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

Apr 24, 2014, 9:58 PM EDT

D.C. United captain Dwayne De Rosario and Will Chang General Partner of D.C. United, along with fans celebrate their 1-0 win over Real Salt Lake. Getty Images

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.

  1. imagreatguy76 - Apr 24, 2014 at 11:13 PM

    Nice post – you make a lot of valid points.

    I know this isn’t necessarily directly related…but…the scheduling and fixture congestion issues would sure be a lot easier to manage if it was still only a 30-game season. Why they had to go and add 4 games I’ll never understand. Oh wait, that’s right…money. But it just always seemed short-sighted to me.

  2. creek0512 - Apr 24, 2014 at 11:46 PM

    How is it not fair to RSL? They lost the Open Cup final – at home. Seems like they had a more than fair opportunity and they choked.

    • Jackson Scofield - Apr 25, 2014 at 12:38 AM

      MLS Cup runners-up, and still don’t make it.

      • hughmauberley - Apr 25, 2014 at 12:46 AM

        I get your point, but they are runners-up after all. Yes, MLS would have a stronger team in the Champions League, but RLS simply lost both games that gave them the opportunity to get there. Is it really any better to reward failure than to let someone like D.C. in? At least they won the Cup, regardless of their league record.

  3. lunasceiling - Apr 25, 2014 at 1:06 AM

    Have to disagree, Richard. CL spots are already going to three MLS teams with good arguments for being “the best teams.” MLS Cup winner, Supporters Shield (aka “best team in the weaker conference”) winner, and the winner of the other conference. That’s already three decent(ish) chances to not get punked by Liga MX entrants. Leaving a fourth for possible Cinderella teams ads an interesting note, in my view.

  4. fabricatedwookie - Apr 25, 2014 at 2:17 AM

    If you want fairness, ask for promotion and relegation. Demanding the MLS has exclusive rights to the Concacaf champions league when there is no promotion/relegation mechanic is unfair and anti football. If an MLS club wants that spot, they should take the competition seriously and compete for it. The wag the dog analogy is totally misplaced. You don’t get to deny the competition with the most competitors a reward that allows a club to play internationally. How about we remove the bizarrely misplaced americanism that is the play off from a marathon. Face every club, home and away, best points total wins. Top 3 clubs enjoy some international football. Loljk you need to win a playoff at the end if you were in the conference that had the supporters shield, if you don’t too bad it goes to the other conference winner because that isn’t arbitrary, but Republic FC having a shot at silverware that gets them into CONCACAF is some bull, right, right? I mean, this U.S Open really needs to examine it’s format!

    Domestic tournaments are great, more clubs playing and interacting is great. This drives soccer culture and more importantly it drives player culture as they have more people to learn from, more games to invest in. More coaches competing, experimenting, developing talent. The MLS suffers from its structure, arbitrary east west conferences that ignore a basic tenant of league competition, no downward movement for poorly run clubs and no upward movement for well run clubs beyond the table. A body with no circulation.

    And this one thing, one thing the attempts to offer some incentive to minor markets to keep going, and some incentive to larger market teams to be professionals is being idly mulled over about hamstringing it because “well be okay” Who is we? LA? Oklahoma energy? Charleston Battery? NYFC? NY Redbulls? NY Metrostars? I am sure all of the teams not allowed into MLS and would not even have the chance to get into international competition if you were calling the shots appreciate this hypothetical sacrifice you are willing to make. All on the basis there are Asian/ Latin American (bee tee dub, what is the populations of the locations you were specifically thinking of, what is the league size?) leagues with strong soccer cultures. We will totaly have a strong soccer culture with the stakes of competition relevant to what? 24 locations? That’s a 400 mile radius per club to inject with “strong soccer culture”. 400 miles for people to call 1 team their home team, the team they care about. Just pack your bags, charter your plane, and come on by on a nice sunday to see this team that perfectly fits your region, because it is the only one that matter.

    You will be fine.

    Well be fine.

