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USL, MLS

As MLS tries to distance itself from the U.S. Open Cup, lower-division figures preach its importance

“If you bill it correctly, launch it correctly, and tell the story correctly, people will pay attention.”

8 min read

What should the U.S. Open Cup mean to American soccer? For fans of the lower leagues, the 110-year-old tournament is the centerpiece of the sporting year, a chance for their club to punch above their weight and pull off a magical run.

For others, like MLS commissioner Don Garber, the Open Cup is "a very poor reflection on what it is that we're trying to do with soccer at the highest level." 

The disparity between a tournament built on grassroots participation and a first-division league with soaring global ambitions drove MLS to pull out of the competition in mid-December, with each club’s MLS Next Pro affiliate set to enter the Open Cup instead. Though the request was denied by U.S. Soccer shortly thereafter, the future of the tournament is still very much in question.

At MLS headquarters, the Open Cup is seen as a ball and chain, a set of onerous midweek matches throughout the summer that take place on low-quality fields and generate little money from a broadcasting or advertising perspective. With comparatively lucrative Leagues Cup and Concacaf Champions Cup games in the mix and a busy league schedule to accommodate, yet another competition – no matter how historic – simply isn’t the priority.

'It's why we play this sport'

At the USL level, the sentiment couldn’t be more different. Personnel across the league acknowledge that the Open Cup isn’t perfect in its current form, but they cherish what it represents within the American game and the value it can add to their clubs.

“The Open Cup is the highlight of the year for many fans,” Dan Rutstein, president of Orange County SC in the USL Championship, told Backheeled. “You don’t see the Yankees playing the Rocket City Trash Pandas in a Baseball Open. That’s the magic of the cup.”

Ben Pirmann, the 2022 USL Championship Coach of the Year, shares that same sentiment. Pirmann got his start as the head coach of Detroit City FC during their NPSL days, where he led the club during four separate Open Cup runs. Now leading the Charleston Battery, he still puts great stock into the tournament.

“It’s why we play this sport,” Pirmann said in a sit-down with Backheeled. “I know there's commercialization to it, and that's always difficult. But hey, this is an incredible country, an incredible tournament. It furthers the players, the clubs, and – most importantly – the community, and I think that's why we do it.”

In 2018, Pirmann’s Detroit team advanced to meet FC Cincinnati, then a USL juggernaut on the brink of joining MLS. Le Rouge took the match to extra time before conceding three times in the added period, but the match was more memorable for the off-field journey to get there.

“I remember we played FC Cincinnati, and we only had, like 14 or 15 guys because it was early in the season for us,” Pirmann recalls. “Three or four guys met us in Cincinnati, so I literally shook their hands, trained for half an hour the day before the game, had dinner at the hotel, then played them the next day. But it was fun, it was exciting.” 

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