Thoughts on the decision of MLS to abandon the Open Cup and send Next Pro teams

ASN's Brian Sciaretta offers up his opinions with the unfortunate decision for the league to walk away from the US Open Cup in 2024. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
December 19, 2023
7:05 AM

THE BIG NEWS in MLS recently came in a Friday afternoon news dump when the league announced its teams would not participate in the 2024 U.S. Open Cup and would instead send their MLS Next Pro teams to compete. The move was met unfavorably, to say the least.

What was noticeable is that the loudest critics of the decision came from supporters of the league’s teams, not just the usual critics who do not typically watch the league. Now, whether it is politics, sports, entertainment, or any other topic that captures the public’s attention, a common mistake many make is that social media accurately reflects the opinions of the overall public. Regarding the U.S. Open Cup, this is still true – unfortunately. But it doesn’t make the decision wise and there were better ways to handle this.

The reality is that the U.S. Open Cup typically wasn’t well attended whenever MLS teams hosted games and the degree of seriousness that MLS teams took the tournament varied. If the interest for the tournament was as high as it is on social media, we probably wouldn’t be seeing the league make this decision or even having this debate.

The truth is that for the first several rounds, the tournament meant a lot more to the lower-level teams than it did to MLS teams. But then when the tournament reached the semifinals, the remaining teams adopted the mindset that if they came this far, they might as well win the trophy.

One of the key factors behind the decision is that the league has a lot of schedule congestion with the Leagues Cup, the CONCACAF Champions Cup (formerly the Champions League) that now has a staggering 10 teams from the league involved in 2024), longer playoffs, plus a calendar year schedule that involves complications with international tournaments during the summer. Then in 2025, you have the expanded FIFA Club World Cup. This doesn’t even discuss the future tournaments being devised (such as the CONCACAF/CONMEBOL final four tournament).

A lot of people on social media (again, not a great place for debate) were saying to abolish the Leagues Cup and put more emphasis on the Open Cup. But is that a good solution? The Leagues Cup still lacks tradition, but the first edition in 2023 showed a lot of promise. There were a lot of big crowds, good storylines, and people followed it. Will that success continue in the future? Who knows. But it’s worth pursuing.

Moreso than anything involving the Open Cup, whenever people have been talking about advancing steps in MLS, the most interesting topics have been having the league find ways to push beyond its own borders, like what Liga MX used to do when their teams took part in the Copa Libertadores and were regularly in the FIFA Club World Cup. The League Cup at least did that.

The problem with MLS’s decision is that it was adopted uniformly under a new blanket statement that all the teams would operate this way. That is what makes this a slap in the face to the tournament – which has been around long enough to be respected.

Schedule congestion as an excuse can only go so far because there is always the ability to rotate squads. LAFC was not worn out by the Open Cup because they only fielded kids anyway. Some teams have rested players in league games, so they were fresh for Open Cup later rounds games. Different teams handled things in different ways, and this concept should be embraced.

If it got to the point where most MLS teams felt maxed out that they couldn’t take the Open Cup seriously, then let them decide not to take the Open Cup seriously – or in some varying degree in between sending their normal starters and sending in the U-17 team. The most notorious example came in 2011 when Red Bull head coach Hans Backe didn’t just send a reserve team to play in a game in Chicago, he himself didn’t even make the trip to Chicago to coach the team.

But then it comes down to an individual choice that, most importantly, still falls under the umbrella of the first team and can’t be excused as the MLS Next Pro team. What LAFC did with the Open Cup when fielding a lineup of mostly teenagers and not dressing people like Denis Bouanga and Carlos Vela was their choice and it still fell under LAFC.

Yes, the current congestion and competitive environment would probably see more teams take the LAFC route with the Open Cup. But, so what? I think most people would understand and wouldn’t complain as much. MLS would still be connected to the wider spectrum of the sport in the United States. Even if it wasn’t with first choice players, there would still be a connection. But to make a blanket statement that applies to all MLS teams and severs the formal connection between its teams and the teams of other U.S domestic leagues – it’s a lot different than teams fielding reserve teams.

Another way of saying this is that MLS teams could field Next Pro lineups for the Open Cup and not face the same level of criticism as they do now by now going into the tournament as Next Pro teams. These are two concepts that essentially are the same thing with how they are on the field but have an enormous difference in terms of respect and symbolism. And that respect and symbolism is very important. It’s essentially walking away.

The debate over this decision has had a lot of strawman takes. MLS shouldn’t have to get rid of the Leagues Cup. MLS should continue to press forward with ways to play teams outside the country. That’s all good. But the leagues teams should all respect the bond and commonality that comes with being a team from this country, and the U.S. Open Cup is the glue to that bond. Teams could then choose how seriously to take part. But just taking part in it is what is most important and most meaningful.

Here's to hoping things change in 2025. 

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