US Open Cup Cinderella Stories

By Jeff Kassouf

Tonight at 10:30 pm EST, Chivas USA of Major League Soccer will take on USL First Division side Seattle Sounders in the final third round match up of the 2007 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. So far, the third round has provided some great upsets by USL teams, which has sparked some heated debate in the soccer community.

MLS teams that fell victim to lower division sides include D.C. United, the Los Angeles Galaxy, the Houston Dynamo, and the Chicago Fire. D.C. lost to the Harrisburg City Islanders of USL-2, Houston fell to the Charleston Battery of USL-1, Los Angeles was upset by the Richmond Kickers of USL-2, and the Carolina Railhawks of USL-1 beat Chicago on Sunday night.

If Seattle were to beat Chivas USA tonight, five of the eight quarterfinalists would be lower division teams from the United Soccer Leagues system. As much as these teams beating their MLS counterparts can be considered upsets, the results – to some – are tainted due to the MLS teams’ apparent lassie fair approach to the U.S. Open Cup.

For most teams, the competition is an opportunity to give their reserves a chance to get on the field and give some of their regular starters a break from the sometimes hectic travel of MLS. So, many of these games turn into MLS reserve sides versus USL starting sides that seem to take the competition more seriously. A game of MLS reserves against USL-1 starters is essentially an equal playing field, so to call it an upset is wrong.

The big problem that many fans have is this nonchalant attitude of many Major League Soccer teams. If the best league in the United States isn’t going to take this competition seriously, then why even play it? To anybody seriously asking this question, my question to you is: Why does it have to all be about MLS?

The United Soccer Leagues might be lower division soccer, but by no means is the quality poor. Have people in this country become such bandwagon fans that they cannot support a small club with faithful local fans?

These teams present grassroots soccer at its best with players who are not playing for the money. Premier Developmental League players don’t even get paid, and most USL-2 players have to work second jobs to make a livable salary. Just try telling these men that their hard work isn’t that great since the Major League soccer team that they beat – with professionals considered to be at the highest level in this country – fielded some reserves.

I say bring on the upsets. People don’t realize that these USL teams winning games creates more money for them, which will ultimately help their club improve. In this third round of play, the Harrisburg City Islanders hosted D.C. United in front of 5,219 fans, and the Carolina Railhawks and Charleston Battery were also able to host MLS teams.
The way the quarterfinals have laid out, it is guaranteed that there will be a USL team in the semifinals since Richmond will travel to Carolina. This scenario is certainly better than the alternative, which is what the competition produced last year.

In 2006, the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup looked like a summer version of the MLS Cup Playoffs, with all eight remaining participants being MLS teams. There is no drama or excitement in that. I can already see a Galaxy-Dynamo game three times a year during league play. I don’t want to see that in the Open Cup. This tournament should be an opportunity for teams like the Richmond Kickers – an unknown to the casual fan – to play the now world famous Los Angeles Galaxy.
Many forget that since this competition is open to all teams in the U.S. Soccer Federation (hence the name), amateur clubs also have their shot at glory. It doesn’t happen too often, but 2006 exemplified why this competition is so great. Dallas Roma FC – an amateur adult team – beat Chivas USA in The Home Depot Center in the third round and then traveled back to the same place to take on the Galaxy in the fourth round, where the only lost 2-0.

Those two games most likely produced some of the best on-field moments of those players’ lives, and there is something great about that. It is not quite the story that gets produced by the non-league team forcing a replay at Old Trafford in the F.A. Cup, but it is certainly a good enough story to show why this competition is so great.
So, to all of those who believe that there is something wrong with MLS teams fielding reserve squads and losing to lower division teams: Get over it. It happens all around the world, and it is no different here. If these lesser-known teams advance and make a name for themselves, then so be it – the history of this competition pits it as the oldest tournament of its kind in the United States, and should not be changed. It is a great opportunity for a lower-tier team to rally local fans behind their Cinderella story, and here’s to hoping for a USL-MLS showdown in the final.

Jeff Kassouf is a staff writer for The New Paltz Times and a freelance writer who covers soccer, and can be reached at: