Part of the way through the second half of the Chicago Fire’s round of 16 win in the US Open Cup against Columbus, I felt my mind wondering. I wasn’t engaged in the game because it was not much of a contest. Usually these feelings arise because Chicago is unable to control the game and there isn’t much hope they can win the game. However, this feeling was exactly the opposite. We were winning and winning handily against the defending Eastern Conference Champions. If it weren’t for a very questionable handball call that resulted in a Columbus penalty kick, the scoreline would have reflected exactly how I felt—a blowout.
The 2016 Chicago Fire controlled a game at home and got a much deserved win. It felt good. It reminded me of 2009, the last time I could watch a victory at Toyota Park and not feel like we were lucky to get the win. It is a shame more fans were not there to experience it. It is also a shame that MLS clubs enable fans to ignore the US Open Cup and that the US soccer landscape doesn’t demand more from the tournament.
How the Top MLS Clubs Fair in US Open Cup
MLS has completed 20 seasons of regular season competition, and for that, they should be proud. It is hard to establish a new sporting league in the United States, especially one that plays with a less than world class player pool and plays a game that a large part of the country dislikes. However, the US Open Cup has been in existence since 1913. If it seems hard to start a soccer league in 1996, imagine trying to create a viable soccer tournament in 1913. The tournament should be a prideful part of any US soccer club and especially MLS teams.
The Chicago Fire have won the tournament four times in club history and for that I’m proud. However, I can’t help but think that its significance is diminished by how little most MLS clubs care. It seems there are always a handful of league bottom feeders in the semi-finals of the tournament and the Chicago Fire’s recent Open Cup results show that. How can Chicago be a final 4 team in the tournament when they can’t even make the playoffs?
I looked at the four semi-finalists of the last 20 years of the US Open Cup and computed the average league finish for those teams. I figured that one could reasonably expect those four teams to finish in the top half of the league standings. I know this is somewhat arbitrary, but I thought it to be reasonable that out of the top 10 teams in MLS, four of them should be able to reach the cup semi-finals. Also, keep in mind that since I am using an average for the four teams, the finishing order of the semi-final teams could be 1, 2, 18, 19 and it could still meet my criteria of the average being in the top half (10 or less in 2015). In this respect, my analysis is generally looking for a lot of 3 or 4 poor teams in the semi-finals, as seems to happen a lot.
Also, for teams that are not in the top league who make it to the semi-finals, I assigned them the next best finishing place. For an NASL or USL team in 2015, this would be 21 (assuming they are the best team outside of the top division). Again, this isn’t perfect and probably overestimates this team’s ability.
Using this method, only 8 times in 20 years has the average league finish of the US Open Cup semi-finalists been in the top half of the league. One can use 2015 as a perfect example. The league finish of the four semi-finalist teams was 18, 20, 10, and 16. That is an average finish of 16th. How is it possible that none of the top 10 teams in the league standings made it that far in the competition? Could it have been poor luck? Could it be that the poor teams tried harder because it was their only shot at a successful season?
I propose it is because MLS clubs do not care about the tournament. How many times has Bruce Arena won MLS Cup after just sneaking into the playoffs? How many times has he fielded a "B Team" for an Open Cup game? Couldn’t he go on a run in the Open Cup like he does so often in the playoffs? He could, but he and the club just don’t care, and that is shameful.
Comparison to other Top Club Cup Competitions
I repeated this procedure for the three top leagues in the world: The English Premier League, La Liga, and the German Bundesliga. Here are the results:
EPL/FA Cup: 10 of the last 20 years
La Liga/Copa del Rey: 16 of the last 20 years
Bundesliga/German Cup: 11 of the last 20 years
Alright, so it doesn’t seem like an overwhelming indictment of MLS, but they are worse than all three of these leagues. Spain is particularly interesting at 16 of 20 seasons. That shows me that winning the Copa del Rey is likely more important to Spanish clubs than any of the other leagues.
NOTE: For all of these three leagues, the analysis was done with a full table of 18 or 20 teams (depending on league). For the MLS analysis, some of the seasons only had 10 or 12 teams due to the league's infancy. Of the 8 instances where the semi-final team average was top half, only 3 of them have happened after MLS 1.0 (2007 or later) when there was more competition. For this reason, I think the 8 of 20 tournaments that MLS shows actually overstates the success of teams in MLS. I feel that the 5 times it happened before 2007 could have had more to do with the lack of competition opposed to caring about the competition more.
I fully expect many to reject this analysis and argue that it is not possible to quantify how much a person or organization cares about something. That is fair, but it is also clear to me that the best MLS teams do not perform as well in the US Open Cup as the best teams in other leagues perform in their respective cup tournaments. This is a problem for a league that is desperately trying to assimilate to world soccer culture and one that hopes to overtake them someday. As a fan of a bad team, I might love US Open Cup more because it is our best chance at being champions.
This isn’t bad and many fanbases should feel this way. At the very least, teams that don’t make the playoffs should appreciate the Open Cup. Heading into this week’s round of 8, shouldn’t Chicago, Houston, and Seattle fans watch like it is do-or-die for their team’s season? One can only hope that the rest of the MLS clubs will treat the games the same way.