cup took a back seat.

Those four Open Cup titles are nice and make for a good way to pad their overall count, but no one was taking the Sounders’ status as an elite MLS team until they started winning MLS Cups and the Concacaf Champions League.

Conversely, it might be a little convenient that in a season where it looked like this might be the Sounders’ best chance at silverware that they are seemingly taking it more seriously than they have in at least a decade.

Regardless of how firmly Schmetzer’s tongue was against his cheek when he said the reason he used so many regular starters in this game was because “Sounder at Heart wrote a commentary that we didn’t take Open Cup seriously”, he definitely deserves some credit for following through on his previous promises. However they came to it, the Sounders seem to be just about all-in on claiming this trophy.

In about six weeks, they’ll host the winner of tonight’s match between LAFC and New Mexico United. At this point, the Sounders have effectively created a situation where they’ll almost have to field mostly first-choice players again. They’ll play at Starfire. It will feel not so different from this game, albeit even smaller. The crowd will only be a fraction of what they could have drawn at Lumen Field, but it will at least be packed. The atmosphere will surely be electric. I’m sure it will be epic. Win or lose, I’m sure we’ll be reminded why we love the Open Cup, again.