    • simianvector - Apr 25, 2014 at 2:42 AM

      Ask? What exactly are the mechanics of ‘ask’ing league owners who’ve invested hundreds of millions of dollars in a team to allow themselves to be relegated into a division that doesn’t even have a television contract, out of the goodness of their hearts and their respect for the purity of the English football model?

      That said, I totally agree that opening up the CCL to lower division teams is a strong argument to keep the spot for the USOC winner. Even though in practice if the Richmond Kickers ever did make it through they’d be destroyed by the likes of Cruz Azul. The aspirational value of knowing they at least has a shot is worth something.

      But I think it’s possible to make that point without slipping into the generic prorel/anti-MLS rant. The idea that playoffs are exclusive to MLS is just a fiction. Liga MX has playoffs. Belgium has (very weird) playoffs. The A-League has playoffs. Champions League is just a big playoff. As is the World Cup. And the idea that without pro/rel teams don’t have an ‘incentive’ to compete just seems silly in a country where the NFL is a 10 billion dollar business full of teams trying very hard to compete despite no fear of relegation.

      • fabricatedwookie - Apr 25, 2014 at 3:54 AM

        It isn’t English football, it is elite football, you create a pyramid that pushes success upward and failure downward. You have a large bottom base developing talent in both coaching and playing that upper teams will have the opportunity to poach to help preserve their status. The whole point is that the MLS is currently closed and that hurts the product, though I haven’t had a conversation who doesn’t respect that protecting the clubs has worked for growing the league, but it should only be a vanguard model because you lock out markets and make some teams compete at a scale they don’t have the talent for. Relegation/Promotion is the sorting algorithm for football. And while Prem profits aren’t Championship profits, Championship attendance is 4th in the world. That means in England, with their population, and club density, their second tier aggregate attendance is roughly 3 million more than the MLS: https://twitter.com/football_league/status/458981353212477440

        If Garber is going to make claims that he wants to make it into the best league in the world, that means you need all US markets on deck to power such a machine. The NFL is only the best Football league in the world because most of the world doesn’t care. Soccer is in an environment where there is actually a global competition in the product. So talking about “generic” promotion/relegation isn’t anti MLS it is pro-soccer. It is pro product, and it is the most important conversation to have about our soccer environment.

        Also, my point wasn’t that MLS teams would lack incentive to compete, it is that the non-mls teams would lack the incentive to compete. Which bless those making teams, though I suppose they didn’t make the same investment so they don’t deserve the same rewards, because lets just throw out all illusions that soccer was a sport first before it was a business. But as you said, the NFL is the model to follow, what with its dead on-arrival rust belt teams and 2nd tier scam the NCAA making money hand over fist while denying students fair compensation for their labor should be exactly what soccer wants to emulate. Upward movement gives incentives to invest in making your smaller market team better, because there is potential to earn more. Downward motion gives incentive to invest in your team.

        It makes perfect sense you want to give incentives to growing the amount of clubs that you cut out the immediate possibility of downward movement because you want a fair number of clubs competing, but we are at the point the league is growing beyond a fair number of teams. It also helps explain playoffs because they add games, you don’t need added games in tier 1 with 20 teams. Which is why the talk about investor protection is becoming more and more of an excuse. We can plan, we can set dates, we can let a certain return on investments happen and set a league limit on the clubs in tier 1 and switch to developing the minor leagues that will power American soccer forward, not just MLS soccer. Switch to a model that lets all fans have a chance to compete, not just major cities. To a model of soccer, not hipster gridiron.

      • simianvector - Apr 25, 2014 at 2:14 PM

        Again, you’re just appealing to essentialism. “This is how IT’S DONE in soccer.” Scratch a pro/rel advocate and you will aways find a European soccer puritan. Playoffs, for example, are a complete non-sequitur in this context. They have nothing to do with relegation. In fact, as I’m sure you know, promotion and relegation are actually _implemented with playoffs_ on the continent. Brackets and everything. What they have in common, why pro/rel advocates also hate playoffs for deciding the champion and why they also despite an unbalanced schedule and why they roll their eyes at the All Star game is because that’s not how they do it in England and Spain. But obviously that’s not a convincing argument to most Americans so you have to build the architecture of this argument that pro/rel is some kind of unicorn that will power US soccer to glory. But the argument just doesn’t make any sense.

