EDITORIAL – Extra, extra, there’s a bunch of drama around the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Last week, MLS announced they would not participate in the competition in 2024. They will send MLS NEXT Pro teams. This decision was made citing fixture congestion and wanting more midweek matchdays for other games. On Wednesday, U.S. Soccer clapped back, rejecting the decision, and saying they’ll address concerns of the various stakeholders, MLS included with the tournament. Here’s some thoughts on MLS leaving Open Cup (or at least trying to) and what it means.
Seven Thoughts on MLS Leaving Open Cup
First, let’s not jump to conclusions.
Who knows how this shakes out? Don Garber and company have to have seen at the outrage after their initial Friday news dump. MLS tone deafness knows no bounds. Maybe they reverse their decision or at least delay it. Don’t make any changes till 2025. Maybe U.S. Soccer turns this into a legal issue with something in their bylaws that doesn’t allow MLS to walk away, at least not this quickly. With MLS and SUM decoupled from U.S. Soccer, USSF controls the rights to the Open Cup. This saga will likely continue for years. The soccer civil war is just beginning.
MLS, SUM, and Apple want control and financial access. What about the Messi factor?
MLS allows you to have fun and make money in American soccer, as long as they control it/get a cut. This decision was about way more than than fixture congestion. The Open Cup is the one competition MLS teams are in that MLS doesn’t directly control the broadcast rights to. They have a deal with FOX for Champions League. Everything else official in MLS goes through MLS Season Pass on Apple TV. U.S. Soccer selling the broadcast rights to whomever is the one financial transaction for the rights to broadcast Lionel Messi that MLS does not control. Apple especially cannot like that. Who cares about the soccer pyramid when you can enrich the owners and teams at the top instead? Getting to hurt a now rival financially sure helps too. If this is finalized, will MLS stack the deck with league games the same week as Open Cup matches? Would the spitefully schedule Miami at Atlanta or other big games the day of the final? Would they do as much as they can to ensure MLS fans watch MLS instead of the Cup? They really want to make Leagues Cup their cup competition, don’t they?
There are other ways for MLS to address fixture congestion and give more competitive games for NEXT Pro players.
MLS used to have it where teams had to qualify for the Open Cup. They could have limited it to a certain number of teams. Say non-playoff teams from the previous years do not make it. MLS could expand the rules in terms of reserve players appearing for the first team. In 2023, MLS NEXT Pro players had up to four callups to be in the matchday squad for the first team. Up that to 10. Some MLS teams take the USOC seriously. Others informally play their NEXT Pro team as much as they can. Change the rules to allow MLS teams to take as seriously or as not as they can. The lucky lower division teams benefit from a lesser opponent. The MLS teams get what they put into the Open Cup by choice, not by being forced to not take it seriously in sending NEXT Pro teams instead.
Open Cup needs MLS teams financially. So do the lower division teams.
The Open Cup has need more money, revenue, hype, and marketing around it for years. The competition makes a name through Cupsets and lower division teams make a run. That gets diminished with no MLS there to play the role of Goliath. The ticket sales and local interest does not really ramp up until the quarterfinals. At scale, that has its biggest impact with MLS markets over USL Championship markets. Atlanta United selling out at home and being ESPN is bigger and gets more hype nationally than if Charleston Batter host Atlanta. I say that as a sicko who would love another lower division team in the final and hosting. Midweek travel for this competition once it gets lets regional is tough for lower division teams. It’s easier for MLS teams to take a bit of a loss going on the road than the other way around. There is validity in MLS’s argument that the juice is not worth the squeeze financially and that they are propping up a tournament and teams that are not self-sufficient.
Sickos love the Open Cup, but the numbers do not lie. Many fans do not.
I think most fans love the idea of the Open Cup, but when it comes to the numbers, they do not show up. I cover the Colorado Rapids. The Rapids averaged about 16,000 fans for Saturday home games. Wednesday MLS games they got about 12,000. For their final Open Cup match, a home game against RSL, announced attendance was 2,280. Of the six MLS teams to host a Round of 16 match, only two got more than 15,000 in attendance, El Trafico and Austin hosting Chicago. If all the people outraged last weekend went to their team’s Open Cup games, matches wouldn’t be getting attendances below 10,000. Crowds would start to look like a normal MLS game before the quarterfinals. There is a valid question of why this is; who’s the chicken and who’s the leg? Should MLS and its clubs market better and more? Is there a snobbery around lower division or “minor league” clubs playing MLS teams? It doesn’t help that plenty of MLS teams play reserves. Why should fans take it seriously if clubs don’t? The Cup has had a decade of missed opportunities regardless of who is most at fault.
What does this mean for the Concacaf Champions League qualification?
If MLS manages to pull out for next year, U.S. Soccer can’t really give a CCL spot to the Open Cup winner, right? A USL or NEXT Pro team would not stand a chance against a Liga MX club. But then how does that extra CCL spot get allocated? Making it through some MLS qualification would be U.S. Soccer seeding further power and alienate other leagues and clubs. A lower division team hasn’t won the Cup in 20 years. Under the current format, it was unlikely to happen ever again. But if it did, it would be earned by beating several MLS clubs on the way. Seeing Detroit City go to the Azteca would be fun though, even if they get destroyed 10-0 on aggregate.
USL teams vs NEXT Pro teams will be telling.
Lots of MLS team and league executives sing the praises of MLS NEXT Pro. A few of them think NEXT Pro is as good or better than the Championship. MLS has already taken a PR hit with decision. They better hope all their 2 teams don’t go out there and get smoked against USL competition. It would dent their superiority complex and call into question whether having all these young players and Homegrowns in a development league is better than loaning them to USLC teams. If MLS gets their way for 2024, this experiment will be fascinating and eye-opening.
Photo Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports
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