The Throw-In: Balancing Open Cup still a tricky proposition

The Throw-In: Chicago vs. New York in USOC play.

Photo Credit: 
Courtesy of Chicago Fire

The ire over the New York Red Bulls’ decision this week to essentially throw in the towel in the US Open Cup has been remarkable.

From the message boards to Facebook comments — even during MLSsoccer.com’s live chat on Tuesday night — RBNY fans and neutrals alike pilloried the team for its decision to send a minimum roster of 14 players to Chicago as the Fire blasted the Baby Bulls out of the USOC with a 4-0 rout.

Some blamed the front office for a lack of depth. Even more called for Hans Backe’s head.

The bile is understandable to a degree. No one wants to see their team get embarrassed, and that only three players on the squad that made the trip to Toyota Park even play regularly for the first team added to that. Backe himself didn’t even get on the plane, leaving coaching duties to assistant Mike Petke.

Backe did his best to explain it on Thursday, saying his squad was dying for depth and that travel was taxing his team far too much. This is all true, of course — the Red Bulls are so top-heavy with salary that as soon as injuries start coming into the picture, their lack of depth is exposed in a hurry. Such are the perils of spending in MLS.

READ: Backe explains decision to send reserve team to Chicago for USOC

And travel has been rough on Backe’s squad, as have national-team call-ups. But all teams need to deal with that, and the Red Bulls depart in two weeks’ time for the Emirates Cup in London, a tournament that will bring prestigious matchups with the likes of Arsenal and PSG but will not win them any significant hardware.

But are fans really within their right to bash Backe & Co. this badly? After all, the last few months have exposed some glaring weaknesses within the squad — namely that depth problem (and, of course, some trouble in nets). And for as talented a team as RBNY are, they’ve posted only two wins in their past 13 games.

So in a way, something had to give — New York are lucky they started off the season strongly enough to still be in a first-place tie in the Eastern Conference.

Still, this has been a marvelous leaping-off point to raise the question that keeps changing in scope and importance: Why don’t teams give more importance to the US Open Cup? Had the Red Bulls taken Tuesday’s match seriously, they could have been two victories from winning the first piece of meaningful silverware in club history. Backe decided the playoff chase was more important.

Recent USOC play has been a fascinating look into the evolution of the game in the US. There once was a time when nearly every MLS club saw the tournament as an annoyance and another pitfall to add injuries or wear and tear into an already rough regular season. Traditionally in MLS history, it’s been an opportunity for clubs to give their reserves some minutes.

That has changed to a large degree. With the formation of the CONCACAF Champions League and the carrot of a place in the tournament for the USOC champion, a new incentive has been given to teams to win the oldest tournament in the United States. That had never existed before.

But it’s taking time for teams to reshape their thinking — and their planning — in targeting that prize. Two-time defending champions Seattle have made it a priority, which is somewhat easier to do as a young franchise looking for the best way to win hardware immediately.

Real Salt Lake set the CCL as a priority two years ago, and figured out a way to spread out their depth to wage war in several tournaments at once. Their remarkable run in this year’s Champions League reinforced how important that is, and Jason Kreis knows well that Open Cup is the quickest way back into CONCACAF play. The four-time champion Chicago Fire love getting a chunk of Lamar Hunt’s legacy, too, and take a lot of pride in the USOC. So it’s not surprising that Frank Klopas is doing his best to make a legitimate go in this year’s tournament despite less-than-inspiring results in league play.

But how many resources do you devote to the tournament if you’re making a serious play for MLS Cup? There’s no right answer yet. The LA Galaxy are still trying to find that balance as they face a long summer of CCL group-stage play and a quest to regain the league championship. FC Dallas are into the semis, but they’re in the same boat. Seattle would love to win a third straight Open Cup, but they’ve openly stated their preference is to get out of the first round of the playoffs first.

Open Cup play is tricky business. Each club must make a choice of what their goal is for any given season. Do you go for MLS Cup glory? If your team isn’t good enough to contend in league, do you go for the more winnable Open Cup title? And if you’re involved in CCL play, how on earth do you balance it all?

It’s no coincidence that in the league’s 16-year history, there have only been three instances of an MLS Cup/Open Cup double (D.C. United in 1996, Chicago in ’98 and LA in ’02). It’s not easy to do. Throw in CONCACAF play, and that muddies the picture even more.

The good news is, of course, that some teams are figuring it out. So far, RSL have been the best at juggling, and Seattle have learned extremely quickly. A handful of teams are close behind, learning on the fly. And some are still slow to adjust, like the Red Bulls, for instance.

But this is exactly the conundrum facing the big clubs of Europe. Take a look through domestic cup competitions all across the continent, and it’s rare to find the Manchester Uniteds, Barcelonas and AC Milans throwing their first-teamers into cup play before the quarterfinal round. They also wait to make a choice as to how important that title is until the later stages.

Being angry at the Red Bulls? That’s fine. It’s our right as fans. But much like MLS, the cup conundrum is still a relative baby on these shores. That the debate is starting to rage is more proof that we’re growing up fast.

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.