By Ian Quillen
Ben Olsen calls it “pretty damn important for D.C. United.” Jason Kreis, his managerial counterpart with Real Salt Lake, wants “to win it in the worst way.”
And although you’d expect nothing less from the two managers involved in the lead up to Tuesday’s U.S. Open Cup Final in Sandy, Utah, there’s a genuineness about the pair and their approach to the match that suggests the tournament may be raising its profile.
Both squads played largely reserve sides in their weekend league matches three days before the final, with Salt Lake doing so despite battling for MLS Cup playoff positioning. Salt Lake and the Portland Timbers worked to ensure their semifinal in August was televised live on cable in both markets. And with little else to play for this season, United has been tinkering with lineups and tactics in anticipation of the final for several weeks now.
With recent revisions to the tournament like allowing all American MLS teams to enter into the third round and giving the winner a berth into the CONCACAF Champions League, there’s competitive reason for MLS sides to take the competition more seriously. But there’s also the organic growth of the league and its understanding of its place in a larger soccer culture that existed in the United States beforehand.
“The competition has evolved,” says United assistant coach Josh Wolff, who won three Open Cups during his playing career--two with the Chicago Fire and one with the Kansas City Wizards. “The viability of the sport now in our country and the fact that we’ve had so many teams that have come into the league that, you just see, people really wanting to get a piece of that Open Cup.”
When Wolff won his first Open Cup in 1998, the tournament represented an opportunity for the expansion Fire to quickly build a club tradition that could catch that of clubs launched two years prior in the league’s first year. Olsen, meanwhile, won one Open Cup as a United player in 2008, and since 1999 has been steeped in the tradition of the club that became the first MLS team to win the trophy in 1996.
In Salt Lake’s camp, Kreis played professional soccer stateside for three seasons before MLS began, two of which during an era when fully professional sides weren’t yet permitted to contend in the now 99-year-old tournament. And Real Salt Lake President Bill Manning actually won the tournament as a semi-pro player with the Brooklyn Italians in 1991.
In a video on the club website, Manning channeled memories of that run into his desire to secure RSL’s first Open Cup as a club executive.
“I want to win this darn thing, you know, and it’s something that Jason and I and (General Manager Garth Lagerwey) are all on the same page,” he told the website. “It’s a chance to win the U.S. Open Cup at home in front of our home fans, and there’s nothing more I’d like to give them than that victory.”
Managers in the NASL like the Carolina Railhawks’ Colin Clarke say there’s been a definite attitude adjustment in recent years among MLS clubs.
Clarke, whose side defeated both the Los Angeles Galaxy and Chivas USA before losing to RSL in the quarterfinals, says the Champions League place is a definite motivator. Enough so that he is in favor of matching teams via random draw at an earlier stage of the competition--a la England’s FA Cup--to give sides from the NASL and USL a puncher’s chance at making deeper runs.
“We’ve come as close as anybody the last few years,” Clarke said. “But it’s tough to win four or five teams against MLS teams to get to the final. Let’s put everybody in a hat and pull teams out and that’s where they play home and away and go from there. I’d love to see it.”
While Clarke said the use of travel concerns to create a more regionalized bracket were “an excuse,” Ricky Hill, who managed the Tampa Bay Rowdies to a 1-0 third round victory over the Seattle Sounders before losing 2-0 to the Timbers in the next round, disagreed.
“I think the current format is spot-on for the size of the country,” Hill said. “We want to try to include as many people as you can.”
And although visits by MLS sides can help draw big crowds to markets like Carolina and Tampa, the tournament’s domestic profile still lags those like the FA Cup and Copa Del Rey have, for example, in England and Spain.
Which, Wolff suggests, will come with the sport’s natural progression in this country.
“I kind of like how it is,” he says. “And our league’s continued to evolve over the last five years, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they put a new wrinkle or twist in there going forward.”
Ian Quillen is a contributor to DC Soccer News
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