        It’s odd that you try to imply the NFL somehow lacks parity (“dead on-arrival rust belt teams”) due to lack of relegation. That’s completely backwards. In fact, the NFL blows away the EPL, La Liga, the Bundesliga, etc for parity. The chance that a bad NFL team will be competitive the next season is vastly higher than the chance that Osasuna will compete for the La Liga title next season. Because that chance is 0. MLS blows away European leagues for parity. Bayern won the Bundesliga with months left in the season, for God’s sake. That’s your model for parity? If you don’t like the NFL, look at the NBA. There are leagues all over Europe and Asia, but the NBA is the best in the world and it’s not because it’s being filled with promoted teams. It’s because it has the best players. And that’s because it has the highest salaries. That’s it. Most revenue = highest salaries = best players = most attention = most revenue. The formula for league quality has zilch to do with relegation.

        Don’t get me wrong. . relegation would be fun. I doubt you’ll find any soccer fan who’s actually philosophically opposed to it existing. People get in arguments over it not because anyone’s opposed to it existing but because a) supporters sound like fanatics who make crazy claims in support of it and b) the realization that it coming in from the top level (MLS) is incredibly, incredibly unlikely in any timespan under say 30 years, so it’s a weird thing to be going on about. If you really support pro/rel, then do the work of advocating for it between USL Pro and USL1 and 2. Or the creation of a sub-NASL. Or both. Once there’s a viable pyramid at the low levels, in which teams that get relegated don’t just collapse, and teams that get promoted don’t just instantly yo-yo down to the next level the next season, and it has existed for 10 years, then if your claims that promotion is the secret sauce to all soccer quality, then presumably the top of that pyramid (NASL or USLP or both) will start to rival MLS in team quality. I doubt it, but that’s the only realistic route to pro/rel in this country.

      • fabricatedwookie - Apr 25, 2014 at 5:17 PM

        Weird that we can’t keep moving down the conversation.The soccer essentialism, the “this is how soccer is done” isn’t Europe, it is about the ethos of the sport. Soccer is governed to provide opportunities for people to play and to play by the same rules, so yes, this tier 1 league that is closed from the other leagues within its own FA is an outlier and is not in line with the principles of the sport. It is in line with the principles of sports business, which has been mentioned several times, but it is not in line with how soccer is conducted. When an FA only has 1 league it is usually because they can’t support more.

        I never mentioned the all-star game, I don’t actually mind it because it allows people to see famous teams and offers some attention to our league, but I don’t think it can be described as anything other than novel. I forget if there was an actual benefit like which conference gets to be considered the home side at the end. But, if you want to talk about logical fallacies, you are dropping this euro-purist label and adding on arguments I haven’t committed too, case in point this all-star game thing.

        Also, I haven’t really been talking about league parity, and I wasn’t implying the NFL lacked parity. Dead on arrival rust belt teams means they aren’t moved down a league to get the wake up call they have to get their heads on straight, and no team that can come up and enjoy the NFL. They get to languish or hope their draft picks are good enough. Which, if you are a bad team, you are probably choosing unwisely (I am looking at you Oakland Raiders) and also hurting your Salary Cap by having to pay for First Round picks.

        The highest salaries get the best players, but where are the best players coming from? The leagues in other countries are allowing more talent to flow into the NBA, but remember with the NBA and NFL, it has the best in the would status mostly because for a long time there weren’t any other leagues to look at, this is not the case with soccer. The whole formula mentioned ignores that you need a talent pool to pull from, and that has everything to do with relegation if we don’t look at it narrowly, but as the mechanic that opens up more markets for competition and player development and allows success to show for itself. The NBA is benefiting from smaller leagues developing.

        I will continue to advocate that professional soccer clubs in a single FA should be operating in a complete tiered structure, but I would accept the compromise of a “lower tier” pro/reg experiment.

  5. lavatomy - Apr 25, 2014 at 10:18 AM

    I see your point but if you wanted to give the 4 spots to the best MLS teams then they should go to the teams with the best overall record at the end of the season.

