By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (May 31, 2012) US Soccer Players -- Like with every upset, there are two ways to view Cal FC’s victory over the Portland Timbers in the third round of the US Open Cup last night. On the one hand, Cal FC, a team made up of part-time players, beat the Timbers through immense effort and their own surprising talent. On the other, the superior Timbers simply failed to bring their advantage in quality and fitness to bear on a game they had no business losing.
Launching a penalty kick over the bar in the 80th minute, the Timbers missed their best chance to put Cal FC away. It just about summed up their night.
That Kris Boyd, Diego Chara, and Jorge Perlaza alongside so many other Timbers starters were on the field show how intent head coach John Spencer was on avoiding the embarrassing upset at home. Remember, he already knew seven MLS teams had been dumped out of the tournament the night before. Spencer took the competition seriously, or seriously enough anyway, and it still wasn’t enough. Portland didn't do their job, something Spencer admitted.
"We had the chances to win the game," he said. "But there's no use talking about 'you had this, you had that,' you've got to score goals to win the game. I can feel the fan’s frustration, I can hear their frustrations. Obviously the players are very frustrated in the locker room. They know they never did well, never got the job done."
Cal FC, on the other hand, did. They absorbed pressure, 15 saves worth. They got lucky. They nipped a goal at exactly the right time - in the first period of extra time, when every leg on the field might as well have been made of lead - and made it stand up. It would be easy to dismiss the win as the effect of MLS teams not caring enough, but all the evidence says otherwise. It would be unfair to say Cal FC beat the Timbers because the Timbers couldn’t be bothered.
Now, Cal FC moves on to face the Seattle Sounders in the next round. Seattle is coming off a 5-1 demolishing of the NASL Atlanta Silverbacks, a win that indicates just how seriously that club takes the competition. Seattle likes the U.S. Open Cup and the opportunity it presents to get into the CONCACAF Champions League. They’re looking for their fourth-straight title, and every expectation is that they’ll throw everything they have at the plucky amateur team from Southern California when Cal FC pays a visit next week. Because the Timbers fell to Cal FC, the Sounders now have the added motivation to embarrass rival Portland by taking out the little club that walked into JELD-WEN and won.
Thus far, it’s been a terrible year in the Open Cup for MLS teams. Eight of them have now gone out in the fourth round. That’s either sheer coincidence, or an indication of something much more troubling from a top-flight perspective.
Wednesday and Thursday's games showed us that in large part rosters are still not deep enough and team cohesion down the depth charts good enough. The drag of the MLS regular season and the travel that goes with it is already in play. Even if a team has every intention of putting out maximum effort, perhaps not least of all to avoid embarrassment, doing so is difficult. That doesn’t excuse the MLS failure thus far, but it might help to explain it.
Is it good for the Open Cup that so many big teams have crashed out? The little team/big team dynamic, and the upsets it can create, are one of the charms of the tournament. Hopefully, American soccer fans are drawn to the Open Cup in greater numbers because upsets capture the imagination.
A troubling flipside to that possibility is that MLS fans - who make up the bulk of Americans who care about the domestic club game - will tune out because their team is no longer participating. Romantic notions might draw attention for a time, but with the summer coming and playoff spots hanging in the balance, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the majority of MLS fans drift away. MLS is not a league of national scope, engaging fans on a broad level no matter the matchup. Fans typically focus on the hometown team to the exclusion of everything else, and that doesn’t bode well for the domestic cup competition.
If the fans of MLS teams that have already gone out of the tournament want a reason to stay engaged, it's Cal FC. The challenge in Seattle will be even greater than the one they faced in Portland, because the Sounders are a better team who place a much stronger emphasis on this tournament. If Seattle puts out a lineup of similar strength to that of the Timbers (meaning the same relative number of first choice players), Cal FC’s task becomes monumental.
The great thing about this game, however, is that a solid plan, intense effort, and a bit of luck can help the biggest underdog defeat the biggest favorite. Cal FC has a shot to beat Seattle, to continue their headline-grabbing run, and to bring even more attention to the Open Cup in the process. It's exactly what this tournament needs.
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