The fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup begins on Tuesday, and unfortunately for the competition, the stage where Major League Soccer teams arrive comes with little intrigue.
A full complement of factors has gone against the Open Cup in recent years as the tournament tries to gain traction among soccer fans and the mainstream sports scene.
The biggest concern about the Open Cup right now is the regional brackets teams have been divided into. By being restricted by the regions, certain teams have been paired against each other out of necessity.
Take the Philadelphia Union for example. They’ve played the Harrisburg City Islanders of the USL in four of the last six years, including Wednesday’s clash at Talen Energy Stadium. What intrigue is that supposed to provide either club if they keep playing each other every year in the same competition?
The fourth round also features a Hudson River derby clash between the New York Red Bulls and New York City FC as well as a Cascadia Cup showdown between the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers. Both games are expected to be watered down versions of the rivalries that already occur three times a year in MLS play.
Of the 16 matches being played this week, only one features a team making a significant road trip, as the Houston Dynamo visit the NASL’s North Carolina FC. Three other MLS clubs are making visits to lower-division sides, but for the most part, the MLS teams are the hosts.
Between the large amount of MLS home games and the expectation that most of those teams will be playing watered down first teams or their B teams in the fourth round gives fans little to zero excitement going into the games on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Luckily for the Open Cup, Tuesday’s matchup between amateur side Christos FC and D.C. United is catching some headlines, and rightfully so, but other than that, the magic of the Open Cup is non-existent, and it will probably continue to be until the final eight teams are determined.
In addition to all of that, USL clubs with direct affiliations with MLS sides are not allowed to enter the competition due to conflict of interest concerns. The rule makes sense, but it also stunts potential development of players who now don’t have a chance to compete for a trophy.
If the USL affiliates were allowed in the competition, U.S. Soccer would have to align the brackets in a way in which those teams would not play their parent clubs. Although it may come at a cost to the lower-level sides in terms of travel, there is a way to make it work. U.S. Soccer could always chip in with help for travel funds, especially since the organization isn’t struggling to make profits.
Then there is the issue of accessibility of the matches, with most matches only available on YouTube or through certain club websites. Now this is a bit of a step up from the outdated broadcast deals that we see with the FA Cup since almost every game is available, but it’s still something that needs to be fixed.
Last year, only the Open Cup final was televised, and by that time in the competition, no one took a ton of interest outside of New England and Dallas.
Until something gets fixed, the Open Cup will continue to be disrespected by fans and teams won’t enlist their first team lineups for the competition, at least in the first few rounds where MLS clubs participate.
There will be plenty of suggestions on how to fix the competition over the next two nights, and in the coming months as we get closer to seeing a trophy handed out, but there’s one thing we can all agree on: the Open Cup needs to be improved for the betterment of the game in America and the fans.