MLS’ U.S. Open Cup plan is a cynical move away from soccer’s standard: Rueter

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When Inter Miami signed Lionel Messi, the jokes wrote themselves. “Sure, he dazzled at the Camp Nou, but could he do it after riding the bus to a 5,300-seater in Statesboro, Georgia?”
With one Friday afternoon announcement, MLS took a step toward ensuring that specific scenario would remain hypothetical. MLS is now saying that its teams will not participate in the U.S. Open Cup, the country’s equivalent to England’s FA Cup, effectively severing the only competitive tie the top-tier league has to the rest of the American men’s soccer ecosystem.
With every decision, Major League Soccer finds itself weighing factors from two distinct camps: those of being a soccer league within a national pyramid like every other FIFA-recognized federation (though without promotion and relegation), and those of being an American sports league, a corporatized entity using sports to wring out maximum revenue from its fanbase. Make no mistake — those two truths often fly in the face of one another.
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The league has fixed transfer windows listed in FIFA’s calendars, but still has waiver orders and rookie drafts. It sells players abroad for transfer fees — pure cash — but requires its teams to trade players internally for league-issued allocation money. It has youth academies to develop homegrown talent outside of the North American collegiate system, but maintains a strict salary cap to set a ceiling on its most ambitious spenders. All of this is justified as being more stable for sustained operation.
As a result, it often seems like MLS is constantly forced to decide whether to take its cues from the sport’s global precedent or the other major sports leagues in the U.S., many of whom share owners with those in MLS’ ranks.
Among the one indisputably global facets of the competition was one that has far more history than the league itself: the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
Founded in 1914 and operating every single year since then (save for 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic), the Open Cup brings together every independent professional soccer team with qualifying non-professional clubs for a knockout competition with a storied trophy, prize money, and entry into the CONCACAF Champions Cup on offer. For MLS teams having bad years in the league, it was a way to ensure the season wasn’t a total loss. For those aiming to win MLS Cup, it was another title up for grabs to distinguish that year’s achievements from other great teams.
MLS’s latest move was previously feared but seemingly impossible to fathom: it will not take part in a tournament that’s 82 years its senior. Instead, it will send its developmental teams from MLS Next Pro into the arena against sides from the USL, NISA, and non-professional circuits.
From the vantage point of soccer purism, it’s one of the most cynical decisions in the league’s recent history. If allowed, it would close the final window into the VIP room atop the U.S. soccer pyramid.
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Two factors sent warning signs that this particular plug could be pulled. The first came during a U.S. Soccer board meeting in May, when MLS commissioner Don Garber stated that the tournament — often played midweek and in front of smaller crowds than modern MLS stadium capacities — displayed “a very poor reflection on what it is we’re trying to do with soccer at the highest level.”
He seemed to soften that stance last week at a pre-MLS Cup press conference in Columbus, saying that “we all need to embrace (the Open Cup) — from our federation to our respective leagues — and give it the profile and give it the support that it needs.”
Whether or not pulling the tournament’s most notable members from competition qualifies as “support” is up for you to decide. However, the second factor seems to be more directly responsible for the shifting priorities of MLS’ owners: the newly reformatted Leagues Cup, a month-long tournament involving every MLS and Liga MX team for two-to-seven games in the dog days of summer. It’s worth mentioning that Mexico’s Open Cup equivalent — Copa MX, founded in 1907 — was abolished in 2020 between the COVID-19 pandemic and the federation’s prioritization of El Tri’s matches before the Qatar-hosted World Cup.
The burden of trade-off, of course, was felt most by the players’ bodies. This year’s MLS Cup runners-up, Los Angeles FC, played a staggering 53 games in 2023 by advancing to MLS Cup, the CONCACAF Champions League final, the U.S. Open Cup round of 16, and the Leagues Cup quarterfinal. It was the most games ever played by an MLS team within a calendar year. Had LAFC run the gauntlet in every competition, that tally would have reached 58.
Historically, MLS teams have treated the early rounds of the U.S. Open Cup as a chance for squad players and academy graduates to get minutes while the regulars catch their breath. Instead of allowing teams to continue those calculations, the league has taken the choice out of their hands, now ensuring that only the developmental squad will get a run-out.
In a vacuum, it lightens the load for MLS first-team sides. It also stunts the growth potential for every other team below them in the U.S. soccer pyramid. As MLS teams took the tournament with varying levels of seriousness, it was the lower-division sides that gave the U.S. Open Cup its lifeblood. For 90 minutes, these low-profile, often low-paid players stood toe-to-toe on a level playing field with MLS foes on far healthier salaries. For some, it was a showcase in hopes of getting a move to a higher-level club. For the rest, it was the game of the year.
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“I think that every player — and every coach, by the way — wants to progress to the fourth round of the Open Cup to meet an MLS opponent,” then-New Mexico United head coach Troy Lesesne told me as his side made a run to the 2019 quarterfinal. “That’s a proving ground. We can’t get around the fact that players will be up for that.”
