Sporting Kansas City faces Philadelphia tonight in the semifinal of the US Open Cup at PPL Park. Even the best Sporting KC and soccer fans can be forgiven for not taking perfect notice of this year's run through the US Open Cup. It hasn't always been the case that Sporting cruised through with the ease displayed this year. Just last year, Sporting was eliminated by the USL Richmond Kickers, a well-established third division side but still a third division side.
It's a shame because the US Open Cup bears the name of Lamar Hunt, a man more dear to our hearts as the Chiefs owner as opposed to a soccer magnate. While American soccer predates Hunt's involvement in the sport, along with AEG he essentially held the MLS together during in founding years. Before that, he had a role in the founding of the NASL in which all American club soccer extends from. Without Hunt, the US Open Cup may still be the stomping grounds of elite amateur teams and smaller USL teams, which has a charm to it but lacks in the talent and wow factor. Still, with the strength of the MLS many problems exist that keep the tournament from even being prominent during this time where soccer is
US Soccer and Television Rights
The first problem is a reoccurring problem not only for the US Open Cup but CONCACAF qualifying. The awarding of TV rights to each team leads to problems. In CONCACAF, games end up on pay-per-view, because the smaller countries prefer the take from American viewers over guaranteed money, as the US Soccer paychecks have never been anything like we see for other sports. Still, the long term benefits of airing each game on US television at least in the Hexagonal round is something that CONCACAF needs to look into as this country continues to be the home of large numbers of Latin American immigrants.
For the US Open Cup, it's a little bit more simple. The way hosting has played out, the television rights fall to the MLS clubs in the later rounds. With few exceptions, this has led to the local tv deals being used, but not exactly as they should be. For example, all of the Sporting KC matches have been on their YouTube channel. While I love free programming as much as the next guy, for some reason YouTube/Google haven't gotten the streaming live video down perfectly, and the games tend to lag leading to hilarious twitter delay among the Sporting KC fanbase. Yes, every game was televised this year, but poorly when such infrastructure was already in place.
In a perfect world, MLS and US Soccer would get together and add the US Open Cup games to the MLS Live package and the NBC/ESPN contracts that are hurting for content in the summer doldrums. In that way, MLS can fairly raise the price of their package and more fans are exposed to cup football, which may be the best way to evaluate the depth of your teams and experience great stories like the Cal FC run of this year. At the very least, the game should be shown on Channel 62 in KC as the same production crew is running the show, and there isn't exactly a programming problem there either.
"Fixing" the Draw
I've never been into the Seattle Sounders hate, as they are a big part of the MLS success story of the past five years, but at times their passionate fanbase can be a tad irrational. Seattle has won the past three US Open Cups, and is a game away from their fourth consecutive final. This is a double edged sword as Seattle has also been known to flounder at the end of the season in MLS play, and the suggestion that their all out approach to the US Open Cup may affect their stretch run (They were winless in nine MLS league matches until last weekend, while undefeated in the Cup.). During a closed door bid, they tied Sporting KC's bid for the final, and then lost a coin flip to Kansas City.
While I agree that the process is convoluted and there is almost no possibility of a tie in that situation, (Bids are made in accommodations as well as money, there isn't anything to be really angry about in Seattle. They've played the majority of their US Open Cup games in Seattle and this will be the second of the four consecutive finals they've had to play on the road (if Sporting KC wins), essentially a coin flip.
Seeding has been suggested but that doesn't work as I'd like to see anyone rank the 16 United States MLS clubs and get that right. Much less than seeding all 64 teams in the tournament, there isn't exactly a large body of work to choose from like there is for seeding large tournaments like the NCAA Basketball tournament. The best idea while confusing would be to do every round with a draw like the FA Cup. Basically have one pool for the first round, and the first team picked is the home team. For the second round, have three draws: the first round winners, the NASL/USL-Pro teams, and a third with eight balls each designating A or B to decide the home team. The third round plays out the same, replace first round winners with second round winners and then the second pool is the MLS teams.
This doesn't forbid teams from selling the rights to their home games, and I have no problem with that. For some teams, that can pay the budget for all the travel or even pay salaries for a month, which lower division sides would kill for. After the third round, if two teams face each other, the one who played last round on the road hosts. If neither did, then do a coin flip, but do it in front of club officials so it's transparent. After that, the team with the least amount of home matches always hosts. It rewards teams for going on the road and eliminates advantages such as Seattle playing an entire tournament at home as they have in the past.
At the least, if you want to continue with the bidding process, make it transparent take transcripts or detail each team's package. Ties in sports are ridiculous enough, making it appear two teams tied a complicated process involving multiple variables is ludicrous.
The Bright Side Of Cup Football
It's not all bad news for the US Open Cup. If you want to know why you should watch tonight's games, first remember that this is usually the only day in 365 where there are no competitive sports played. Nothing happens the day after the MLB All-Star game ever. The match-ups feature two underdogs against heavy favorites (although one of those favorites (SKC) walked into the same stadium and was drubbed 4-0 just last month). It doesn't have the intrigue of earlier rounds as every team now is playing their full hand, and the MLS feel makes it feel so standard.
The best thing about a cup match is the potential of outdoing your standing and getting a trophy outside the grand scheme of things. While Chivas and Philadelphia have improved over poor starts, this represents a chance to steal a championship albeit outside the main goal. The same goes for underdogs like Toronto in the equally maligned CONCACAF Champions League. Or dare I say it, Seattle is fading as Western teams improve, but might get a fourth consecutive trophy while falling short. For Sporting KC, it's the first step in winning the first double since the LA Galaxy pulled it off in 2005. They were so close in 2004, and for all of the bravado and improvements around the team in the past two years, the trophy case hasn't expanded.
The problem for Sporting KC lies not in the ambition but the results. However, don't expect another drubbing in Philadelphia tonight, as the best motivation perhaps is a wound not yet closed. I'll be watching from a distance hoping that things play out differently both in results and the cup management, but wary that they may not. Perhaps, it's both a product of my affection and my weariness with soccer bureaucracy.