The U.S. Open Cup matters despite a lack of hype
CHESTER, PA -- There's a kind of Brigadoon quality to a U.S. Open Cup final.
Arriving at PPL Park on Tuesday night, as the temporary inflatables, DJ stands and marquees were going up for the crowds -- and occasionally checking the social temperature on Twitter -- there was a palpable sense of an event that had somehow materialized from nothing, and that like the magical Scottish village that appears only once every hundred years, would disappear unremarked.
The beloved, awkward position the Open Cup occupies in America's soccer landscape is well documented -- if you know where to look. It's a competition whose longevity has at times been its only protection against institutional indifference, yet its results over its 101 years (yes, it's the third-longest continually running such competition in the world) are like a core sample through the sport's development through the country.
Looking at the list of winners, you get to see the rise and fall of the industrial Northeast, the waves of European immigrant communities lapping further west through the century, the studied absence of NASL teams and the increasingly prominent presence of MLS teams in the modern era.
How the U.S. Open Cup works
Sixty-eight teams compete for the chance to win the U.S. Open in a single-elimination tournament. From amateur teams and semiprofessional teams to higher budgeted MLS teams, whoever wins the tournament gets $250,000. The tournament's runner-up receives $60,000, while each division's top team in the tournament gets $15,000.
And these days you get to see the revived NASL competitors tilting at MLS sides (New York Red Bulls were humbled by the NASL's New York Cosmos in this year's competition), the USL Pro partner teams and junior teams of MLS sides popping up in the early rounds, and sundry other upstart sides trying to make their way through the knockout competition.
In doing so, you get a reminder that the current rigidly tiered landscape of U.S. club soccer is just the existing superstructure -- it's not a natural or inevitable expression of how the game is and could be in the U.S. It's just the current solution. And in that regard, the Open Cup continues to operate as a kind of conscience for the broader game -- in which status is won on the field, not through, say, MLS expansion bids.
So for a sentimental fan like myself, it's a wonderful tournament. I actually spent the 100th edition last year following the competition from the first round, where I pitched up at the Kings County showgrounds to watch Brooklyn Italians lose to Icon FC -- a New Jersey team assembled partly as a showcase for players looking for professional contracts. I ended up in Sandy, Utah, watching D.C. United stun the hosts, Real Salt Lake, in the final. By the time of the final, the U.S. Soccer presence had gone from a single representative trying to make sense of badly scrawled team sheets while wedged in a plastic chair by the scoreboard operator, to billboard branding around the stadium, TV coverage and Jurgen Klinsmann news conferences.
And yet, the whole competition somehow never felt more than provisional.
It perhaps didn't help that in both last year's final and this year's (in which the Seattle Sounders beat the Philadelphia Union 3-1), the hastily erected stage for the road team winners was set up against the backdrop of a rapidly emptying home stadium. There was an eerie sense of the crowd disappearing into the landscape as the trophy was hoisted.
Last year, it was carried to a gaggle of D.C. supporters making their way down from a stadium perch framed by the Rockies; this year the larger group of Sounders fans were celebrating framed by empty bleachers, the Commodore Barry bridge and the Delaware River. Strangely for the obsessively documented digital era, it wasn't hard to believe this was a scene that was only alive in the memories of those present.
And that's plenty -- our memories are richer for including those folk memories we share with others that aren't just about the highlights of the game itself, but our shared experience of watching, or, for that matter, playing the game. It's important that people continue to feel that their presence activates something, keeps something alive, and the Open Cup is nothing if not a competition that taps into the folk memory of the American game.
On Tuesday night, at the postgame news conference below the River End stand, Jim Curtin, the interim Philadelphia coach who has made a convincing claim for the permanent job with his steering of the team, sat at the table modestly fielding questions as the celebratory singing from the Sounders locker room clearly echoed down the corridor. He was proud of his team, and rightly so. They had, as he said, gone toe to toe with the Sounders throughout the game, and the final had brought out everything that's best about both sides -- the improved Union midfield under Curtin's direction and the depth of the Sounders squad with their ultimately decisive quality of finishing.
After Curtin spoke in the interview room, Seattle head coach Sigi Schmid briefly held court in a cramped mixed zone as a loud Sons of Ben supporter tried to move a handcart full of folded banners past him through the space under the bleachers -- presumably, the pile included the one that had been draped over the River End earlier, that had slyly and optimistically read "Seattle invented losing here."
Schmid briefly glanced at the fan, who in turn stood waiting impatiently for the Seattle coach to finish speaking so he could put away his props. Schmid was asked about Clint Dempsey's early miss in the game and whether he worried about it. Schmid acknowledged a murmur along the Sounders bench but smilingly claimed that the good strikers "have amnesia."
It's not that U.S. Soccer, or, indeed, the culture that revolves around it, has amnesia regarding the Open Cup -- it's more that the governing body has never been quite sure what to do with the competition.
It's like a listed building whose protected status somehow makes it less desirable for the modernists or, more pertinently, the money men -- there's always another developmental priority. The pragmatist in me understands that. And while the current uneasy solution of modestly celebrating the final while tinkering with the format to reflect the changing base of the country's soccer pyramid (from USL Pro to MLS) might not be ideal, it's at least an attempt at workable maintenance (as is the incentive of a Champions League place for the winners).
But the pragmatist in me isn't why I love cup competition.
With its capacity for upsets and its invitation to all levels of the game to dream, cup competition is the romantic heart of the sport, and cup competition is a fine and necessary example. If the trajectory of the sport in this country is reliable, the top level of the game could resemble other big sports in the coming decades, with all the paradoxes of cultural ubiquity and individual fan alienation that can come with that.
And, hopefully, amid that, the Open Cup will still be here, greeting the triumph of that era as the same impostor as the "disaster" of the wilderness years of the 1980s. This competition has seen it all, and it matters. It really, really matters.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.