This year is the 100th annual Lamar Hunt US Open Cup tournament. While the professional teams have yet to start, the preliminary rounds have actually been on-going for a while. Teams from amateur leagues throughout the United States have been eliminated in group stages played on high school and recreation department pitches across the country.
The play-in rounds will allow the last few teams from these amateur leagues to get into the tournament proper. Yes, not only will professional teams play, but semi-pro and amateur teams alike will compete and - however unlikely - hope to win the Cup.
New England, has three teams that will play in this edition of the Cup. Having already qualified, GPS Portland Phoenix, a PDL team based out of Portland, ME, and Mass Premier Soccer, a fully amateur Bay State Soccer League team, will begin play on May 14. This could be the beginning of a Cinderella-run for either of those teams, as many amateur teams are hoping to duplicate Cal FC's magical run from last year - when they became the first United States Adult Soccer Association side to knock off an MLS team in the MLS Era of the tournament.
Teams from the North American Soccer League (2nd Division) and USLPRO (3rd Division) join in on the fray on May 21. This is when New England's USLPRO affiliate, the Rochester Rhinos, join in on the tournament. Interestingly, Rochester is the only non-MLS team to win the US Open Cup in the MLS Era. So more than just the Revs, we can see how a local amatuer, semi-pro, and USLPRO affiliate can perform in America's oldest team sport tournament.
But, as we all know, it is May 28 that we all look forward to. That is when the New England Revolution and all other American-based MLS teams begin play in the third round.
New England won the US Open Cup once back in 2007. This was before the modern incantation of the CONCACAF Champions League existed; so, many teams did not take the Cup too seriously. Even now, many teams will field reserve-filled or seriously weakened lineups for third and fourth round Cup games. In recent years, some MLS teams have taken this tournament very seriously (Seattle Sounders and Sporting Kansas City), while others have completely blown it off (New York Red Bulls, last year's Chicago Fire).
There are reasons to not field first teams in the Cup. Some teams worry about fixture congestion, as qualifying for the MLS Cup Playoffs is their primary concern. However, other teams that have no competitions besides the Open Cup and the MLS Regular season, may find an opportune time to compete for silverware. In 2011, D.C. United, who was nowhere near the playoffs, made a run to the final by putting all their eggs in the proverbial Open Cup basket. They eventually lost to Seattle in the final and did not make CCL or the MLS Cup Playoffs.
Still it is not always an all or nothing situation. Even without winning it there are other rewards a team can take from an Open Cup run. It can show a fanbase you are committed to winning trophies. Even without winning, it can show some ambition from a team. Last year, if they hosted a game, New England had planned to play their third round game in Boston (rumors said Harvard Stadium). This could be a huge testing ground for interest within the city (even if it is a Tuesday night game against a minor league team).
But even more than proving a team is about trophies, and even more than a testing ground for an urban soccer-specific stadium, the biggest reward for winning the US Open Cup is a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League. This involves extra allocation money, a shot at playing internationally, and most importantly, the notoriety of having a hashtag (#MLS4Whomever) created in your honor.
The Revolution could potentially be a playoff team. They could also potentially make a run in US Open Cup. Yet, with the shallowness of depth on their roster, they probably could not do both. If the Revs go all-in on US Open Cup and miss the playoffs and lose out on the CCL spot, would our typically unhappy Revs fans be okay with that? If they made the playoffs, but put out a under-prepared, under-developed, underwhelming US Open Cup performance would we be okay with that? Could they pull off both? Maybe, but I doubt it.
It's decision time. Playoff run or Open Cup run? If you had to pick one, which would it be?
Frankly, I'd prefer to miss the MLS playoffs, as I believe we are still rebuilding, and attempt to make a Cup run. But I could be alone. Let's put out a strong lineup for the Open Cup and hope for the best. If we are eliminated early, who knows maybe the playoffs are still within reach. But an Open Cup run could, potentially mean more.