Every year around this time, a murmured conversation crops up among American soccer fanatics about that curious little tournament, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
Here in San Jose, that discussion took on increased volume this week with the hometown Earthquakes heading to Portland to play in a qualifying match just days after a disappointing loss in MLS to the Philadelphia Union. Voices debated whether playing in the tournament was an unnecessary distraction for the team or a real chance to erase some of the bitterness that comes with losing three straight league games.
I am on record as fully supporting the U.S. Open Cup tournament — a competition that has a history stretching back to 1914 — as a wonderful complement for MLS teams to their regular season schedule. For the uninitiated, the tournament brings together teams from all levels of professional and amateur soccer across the nation to battle in a bracket-style, single-elimination competition until one team is left standing and crowned champion. Since the inaugural MLS season of 1996, teams from that league have dominated the tournament, but lower division teams have found some success, including a surprise championship from the Rochester Raging Rhinos of the USL A-League in 1999. Currently, eight MLS teams are invited to the tournament, six earning automatic invitations and two coming through a qualifying process from the remaining ten domestic based MLS teams.
The San Jose Earthquakes are one of those ten teams that are fighting to earn one of the last two invitations available to MLS, and they took the first step in that direction by beating the Portland Timbers 1-0 this past Tuesday evening. With defender Ike Opara’s last-minute goal deep into extra time, and only seconds before the match would have gone to penalty kicks, the Earthquakes move on to face the Chicago Fire in a win-and-you’re-in match later this month.
So back to the original question of whether the match against Portland really mattered in the grand scheme of things for the San Jose Earthquakes. After all, shouldn’t the team be focused on getting back on track in the MLS regular season and making a move up the Western Conference standings? The answer to that is unequivocally “yes”, and I believe the U.S. Open Cup tournament provides an excellent opportunity to help in that focus.
Before the scoffing begins, let me explain why I believe that the Cup and the regular season shouldn’t be treated separately. First, playing a meaningful match against a quality opponent should always be welcomed by the team as an opportunity to measure up against the competition. Second, despite the competition — be it the MLS Cup, U.S. Open Cup, the defunct Superliga, the CONCACAF Champions League — the chance to establish a tradition of winning puts the rest of the league on notice that your team will never back down from a match. Third, and this comes more from my standing as a fan of the game, whenever there is a trophy at stake — the Sir Thomas Dewar Cup in the case of the U.S. Open Cup tournament — you expect your team to perform at their best in their quest to add silverware to their trophy case.
In the past three seasons, the Earthquakes have come up short in their efforts to advance through MLS qualifying for the tournament, with accusations of the team not giving it their best go. I can’t comment on whether that was true or not, but it sure seemed like the players were going all out to win in last year’s penalty kick loss to Real Salt Lake. This year against Portland, despite struggling with their recent form in league play, the Earthquakes scrapped and fought to victory in a hostile environment against a Timbers team that had not yet lost at home. The specifics of line-up choices aside, the clear message from the Quakes’ coaches and players is that they appreciate the chance to play in the U.S. Open Cup tournament and want to find success in every meaningful game that comes their way.
A big complaint that arises very year, especially with regard to the U.S. Open Cup, is that these extra games create match congestion and tax the ability of the players to perform at their best week after week. While that argument was more valid in years past, the increase in MLS team rosters to 30 players significantly diminishes that argument. No longer are teams forced to enlist assistant coaches to play in non-league games — instead, competition for playing time with the first squad has never been greater. MLS reintroduced the Reserve League as another competition to provide meaningful games for lesser-used players to keep sharp and fresh. Most importantly, these Reserve League games provide another avenue for the team to nurture a winning attitude throughout the whole roster. The U.S. Open Cup provides another arena to build on that attitude.
Instead of generalizations on the merits of meaningful matches outside of the MLS regular season, let me end this discussion with a look at the specific accomplishments of the Earthquakes over the last seven days. I go into this in more depth on this week’s Quakes Cast podcast, but I’ll summarize here. Head coach Frank Yallop needed to shake things up with his team after their disappointing ‘come-from-ahead’ loss to Chivas USA a fortnight ago. Looking at the schedule he saw a league match with the Union followed up three days later with the Cup qualifier in Portland. Playing the same starting XI in both matches would be unwise, so instead he set up two starting line-ups that gave him the best chance to win both games, but also featured enough variation that he could assess a greater number of players for future games on the schedule. The players responded with two straight shutouts in the run of play (I’ve blocked out that unfortunate penalty call in the Union match) and a show of confidence that has been lacking since early in the season. Now, with the Earthquakes match against the Vancouver Whitecaps on the horizon, Yallop will need to synthesize together a new starting XI that rewards the best performances in that pair of games as the Quakes search for the correct combination of players to put the team back on a winning path.
Does this happen as readily without the opportunity to play a U.S. Open Cup qualifier? Certainly not in such a competitive manner, and definitely not with the stakes offered by the tournament. In fact, I expect that Yallop and the rest of the coaching staff will look to the subsequent qualifier with Chicago as another opportunity to push his team further towards the direction of success. Even if that match features a starting XI with more changes and new players, winning is the most important requirement for the team, and growing that attitude among the players is the top responsibility for Yallop. Accomplish that throughout the season, and perhaps the Earthquakes will have another trophy — or two — to add to the case.