    You say

    “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”

    but aren’t the playoffs a single elimination mini-tournament? if the two wild card teams from each conference get hot in playoffs and make it to the finals are they really the best teams to represent MLS at the next CONCACAF Champions?

  6. okcsoccerfan - Apr 25, 2014 at 11:00 AM

    I think fans of any team below the MLS level will argue that having that “carrott at the end of the string,” i.e. Champions League qualification, is important. While it may not happen all that often, you have to give those teams below the first tier some hope. Seattle’s Open Cup victories went a long way towards building what they have today.

  7. jakagator12 - Apr 25, 2014 at 11:22 AM

    1) Despite having cup competitions that are “not taken seriously”, both Brazil and Argentina provide their cup winners with entry into the Copa Libertadores

    2) You drastically understate the relevance of the cup. Just like in other countries (with the exception of England perhaps), teams will probably not take it particularly seriously until they are playing other first division teams. How seriously fans take it is less relevant than how seriously the teams take it, and every year it is taken more seriously.

    3) You also conveniently leave out that, since MLS started taking the CCL more seriously again, the last FOUR teams to win before DC (Seattle x3, SKC) were arguably the MLS team most equipped to win the CCL every year they participated. All four years they advanced to at least the quarterfinals.

    4) Even if you’re right that it is not super relevant now, dropping the CCL berth would cause any remaining relevance it has to crater. In a system with no promotion and relegation (which I’m fine with) you have to give lower division teams at least a chance to do something like this. It would look particularly bad if USSF did this after the Cosmos just started maybe (but probably not) being able to challenge MLS teams in the competition.

    5) Since MLS changed the rules so that conference champion from the non-Supporters Shield conference gets a berth, your argument makes a lot less sense. Making it to the final means you won two two-legged series, as opposed to having to beat five opponents in the US Open Cup. I won’t say one is more worthy than the other, but they are close enough that all the other arguments why we need to support the Cup through this should be sufficient to have it keep its berth. The runner-up has given us such greats as FC Dallas and Houston in recent years.

    • chadmoon1 - Apr 25, 2014 at 4:19 PM

      Maybe you laugh at FC Dallas getting into the CCL as a runner up, but guess who the first MLS club to beat a Mexican club on Mexican soil was? FC Dallas, beating UNAM Pumas 1-0 in Monterrey.

      And Schmidt and the author are denigrating DCU being in the competion before they ever kick a ball in it. Let’s see how they do first.

      And as for lower division clubs, this competition is for them to get their shots at the big clubs.I would be in favor of lower division clubs being the home side against MLS competition. Give them a chance to sell out their stadiums and get new fans.

  8. ftlfan - Apr 26, 2014 at 1:02 PM

    The US Open Cup and the awarding of a CCL spot for it winner are the only things US Soccer has done that don’t reek of Americanization. I grew up a hardcore “Big 4″ sports fan who wasn’t interested in soccer at all, but eventually fell in love with the sport because it is different. The pure fact that the system is in place for ANY team in the world to win their way to the top and legitimately call themselves world champions makes soccer the greatest pro sport there is. Taking away a CCL spot from the USOC closes off that avenue to the majority of soccer clubs in the US. 20-some MLS cities don’t deserve to hog all of the spoils.

    It’s unlikely that a D2 or lower club can win the Open Cup(it’s only happened once since MLS started), but that chance being there is what makes the tournament exciting. And it’s not like MLS has done so great in CCL over the years anyway. When the Montréal Impact and Puerto Rico Islanders of our 2nd division were frequenting the CCL, they performed pretty much just as well as MLS teams do. Hell in 2008 only one MLS team made it to the quarterfinals, while 2 division 2 teams did, and Puerto Rico only lost in the semifinals to Cruz Azul on penalty kicks in the 2nd leg. Granted those teams got their spots from easier CFU and Canada qualifying, but it proves that smaller clubs can compete just as well as MLS teams in continental competitions. On that note I wouldn’t count out DCU either.

    The USSF already bends over enough for MLS. Taking away the CCL spot from the USOC would be a damn shame.

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