By Jason Davis - WASHINGTON, DC (Jan 8, 2014) US Soccer Players - First, a simply stated matter of fact that anyone with a rational mind and an interest in American soccer is unlikely to challenge. The U.S. Open Cup is not a big deal.
Yes, winning the tournament does bring with it a CONCACAF Champions League berth (at least currently). And yes, lifting any trophy is a worthwhile goal for any club. Nevertheless, America’s annual knockout competition lacks the type of cache needed to make it much more than an occasionally interesting distraction. The reality of the Open Cup’s irrelevance is a thorn in the side of lovers of the format, the only one that provides for inter-division competition in a country without movement between tiers.
There is something of a popular push to make the Open Cup mean more. While the efforts of U.S. Soccer on that front are open to criticism, an increase in prize money and the Champions League spot are clear indications the tournament has backers. Boosters naturally bemoan the second-class status of the Open Cup, and there’s no doubting that American soccer would be richer with a cup-style competition the top-level clubs took seriously.
Second, another simply stated matter of fact that anyone with a rational mind and an interest in English soccer is unlikely to challenge. The FA Cup isn’t as big a deal as it used to be.
More precisely, it’s fair to say that the FA Cup’s importance is waning. Not a season goes by without at least one manager expressing some angst over the distraction of the world’s oldest knockout tournament causes, particularly for teams with questionable depth. This year, Aston Villa’s Paul Lambert went public with his belief that most managers would happily forego the tournament if it meant Premier League survival. Making a run in the FA Cup requires expended effort that stresses all but the biggest teams. Even some of those find it difficult to balance playing on multiple fronts.
“Romance” only goes so far with the world shrinking and the glory of winning league titles and European trophies the main drivers of a club’s financial clout. For everyone else, simple survival reigns supreme.
On one side of the Atlantic, a push to make a long-neglected knockout tournament matter more. On the other, the slow slide into the inconsequential for the most storied cup competition in the world. Tack on the afterthought status of other domestic cup tournaments throughout Europe and elsewhere, and the current landscape further reveals the intensely difficult path to the big time for the American version.
In light of waning interest abroad, it’s worth wondering if the U.S. Open Cup can overcome the trend. American soccer is in many ways isolationist, removed in large part from the rest of the globe. The evolution of the sport’s popularity long defied the wider world. That’s no longer true, with so much of what happens in the United States viewed through the prism of American soccer’s place among richer, more prestigious leagues.
The U.S. Open Cup has plenty of history, but it plays little role in the tournament’s importance in the modern American game. The story of the Cup is also the story of many defunct and amateur outfits. Though there’s certainly reason to respect that legacy, it doesn’t necessarily speak to a contemporary audience the same way the same clubs competing over a century do. Because the history of the current top league doesn’t reach into a glorious past, it’s easy for American fans to ignore.
MLS clubs face the same complaints as their English counterparts when it comes to squad size. Except for MLS the problem is worse. Smaller squads, smaller budgets, and the Open Cup follows the English example. It’s a reserve league competition until the later rounds.
With that Anglo-American excuse in place, it’s practically impossible to imagine the Open Cup rising much higher up the respect ladder than it already has. It’s not that any fan would turn down a U.S. Open Cup victory. It’s that their interest only rises to critical mass when their club already has one hand on the trophy.
Of course, this means buying into the broader argument that the prominence of domestic cups will continue to wane. That’s not just in England but across most of the credible leagues in Europe. There’s certainly enough evidence to support the point. We can’t help but wonder why the U.S. Open Cup would be immune.
It’s a pity that the Open Cup did not enjoy that same spotlight the FA Cup once had. The Open Cup passed through multiple attempts at keeping a first division going in the USA. In the MLS era, the Cup certainly counts. Still, it’s not a like-for-like comparison with the domestic cups of Europe. MLS never really stressed the Open Cup as part of the league’s growth. It’s probably worth remembering that the old North American Soccer League ignored it entirely.
The most positive American soccer future imaginable includes league matches with large TV audiences, clubs with rich revenue streams, and the names of many MLS clubs on the trophy of the continental championship. None of those things requires the Open Cup to be all that important.
How does that change? That’s the question supporters continue to ask, but it would require something unique in world soccer. A first division’s clubs not just immune to the currents flowing through soccer across the pond and across the world, but effectively swimming against them.
More From Jason Davis: