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Is the US Open Cup worth winning?

Pros: $300,000 purse, nice trophy, bragging rights. Cons: Midweek games, added travel, squad rotation.


New York City FC are two games into a four-game road trip, with zero points to show for the 90 minutes they played in Toronto a little over a week ago and the 90 minutes they played on Saturday in Charlotte, NC. NYCFC will cross the Hudson River to face the New Jersey Red Bulls this coming Saturday, then fly to Florida the week after that to play Orlando City. This was always going to be a challenging run of games, but then a couple of weeks ago NYCFC drew an away match with FC Cincinnati in the US Open Cup for this coming Wednesday, adding another trip to an already packed travel schedule.

You have to wonder: Is the US Open Cup worth it? For NYCFC, a team in the middle of a rebuild retooling identity crisis, the tournament could be more trouble than it’s worth. 

Should NYCFC defy the odds and win in Cincinnati, beating an in-form team with the second-best record in MLS – and who are a perfect 6-0-0 at home – they will advance to the Round of 16, and earn the right to play another game on May 23 or 24. That will fall just a couple of days after NYCFC face Orlando in Florida, adding a third midweek game to the month of May. 

The fact is MLS teams are not built to handle midseason tournaments. The $5.2 million salary cap means that it’s virtually impossible to double up at every position as they do in Europe. Even clubs whose front offices are adept at navigating the complicated budgetary exceptions that make this league so special can’t pad their rosters: Here in MLS, “squad rotation” is another way of saying “play the benchwarmers.” 

That usually means putting young Homegrown players in the Starting XI. It can be an opportunity for some teams. Who doesn’t love it when an unknown player puts in a star-making performance and earns the right to be named to the First Team for the rest of the season? But for a club that’s already stretched thin (ahem, NYCFC), a US Open Cup match like this one might be too much.

It doesn’t help that the stakes are so low. According to US Soccer, “The 2023 U.S. Open Cup winner will earn $300,000 in prize money, a berth in the 2024 CONCACAF Champions League and have its name engraved on the Dewar Challenge Trophy – one of the oldest nationally-contested trophies in American team sports – now on permanent display at the National Soccer Hall of Fame in Frisco, Texas.”

While $300,000 ain’t nothing, it ain’t a lot. And as for getting your name engraved on a trophy that stays in Texas? That and $2.75 will get you a ride on the subway. 

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As Corey Clayton pointed out in a recent False 9 column, the winners of the 2023 FA Cup tournament in Great Britain will get around £5 million, the German DFB-Pokal winners will earn €4 million, and Spain’s Copa Del Rey winners earn €3 million. Those are sums worth fighting for. 

Right now, NYCFC can’t afford to advance through round after round of a tournament to earn the right to play for $300,000 in September. They have more pressing problems: They need to figure out how to win on the road, how to score without a striker, how to defend against set pieces, how to progress the ball out of the defensive third, and how to rediscover the on-field chemistry that was the team’s superpower in recent seasons. Clogging up the schedule with midweek US Open Cup matches and extra travel days isn’t going to fix any of those issues.

This raises the question: Will Cincinnati be in it to win it? They had their first taste of the playoffs last season, and they must like the feeling of competing for the Supporters’ Shield right now. The club are going to want to put as many wins on the board as they can before shipping their talisman Brenner to Serie A side Udinese in July — and collecting $10 million for their trouble. They have a little less than two months left in which to play their best Starting XI week in, week out. 

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Maybe Cincinnati also aren’t so interested in adding another midweek game to their May schedule. It could very well be that head coach Pat Noonan starts a heavily rotated (read: beatable) side on Wednesday. 

We won’t know until game day. CBS Sports decided that the Cincinnati vs NYCFC contest is one of the four marquee matchups in this round, and will broadcast the game on the recently-launched Golazo Network. But those of us who tune in could end up watching something closer to an MLS NEXT Pro game between FC Cincinnati 2 and NYCFC II

Maybe the question going into this game isn’t “Which side wants it more?” It’s “Which side doesn’t want it less?”