By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 7, 2012) US Soccer Players – On Wednesday night (9pm ET - GolTV), Seattle will attempt to become the greatest US Open Cup team of the contemporary era. Unlike the original North American Soccer League, Major League Soccer has always put value into the domestic cup tournament. That started by participating, something the NASL never got around to doing. Winning the Open Cup is a requirement for a true MLS dynasty alongside winning the MLS Cup, and Seattle has become the first team to dominate one without the other.
So why now, why year four? It's a good question since an argument can be made that Seattle's three-peat already has them top of the table for MLS in the Open Cup. However, there's that pesky problem of Chicago and their four Open Cup titles. At the very least, that number has to be matched before consecutive wins works as the tiebreaker. Seattle is in position to do just that.
Even critics of how Seattle got to this point have to recognize the accomplishment. DC United was the vanguard in making sure they played as many home games as possible in a competition that allowed clubs to bid to host games. That turned into one title for United to add to their 1996 win. Seattle, using the same concept, turned it into three cups. The first required beating DC at RFK Stadium before making sure they were the team with the winning bid and the appropriate stage for the 2010 and 2011 finals.
Seattle wasn't the first expansion team to see the value in the Cup. Though it seems like a different era at this point, Chicago won the MLS and Open Cup double their first season in the League along with successfully bidding to host a rearranged final. Originally scheduled for Hampton Roads, Virginia, weather meant a bid between Chicago and Columbus. The Fire won the bid and the cup, reminding the rest of MLS of what DC already knew from '96. Get the final in your own building.
With US Soccer moving to one of the finalists hosting in 2000, no one was competing against neutral site bids. That changed the cup, creating the contemporary scenario where MLS plays to an advantage throughout the tournament. Yet it's still up to the teams to take advantage. Enter Seattle, who simply does that better than anybody else right now.
The result is trophies for a team that already knew what happens to expansion teams that flounder over their early seasons. The boost that comes from simply being in the League fades, fans begin to move away, problems start to show. Or, you do it Seattle's way and make sure there's quantifiable progress courtesy of nice shiny trophies.
It's a tough model to replicate. Seattle gave themselves an alternative to MLS Cups at a point where it was a risk. There's not enough upside for any MLS club envisioning themselves as a cup team in American soccer while risking league position. That's reserved for the lower divisions where they run into enough MLS clubs and exit in the semifinals. That's almost meaningless at MLS level. Only the trophy counts, and even then its real value remains questionable.
Few MLS coaches will ever risk their record or their job on an Open Cup run. There's simply not enough on offer to make that the point of a season. There are other ways into the CONCACAF Champions League and there's the feeling that success in the playoffs - even if it's short of the title - counts for more. Seasons are justified by simply making the playoffs, something advancing in the Open Cup is never likely to do. We have a long list of teams still focused on a league they're unlikely to win, putting the Open Cup in a separate category that pays minimal respect to that competition.
That's the importance of what Seattle has already accomplished. Though it's easy to say they're participating in a mini tournament made up of the handful of teams that really care about an Open Cup title from the start of the competition, they still have to go out and perform. They've done that three years running while also making the playoffs every season. While other clubs still stubbornly focus on making the playoffs as enough, Seattle shows us a double justification for their idea of what it takes to be better than average in MLS. The League is not enough and neither is the cup. It takes both, respecting the point of the competitions.
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