For American MLS teams, there are three major titles each side is eligible to win each year: MLS Cup, the Supporters’ Shield and the U.S. Open Cup. A fourth, Concacaf Champions League, comes into play for the few sides that qualify for it each year.
Of the three domestic titles, the easiest one to win, by far, is the Open Cup. As opposed to a 34-game regular season, in the case of the Shield, or a five-to-six game playoff, against the other best teams in the league, the Open Cup is a five-game single elimination knockout tournament against a variety of opponents.
Now, don’t get the wrong idea — the Open Cup isn’t easy to win. But it’s the easiest, no question. The risk that comes in a knockout tournament, like March Madness, means it can all be over every single game. It’s exciting, it’s fun, it produces upsets, and in the end, just one champion.
And Los Angeles Football Club need to try and win it this year.
It’s not a radical statement, of course. Why else do you play games, if not to win them and ultimately win titles? Teams don’t exactly actively reject that chance, right?
Well, yes and no. Very few teams really set out to tank the Open Cup, but plenty of teams put their priorities elsewhere (namely, on MLS regular season play) and more or less leave the Open Cup up to fate.
It’s understandable to an extent, too. U.S. Open Cup games are played midweek. The games are seldom on television, and attendance is typically poor. The Open Cup is pretty much a competition for the diehards only — no casual fans read about the USOC in the newspaper, decide to take their family or friends to the game on a whim, and fall in love with the magic. That love is already there for those who are in on the tournament.
And the Open Cup gives managers a chance to play some guys who maybe don’t get a lot of playing time.
On the bright side, all public indications from LAFC are that they are definitely taking the Open Cup seriously this year.
This is a good sign. It’s not easy for any team to win a trophy, ever. You have to take the chances you get. And with the experience among people involved with the team winning the USOC in the past (Bob Bradley, John Thorrington, Ante Razov, Mike Sorber, Dejan Jakovic, Benny Feilhaber, Latif Blessing, Walker Zimmerman), there is enough institutional memory to know how to get it done.
For LAFC, if they were able to make a deep run, even a run all the way to the final this year, they could line up a truly special season in their first campaign. Only Bradley’s 1998 Chicago Fire and the 2009 Seattle Sounders have won U.S. Open Cups as MLS expansion teams in their first seasons. Those teams are also regarded as standard-bearers of success for expansion seasons in MLS.
Were LAFC to win the Open Cup in their first year, they’d also get one over on Atlanta United, who seem to be the latest team to become the benchmark for expansion teams. LAFC can surpass that with a cup win in year one.
Again, it won’t be easy. LAFC start with a game against USL opposition in another expansion team, Fresno FC, on Wednesday at Banc of California Stadium. Those games can be tricky in themselves, as lower-division teams aim to produce “cupsets” on unsuspecting or unmotivated opponents. If LAFC advance, they’ll face at least a few MLS teams along the way, and the closer they get to the end, the more resistance they’ll encounter to win the prize.
But all I want from my team is to take the competition seriously and give winning it all a real shot. LAFC are saying the right things, and I hope Wednesday turns out to be the start of a special chapter in the team’s history.
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