On July 11, 32,404 fans packed Qwest Field in Seattle, WA to witness a mouth-watering encounter between the Houston Dynamo and the Seattle Sounders, the top two teams in the MLS. The Sounders squeaked out a slim 2-1 victory over the orange-clad Dynamo in a game full of controversy and flared tempers.
Ten days later, Seattle and Houston would would meet again in the semi-finals of the oldest soccer competition in the United States, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. However, only 4,895 people could be bothered to attend this match featuring top teams, a budding rivalry, and a place in the final on the line.
In the other semi-final, DC United beat Rochester Rhinos of the USL-1 to secure their spot in the final for the second year in a row, in front of only 2,457 supporters.
Why is it that the Sounders, who average approximately 30,000 fans for home games, and DC United who average just over 14,000, can only draw a fraction of that for important cup games?
The blame here lies solely on the teams and officials of the MLS, neither of whom take the cup very seriously, and also on some archaic rules regarding the competition.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber has shown a complete disregard for any other competition that in his view might infringe on the MLS. Proof can be found just by comparing CONCACAF World Cup qualifying dates with MLS match dates.
Garber has been completely unwilling, despite requests from many people, including FIFA President Sepp Blatter, and has not budged on the issue of scheduling MLS matches on days set aside by FIFA on the International Fixture Calendar.
Note: On an unrelated subject, I think Blatter's request to move the MLS schedule to August-May is completely ridiculous. Who would want to play a January match in Chicago or Toronto?
These are days that FIFA sets aside specifically for soccer's continental governing bodies to schedule World Cup qualifying matches, regional tournament qualifying (i.e. UEFA Cup, Africa Cup of Nations), and for national organizations to schedule friendlies that do not conflict with club team schedules.
In England, FA Cup matches are scheduled on weekends and Premiership (or other league) matches are usually played mid-week.
Though in the USA, the cup matches are relegated to Tuesdays or Wednesdays, where attendance suffers greatly.
The MLS teams are probably most at fault for this competition not having much respect, as most teams choose to field mainly reserve players, sacrificing competitiveness for match experience for players who aren't making the starting 11 every week. These de facto reserve team matches are then played not at most club's home stadiums, but at much smaller venues which only seat a few thousand.
In the two 2009 semi-final matches, the Sounders hosted the Dynamo at the Starfire Soccer Complex, which normally only seats around 4,000 (more seats were added for this match, bringing total capacity to just under 5,000). DC United decided to host their semi-final at the Maryland SoccerPlex, which seats 5,200, yet was half-empty.
By hosting games in their normal venues, and advertising the cup matches as the "big deal" they are, the MLS teams would give more credibility to the competition, instead of leading the public to believe it's a second class tournament.
MLS coaches are complicit as well in the public not taking the US Open Cup seriously. Rarely do you see the first-choice 11 on the pitch, as most coaches choose to give their reserves some playing time, while sacrificing competitiveness.
Until MLS coaches start taking the Open Cup seriously, fans won't take it seriously either.
For example, Freddie Ljungberg, Seattle Sounder's designated player, has not made a single appearance in the Open Cup this year. He hasn't even been picked for the game day roster.
The strict rules regarding foreign players may have also played a part in this. Teams are only allowed to have five foreign players on the 18-man match day roster.
The Sounders have seven: Ljungberg, Sebastian Le Toux, Steve Zakuani, Sanna Nyassi, Fredy Montero, John Kennedy Hurtado, and the yet-to-debut Leonardo Gonzalez. Tyrone Marshall and Osvaldo Alonso do not count as Marshall has a green card and Alonso was granted political asylum following his defection from Cuba.
Rules like this handcuff teams, and while the MLS is strving to bring in more big-name internationals, rules like this will keep these players from featuring in the Open Cup.
The format of the tournament also needs some tweaking in order to garner more wide-spread interest.
As it stands right now, eight teams from the MLS, USL-1, USL-2, PDL, and USASA compete in the tournament proper. The eight teams all qualify in various forms, but the Open Cup should be open to all MLS, USL-1, and USL-2 clubs in the United States.
Regional qualifying should take place in order to lessen the financial burdens for the PDL and USASA clubs. After the regional qualifying, the eight USL-2 clubs should join 38 PDL/USASA squads for the first round, giving a total of 48 teams.
After the first round, with 24 teams left, the 10 USL-1 squads join the competition giving a total of 34 teams.
Heading into the third round, there would be 17 teams left, at which point the 15 MLS teams would join for a total of 32 teams that would then compete single-elimination style for the U.S. Open Cup.
Instead of bidding for the right to host the game, there should be a draw that's open to the public, and without any seeding of any team.
This would ensure fairness, and would also lead to some fascinating matchups. Maybe the Brooklyn Knights (PDL) would draw New York Red Bulls, or maybe Galaxy and Chivas would be drawn together in the third round, adding another SuperClasico to the calendar and knocking out a top MLS side early on.
With some changes made, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup will be treated with the respect and dignity that this 95-year old competition deserves. Until then, just expect it to be ignored like it has been by MLS teams, and the league itself.