Tell a Sounders fan that a trophy means nothing. Go ahead, just try. Last night, the Seattle Sounders beat Columbus Crew to win the US Open Cup for the second year running. While many squads in Major League Soccer questioned the trophy’s value, stating that it means little to nothing, the Sounders were positively ecstatic at their victory, dancing around the pitch, kissing the trophy, and cheering their fans. The supporters returned the favor, refusing to leave the stands; instead, they roared their appreciation for the fact that Seattle had added another trophy to the case.
While many in England probably haven’t even heard of the Lamar Hunt Open Cup, even those that pay attention to MLS might be surprised to learn that the trophy is essentially the American counterpart to the FA Cup. The competition dates back to 1914, making it the longest-running soccer competition in the United States. MLS has a playoff system, meaning the club that earns the most points over the season doesn’t actually earn the league title. Instead, they win the Supporters Shield, and the team that is triumphant at the end of the playoffs is the one awarded the MLS Cup.
Because of this system, the Open Cup is often dismissed by both clubs and supporters alike. Yet the Cup is organized much like the playoff system, with a limited number of games determining who will win silverware. The competition is criticized because many clubs play their b-sides in the early rounds, but the strength of the squads is quite evident in the differences between the regular starters and the reserves.
For instance, Seattle absolutely dominated their quarter-final match against the LA Galaxy. While many said the Galaxy simply didn’t care, pointing to the lesser-quality side they fielded, the Sounders put out their second string as well, and they were simply better.
In other words, it’s a poorer quality version of the FA Cup. Eight teams from each of the five levels of the US Soccer system (which is in itself a misnomer, as it includes teams from Canada) compete in the competition proper, with each level deciding on its own qualifying system. MLS teams do see minnows. For instance, Columbus faced the Charleston Battery (USL Second Division, or third division, more or less), the Rochester Rhinos (USSF Division Two) and DC United (nominally the first division) on their way to the final. While the number of games might be lower than the number played by the winner of the FA Cup, the end result is the same: a place in continental competition.
Seattle earned their place in the CONCACAF Champions League last year through the Open Cup, and they can enter this year based on the same qualification. This may be one of the reasons MLS is so dismissive of the competition: the CCL is marred by bad refereeing, poor attendance, and a dubious reputation. The league barely acknowledges the importance of the continental tournament, giving it little importance or attention. Without the drive to get into a prestigious tournament, and without the esteem surrounding a cup win, the Open Cup carries little glory.
But I wouldn’t tell that to a Sounders fan right now. Even if others try to diminish it, there’s really nothing that compares to your team lifting a trophy. But when your team grabs the honors for the second year running, in a come-from-behind win, in front of a raucous home crowd, well, those celebrations will continue on until dawn.