In the world of club soccer, the biggest international stage for teams from across the globe to prove their worth against each other is the FIFA Club World Cup.
The FIFA Club World Cup consists of the winner of each of FIFA’s six regional club competitions: the CONCACAF Champions League (North/Central America and Caribbean), Copa Libertadores (South America), CAF Champions League (Africa), UEFA Champions League (Europe), AFC Champions League (Asia), and OFC Champions League (Oceania). The winner of the top league in the country where the competition is held also takes part. Recent winners of the Club World Cup include Manchester United, Barcelona, Inter Milan, and AC Milan.
For American teams, there are four spots open for entrance into the CONCACAF Champions League: the MLS Cup winner, MLS Cup runner up, MLS Supporters’ Shield winner, and U.S. Open Cup winner. Once in the CONCACAF Champions League, an American team still needs to win to move onto the Club World Cup.
Of course, a single team may take up one or more of these spots by themselves, but these are the four primary options. For the sake of this article, only these possibilities will be taken into consideration.
Winning the MLS Supporters’ Shield is the toughest route for American teams. The SS, awarded to the team at the top of the table after a long, grueling season, takes an entire year of perseverance to accomplish.
The MLS Cup is the championship game for America’s top flight of soccer. To even reach that point, teams must first qualify for the playoffs before dispatching every other team in their path. Only the best teams in the league make the playoffs. Even the lowest-seeded team can be hot at the time, making reaching the final game a very tough proposition.
By far the easiest route to earning a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League is by way of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. This year, MLS teams entered the fray at the beginning of the third round, only having to win five games to win the cup. The first couple games may even be against lower-division sides, where the quality of play drops the farther you go down the pyramid of American soccer.
The USOC is the only way American teams in divisions below MLS can reach the CONCACAF Champions League. All MLS teams have to do is beat a few lower-division teams and an MLS side or four. Then, they have a chance to play against the region’s best before maybe even reaching the pinnacle of club soccer: the FIFA Club World Cup.
The U.S. Open Cup has been played every year since its inception in 1914. It is the fourth-oldest continuously held soccer tournament in the world, only behind the FA Cup, the Scottish Cup, and the Copa del Rey. Since 1999, the cup has been adorned with American soccer visionary Lamar Hunt’s name, the original owner of the Columbus Crew.
And it is there where my anger begins.
The past two seasons, the Crew have been knocked out of the USOC by a third-division side. Last year, they lost to the Richmond Kickers, 1-0. Then, on May 29th, Columbus was knocked out by the Dayton Dutch Lions, 2-1, after being up a goal in the second half. Both games were held at Crew Stadium, the product of Lamar Hunt himself.
These poor displays are just not good enough for the organization, the players, or the fans, especially with their founder’s name on the trophy and the benefits that come with winning the tournament.
Now, before I get started, the Crew did win the USOC at home against Los Angeles Galaxy, 1-0, in 2002, and they did reach the final in 2010 before losing to the Seattle Sounders, 2-1. They have had some success in the competition, but it is nowhere near what they could have accomplished, especially in the past two years.
Columbus, like most MLS sides, puts a much weaker lineup than their first XI out for the opening games of the tournament, giving their starters a rest and their younger players game experience. However, this is what the MLS Reserve League was created for. MLS teams should not necessarily play their best XI in the USOC, but they definitely should not trot out a team with barely any MLS experience and almost no cohesion.
Lower-division teams take the USOC very serious. It is their chance to play against some of the best players in the country. Teams from the North American Soccer League and the United Soccer Leagues Pro Division (and even lower teams on the American soccer pyramid) look forward to their USOC games. They want to play up against the big boys of American soccer.
MLS teams often underestimate the willpower and the desire of these smaller teams and get knocked out. This has never been more prevalent than in this year’s edition of the tournament.
Along with Columbus, the Houston Dynamo, Los Angeles Galaxy, Real Salt Lake, New England Revolution, FC Dallas, and Chicago Fire were all kicked to the USOC curb by lower-division sides in their first game. Houston, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake all lost to a second-division team; Columbus, New England, and Dallas lost to a third-division team; Chicago lost to a fourth-division team.
In the next round, the New York Red Bulls lost to the Harrisburg City Islanders, a third-division team, 3-1.
However, none of these upsets are as big as the one given to the Portland Timbers in their first game by Cal FC, a fifth-division team coached by former MLS and U.S. international player Eric Wynalda. Playing at home, the Timbers fell to CFC, 1-0. Cal went on to lose their next game against the Seattle Sounders, 5-0.
Seattle is one of the few MLS teams who have taken the USOC extremely serious in the past few years. Since joining MLS in 2009, the Sounders have won three straight USOC trophies. And they’ve let every other MLS fan base know it.
I question why MLS teams allow themselves to get embarrassed every year. They know an upset is always just around the corner. Their reputation as a franchise, and as a product they are trying to sell to the public, is on the line every game.
This is my call for every MLS team to take the U.S. Open Cup more seriously. If not for the sake of the team, at least do it for the honor of Lamar Hunt.
The U.S. Open Cup is a part of our country. It is not a place for MLS reserves to fill out starting lineups.
American soccer history is being written everyday. Don’t be left out of the history books.
I’m talking to you, Columbus Crew.