That quarterfinal run paid dividends for New Mexico United. Four years on, Lesesne has moved up the ranks and spent most of 2023 as the New York Red Bulls’ head coach. Goalkeeper Cody Mizell has been with New York City FC since 2021. Multiple members from that year’s Black and Yellow have had fine careers in the second division, further from the spotlight. Along the way, they and many other clubs further down the pyramid that advanced far enough benefited from being able to sell a competitive fixture against an MLS opponent.
Unlike a regular season game, a win over even a non-MLS opponent kept them in contention for a truly historic run to the final. It allowed perceived “smaller” cities and towns to look like potential hotbeds worthy of an MLS franchise, most prominently when then-USL side FC Cincinnati made a run to the semifinal in 2017. Two years later, the team’s ownership made the move to MLS. Who knows if we would’ve had a different MLS Supporters Shield winner in 2023 without the shootout heroics of Mitch Hildebrandt?
Without the chance to topple Goliath, David was just another malnourished shepherd. Without the promise of knocking off an MLS team, an Open Cup match is just another midweek fixture.
It isn’t as though the lower-league teams were punching bags for MLS sides. In 2022, Sacramento Republic became the first lower-division team to reach the U.S. Open Cup final since 2008. They did so after wins over the San Jose Earthquakes, the LA Galaxy and Sporting Kansas City. On the eve of the final, they were embroiled in a scandal after their opponent, Orlando City, was accused of spying on their final training session at a public park half an hour away from Exploria Stadium.
Orlando went on to win the final at home by a 3-0 margin. Nevertheless, it was an unforgettable highlight for an organization that had recently taken a hit after Ron Burkle divested from a potential move for the club to become MLS’ 30th franchise.
“I mean, sometimes I still don’t believe it, you know?” longtime Republic captain Rodrigo López told me before that final. “I try not to think that much because we like to live in the moment, but it’s kind of hard to get away from that Open Cup game. … Even just walking in the grocery store, people are saying ‘Hey, we’ll be at the final’ or ‘We’ll be watching, go get them, go win that title.’ It’s definitely special. I think everything’s coming together.”
So much for those 15 minutes of fame. MLS hopes that you understand, boys. It’s strictly business.
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Although the decision was MLS’ to make, U.S. Soccer giving it the greenlight would reflect even worse on the national soccer federation. During an information session on Friday, an MLS spokesperson stated that the league had been in talks with U.S. Soccer for “several months, probably going back to August” — and that “key partners” were being informed in the final minutes before the announcement at 5:00 p.m. Eastern. Not among those partners: the USL…and U.S. Soccer.
In 2021, U.S. Soccer ended a near 20-year partnership with Soccer United Marketing, the commercial arm of Major League Soccer that’s owned by the league’s team owners. At the time, the decision was seen as ending a glaring conflict of interest that had the nation’s governing body in exclusive cahoots with the nation’s top men’s soccer league.
Although it freed the league to explore its own broadcast partnerships without being in lockstep with the national teams and U.S. Open Cup, it did seem to increase separation between the federation and the league — allowing for checks and balances in less of a gray area, while preserving (at minimum) the illusion of unbiased decision-making on the federation’s behalf.
Instead, Friday’s news hits harder than any jab directed SUM’s ways during those years. As every other men’s league in the nation prepared their applications for the 2024 U.S. Open Cup — which, according to an MLS spokesperson, were due on Friday, December 15 — MLS was finding a way to keep the competition’s highest-profile entrants from “having” to play in a knockout domestic cup.
The Premier League hasn’t pulled its teams from the FA Cup. Copa del Rey’s winner almost always plays in La Liga. You can find first-division teams throughout the bracket in the Coppa Italia, Germany’s DFB-Pokal, the Super Cup of India, the Chatham Cup in New Zealand, the Coupe du Togo, even the Canadian Championship (sorry for the wear and tear, Montréal, Toronto, and Vancouver) — but, no longer, the U.S. Open Cup. It seems far more akin to the NBA’s new in-season tournament, which involves the exact same teams as its regular season. That doesn’t seem in line with the world’s game, now does it?
Although U.S. Soccer’s Professional League Standards mandate that teams from a sanctioned first-division league “must participate in all representative U.S. Soccer and CONCACAF competitions for which they are eligible,” it seems likely that U.S. Soccer gave enough validation necessary to green light MLS for Friday’s announcement. MLS is not the type of league to brashly make these kinds of changes without support.
Instead, MLS intends for the nation’s most prominent soccer players to play in the Leagues Cup – a brand new, made-for-streaming competition exclusively for first-division teams in the United States and Mexico. They’re doing so in spite of the federation’s guiding document for any sanctioned competition.
MLS has made its move, deciding to drive its hotrod right into U.S. Soccer’s path. Only the federation can attempt to stop this from happening. Will they point to the Professional League Standards and say that replacing MLS teams with their developmental squads breaks the requirements to be a sanctioned first-division league? Will they tell MLS to find another way to ease the toll on its players’ bodies in light of its new and exclusive competition? Or will they let MLS have its way and keep its first teams fresh for a revenue generator that no other league in the national landscape can access?
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U.S. Soccer’s answer will now be a public one following MLS’ announcement about breaking up with the century-old tournament. How they act will set a precedent that could pose a greater threat to the U.S. Open Cup than any number of squad rotations possibly could.
(Photo: Jason Allen/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

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