Wednesday, December 26, 2007

True Champions

The US Open Cup. Even amongst us soccer fans, it doesn't draw the recognition that many- myself included- feel it deserves. The Open Cup is the National Championship of the United States. Any soccer team associated with US Soccer can enter- from amateurs all the way up to MLS. Yes, even you and I can dream of winning this cup. Not so true of the Superbowl now, eh? World Series? Yeah, right.

But, if MLS is in, amateurs would have no chance of winning. Right? Nope. In 2006, amateur side Dallas Roma FC took Chivas USA (MLS) to PK's- and won 4-2. And this isn't the only "David defeats Goliath" story. The Rochester Raging Rhinos (USL 1, then A-league) took it All in 1999. In 2007, the Seattle Sounders (USL 1) almost made it to the finals before losing 2-1 to FC Dallas (MLS) in extra time. Even games between two MLS sides can be good. Witness the 1997 DC United victory over the Dallas Burn on PK's 5-4. I've lived through PK victories myself and I find them absolutely thrilling- afterwards, of course!

So, why haven't more people heard of the Open Cup? Why are so many missing out on some of the best soccer to be had? (Granted, its in America, but still, many of these games are thrilling to watch.) The biggest reason the Open Cup flounders in anonymity is that US Soccer doesn't put a whole lot of money into promoting the tourney. You just can't find any of these matches on television- except for the occasional one on Fox Soccer.

Another obstacle to the Open Cup's success is that alot of MLS teams don't take it too seriously to begin with. It is frivolous at best. Many send in the reserve squad for a little tune-up. True, many MLS teams headed for the playoffs see an increase in their scheduled matches as both the Cup and the regular season continue. But, if a team can't handle both, how big of champions is that team really? (Maybe MLS could drop the idea of playoffs altogether? And crown the regular season winner the overall champion? One can hope.)

Well, attacks on team pride (and league structure) aside, every division of American soccer- with the obvious MLS exception- views the Open Cup as one of the biggest prizes to chase after. Considering that, I doubt the Open Cup will be going away anytime soon.

So, what to do?

How about a little change to the grand prize? Like say- a cool million to the winner instead of a paltry $100,000- and give the Cup champ a spot in the CONCACAF Champions Cup (CCC). Many don't believe that CONCACAF would give the US a third spot in that particular tournament. [Currently, MLS's regular season champ (winner of the Supporter's Shield) and the MLSCup winner get the two American spots in the CCC.] The math for the CCC won't work out if a third US team (and I guess Mexican team as well, for "fairness") gets in. True, and my response to that is to turn the CCC into a true Champion's League. Round up the top teams from each league and national cup winners and mix them together. Sure, some leagues and countries would tend to dominate, but how is that different from the CCC today?

Yeah, CONCACAF would have to take a little initiative and change the CCC, but I believe that US Soccer should at least more heavily promote the Open Cup and provide for a larger prize. Maybe a sponsor could be found to put up the prize money? Or to at least help? It is past time that the US Open Cup should receive proper exalted status. It shouldn't be marginalized and allowed to languish in the shadows. I hope that the recent success of the national teams and MLS's growing popularity encourages US Soccer to take steps to grow the Open Cup. In fact, I look forward to watching the Open Cup final each year- on ESPN!

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