Every MLS overseer tells us the U.S. Open Cup is important.
But don’t you buy it.
Some clubs and the boss-man managers really do value the tournament. Clearly so in the case of a team like Seattle, winners of three consecutive Open Cup trophies before Sporting KC popped their balloon last summer.
And, yes, of course every manager out there is competitive. Every single one wants to win once the warm-ups are off, the cones are up and the man in the middle say “Let’s play!”
But a competitive drive and the heartfelt desire to see their second-team guys succeed, while commendable, is not the same as genuine regard for oldest ongoing national soccer competition in the United States. It’s not the same as placing a priority at level “1A,” right behind everyone’s tippy-top priority of claiming an MLS title.
Of course everyone hopes to win and advance – especially when a little slice of league pride is on the line against second-, third- and fourth-tier organizations, clubs full of fire and desire that come storming in with motivation spilling over the sides. No one wants to be run out the park by the Ocean City Nor’easters or the Dayton Dutch Lions or whomever.
But if you want to know who actually cares, as Major League Soccer teams play tonight and tomorrow night, all against lower tier clubs, just look at the lineups. (The full schedule / results pack is here.)
That’s it. Believe your eyes and not your ears. The coaches that make big lineup changes, subtracting the biggest share of first-choice men, probably don’t care that much about progress in the old competition. Again, they will say they do. But saying and doing are different animals.
If they win, great. If they crash out – well, that’s one less match to get in the way of MLS contests down the road.
Here’s the deal: no MLS manager has ever lost his jobs for tapping out in the U.S. Open Cup. In the case of some beleaguered coach already in chest high in boiling hot water, it might be a consideration on ownership’s final call. But by that time, the man’s fate is probably a foregone conclusion anyway.
By contrast, coaches will lose their jobs for not making the MLS playoffs; Remember, until New York City FC antes in for the 2015 season, making the post-season field remains statistically easier than missing it (10 of 19 teams get in).
When arranging their Open Cup lineups, managers begin thinking about that MLS match ahead. They think about continued wear and tear and about tired players taking the field Saturday or Sunday, drained from further travel and vulnerable to slippage in games that cost actual points. Those points get critical in the squeaky bum time of September and October. Some managers look into the future and see very bad things, so they tighten up and roll out the reserves in Open Cup matches.
Yes, some midfielders and maybe a forward need changing out during a busy stretch. But wholesale changes? That indicates seeing the U.S. Open Cup as a distraction.
We love the Open Cup. The manager probably do, too, in theory.
But our jobs aren’t on the line in the bigger picture here. The deciders see things differently.