Schmid takes needed kick at Open Cup-Champions League hornet’s nest

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Seattle loves it some U.S. Open Cup, probably more so than any other market in Major League Soccer. And who can blame them? As the team was quickly finding its way in Major League Soccer, it was also winning the domestic cup competition, giving the team’s huge, still growing fan base three trophies to hang its hats on. They love the U.S. Open Cup.

That’s why today’s comments from Sigi Schmid opened some eyes around Puget Sound, with the Sounders boss saying he was unsure if the Open Cup winner will get a CONCACAF Champions League berth beyond this season. It was part of a larger rant about the competition, with Schmid expressing his disappointment about play during the June World Cup break.

Some markets across MLS love the U.S. Open Cup nearly as much as Seattle. In those places — places like Washington, D.C. — the scheduling news could have some of the resonance it does it Seattle. In other places, however, there’ll be no resonance all. U.S. Open Cup may the oldest ongoing cup competition in world soccer, but it’s one that has a major relevancy problem. In a lot of MLS markets, it’s just the thing your team does between games you care about.

None of this is news, but it is important context, particularly after D.C. United won the tournament last year. In an effort to provide an incentive to take the competition seriously, U.S. Soccer lets the Open Cup champion into CONCACAF Champions League. But for a league that’s struggled to be relevant in that competition, United’s inclusion is a hard pill for MLS to swallow. The team only won three games last season. What are the odds they’ll help against the Liga MX boogeyman that’s keeping the league down?

That’s why Schmid’s tidbit about the Open Cup’s connection to Champions League should make more waves than his scheduling concerns. For those who want the Open Cup to be a more celebrated, relevant competition, the comments will touch a nerve. Open Cup winners should be rewarded, the thinking goes. For those who see United’s place in Champions League as a joke, Schmid’s prediction struck a hopeful note.

Those hopes want U.S. Soccer ti mimic most federations and put its best feet forward. For the time being, U.S. Soccer has elected to forgo that goal and try to build up its cup competition, hoping to build a richer competitive landscape. In theory, Open Cup could identify one of the U.S.’s top four representatives.

As last year’s competition showed, that’s just not the case. It’s also not fair for a team like Real Salt Lake to miss out on Champions League because U.S. Soccer’s trying to prop up the Open Cup. If that’s a short-term gambit, so be it, but rewarding the winner of a single-elimination competition will never guarantee MLS’s best qualify for Champions League. And based on how we’ve seen teams react to the incentive, it’s no guarantee Open Cup will ever be something teams see as more than a competition of convenience.

Two things always come to mind when this topic comes up. First, while cup competitions have an important historic place in countries around the world, they’re important because of their history, not necessarily because of other competitive incentives. To reward the Open Cup’s winner with a Champions League spot confounds the those two issues. A Champions League spot can’t give the Open Cup a historical relevance which, despite its 101 years of existence, it doesn’t have. This just isn’t the FA Cup.

Secondly, the tail’s wagging the dog. You don’t provide rewards to the winner of a competition that lacks relevance. That’s a reason to avoid providing the prize. You wait for the competition to pick up then provide the reward. Else, you end up with situations where a team that won three of 34 league games is representing you on the confederation level.

Look throughout Latin America and Asia and you’ll see a number of vibrant soccer cultures that have no relevant cup competitions. Having a knockout tournament that complements a league competition isn’t a necessary thing, nor does it say if you’re a good or bad soccer culture.

If U.S. Open Cup doesn’t evolve into the competition its fans envision, we’ll be fine, and if the competition can’t stand on its own two feet without the CONCACAF Champions League inducement, it’s okay to let the competition go back to what it once was. People in Seattle and Washington, D.C., may be sad, but we can also stop pretending the tournament is something it may never become.

Either way, give the Champions League berth back to the competition that identifies the best teams. That will never be the single-elimination tournament. That’s Major League Soccer.