MLS and U.S. Soccer’s Feud over America’s Oldest Soccer Competition: MLS doesn’t want to Participate, U.S. Soccer not on Board with Decision

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Major League Soccer (MLS) announced its plan to use its developmental League, MLS NEXT Pro, to represent themselves in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup tournament this 2024 season, rather than using their First Team squads.

The press release of the matter was sent out on Friday, December 15, where the league’s Board of Governors and MLS Club owners met and voted to have this objective in place.

Of course, this move by the MLS has sent shockwaves across the country, especially towards the American soccer community. Many supporters and fans have gone to Twitter to express their opinions of how “disgraceful” this decision is and how “absolutely awful” and “disrespectful” the MLS have been by pulling themselves out of the competition. As well as concerns about leaving such a rich history of American soccer, as the Open Cup competition was first played 110 years ago, in the year of 1914.

But what has U.S. Soccer, the creators of the old tournament, done to respond to this step out by MLS? Well, they denied their request, just five days after the release of the league’s press release.

As expected, the American soccer community went straight to twitter again to express its relief and applaud U.S. Soccer for its stance on the unfortunate situation.

Despite the rejection, it seems like MLS won’t back down from its decision and quote, it would find “a viable solution for the 2024 tournament… a pathway that addresses its [U.S. Soccer] goals and concerns.”

Now, before diving into how everything got to this point and the reasons behind this matter, let’s get into some contexts regarding the great old American competition of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup as well as what the MLS NEXT Pro is and the other teams and leagues that participate.

America’s Finest Soccer Tournament

The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, named in honor of Lamar Hunt, dates back to May 16, 1914, when Brooklyn Field Club defeated Brooklyn Celtic 2-1 in the competition’s first final ever, marking the start of something rich and special in American soccer history.

Like the FA Cup in England and Coppa Italia in Italy, the Open Cup is open to all affiliated amateur, semi-pro, and professional teams in the United States, with the amateur squads first qualifying through the preliminary round and the MLS teams entering the later rounds of the single-elimination knockout competition.

This of course brings juicy upsets throughout the domestic cup play with the country’s lower leagues teams beating the bigger and richer MLS teams. A most recent example was in 2022, when USL Championship side Sacramento Republic FC went on an indomitable run, defeating the likes of San Jose (2-0), LA Galaxy (2-1), and Sporting Kansas City in a 5-4 penalty shootout before reaching the final against Orlando City SC. Before that, Charleston Battery also reached the Cup Final in 2008 after beating the Houston Dynamo, FC Dallas, and the Seattle Sounders.

However, MLS teams have regularly dominated the competition after joining the Open Cup in 1996 with no lower-division team winning the American Cup since the Rochester Raging Rhinos in 1999.

Despite the preeminence of MLS in the Open Cup, amateurs and lower-division Clubs still come out winning due to the tournaments revenue stream. Whenever smaller Clubs get matched up against MLS teams, it usually brings out a huge, sold-out crowd, especially if the smaller Club is playing at home. This of course draws in a lot of money through ticket sales, parking, concession, team shops, and much more, performing way better in numbers than those everyday league games.

What is the MLS NEXT Pro?

Created by MLS in 2022, the MLS NEXT Pro (MLSNP) is the MLS’ development league that focuses on flourishing young talent and creating a pro player pathway to the MLS or other leagues around the world through the First Team’s affiliated squads. Evey MLS team except D.C. United (who plans to start a team in the league soon) owns a Club and plays in the MLS NEXT Pro as well as independent Clubs like Rochester FC, and Chattanooga FC and Carolina Core who will join the league this upcoming year.

The NEXT Pro league, however, has struggled to attract large numbers of fans as most often games are mostly played in front of friends and families of the young players. But the league has been seen as more than just games of young talent but as a test bed for rules and regulations that could possibly be featured in the MLS.

Who Are the Other Teams/Leagues?

Approximately 100 teams participate in the U.S. Open Cup with some lower-division Clubs coming from USL League Two, the National Independent Soccer Association (NISA), United Premier Soccer League (UPSL), and other local amateur leagues. Currently, 11 amateur Clubs have qualified for the 2024 tournament, with five teams being first-time entries and half of them coming from UPSL.

Below are some of the different leagues where second-tier teams are eligible to participate in the Open Cup tournament:

MLS’ Decision

Why the shocking decision? Well, rumors of the pull out have been going around since May after Don Garber, the MLS Commissioner, hinted towards the league possibly taking a step back from the Cup competition due to the quality of it. 

From our perspective, it is a very poor reflection on what it is we’re trying to do with soccer at the highest level,” said Garber. The games are hard to find… and some of the games that we’ve been playing in are on subpar fields.”

“It’s just not the proper reflection of what soccer in America at the professional level needs to be.”

Garber would then continue on and empathize that it’s only natural to take a step down at the moment due to the many interests from media partners.

“It’s a natural opportunity to take a step back now, particularly that we’ve got a renewed interest from media partners, which I think is a critical component to this.”

U.S. Soccer understood the concerns and responded by committing to get the tournament to a high level, but they never thought that MLS would actually pull their First Teams out of the competition completely. 

More to it

But it wasn’t only about the quality. MLS made it clear that the decision was also made to benefit the up and coming young talent in the MLS NEXT Pro by providing them “with additional opportunities for meaningful competitions” before fans. As well as “reducing schedule congestion” and taking care of their player’s health and fitness.

Because with the addition of the Leagues Cup competition, most teams will now probably play more than 45 matches with MLS Regular Season and U.S. Open Cup games included. And if we include the Concacaf Champions League tournament, where 10 MLS teams have already qualified for the competition, they might even play over 50 matches.

And we can’t forget about Club friendlies and international duty matches, where these kinds of games might take a different toll on players since most of the time this requires far distance travels.

U.S. Soccer’s Hard ‘No’

U.S. Soccer didn’t elaborate on its reasons for denying MLS’ request in its Twitter statement on Wednesday, but according to the Professional League Standards (PLS), a United States Soccer Federation document that sets guidelines within the U.S. Soccer pyramid, the request seemed to violate the organization’s policies.

One of the first points of the guideline states that all “U.S.‐based teams must participate in all representative U.S. Soccer and CONCACAF competitions for which they are eligible.”

But going deeper into the rejection by U.S. Soccer, many could say it wasn’t a decision for MLS to make on their own. More planning and discussions need to happen before a big time move like such, because MLS teams might look at U.S. Open Cup games as an inconvenience but the USL and lower-division teams see this tournament as a money maker. Most often, these leagues and divisions sell out their stadiums whenever they host an MLS team, which exposes those different city markets with American soccer and possibly motivate those markets into positions of having their very own MLS expansion team.

Also, playing MLS NEXT Pro teams will totally change the tournament in many different ways, from ticket sales to the quality of play on the field. Not having big Club names like LAFC, Inter Miami, and Philadelphia Union as well as big names like Lionel Messi, Thiago Almada, and Héctor Herrera not playing will hurt the tournament in terms of relevance and marketability.

What Could Come Next?

Now we wait as it’s hard to tell what’s up next as not much information has been released since U.S. Soccer’s statement on Wednesday, December 20. But one thing is true. The rest of the teams and leagues that participate in the Open Cup were made well aware of how MLS views the tournament and its a judgment the league can’t take back.

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