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Opinion: Don Garber's US Open Cup howler

The commissioner's decision to leave the US Open cup is bad for the league, and bad for American soccer.

Major League Soccer announced on Friday that it was pulling out of the US Open Cup. The tournament, which was first played in 1913 and which crowns America’s national soccer champion, will be without the top division in the country for just the third time ever. Instead, MLS clubs will play teams from the third-division reserve league, MLS NEXT Pro. 

Honestly, I want to say I was shocked, but the news wasn’t really that surprising.

MLS (and Hudson River Blue columnist Corey Clayton) are wrong, short-sighted, and rightfully getting dog-piled. You should keep doing that: Online, in the stands, with your wallets. If you hate this decision, you should make yourself heard.

MLS thinks they’re better — better than tradition, better than the history from before their founding in 1996, and better than any part of US Soccer that isn’t under their umbrella. 

There are plenty of reasons to be angry at MLS Commissioner Don Garber, and I’ll get to those in due time. But MLS fans should be upset at the league’s miscalculation in refusing to play in what might be the most important US Open Cup yet.

Don Garber never misses a chance to punch down

I wasn’t surprised to see a league that openly ragged on this tournament finally leave. Back in May, Garber spoke at the US Soccer Federation Board of Directors meeting and said he was happy the viewership numbers for the tournament were low.

“I would say that they’re not games that we would want our product to be shown to a large audience,” he said. “So frankly, I’m not all that disappointed that the audience is small. So I appreciate the enthusiasm about it, but we need to get better with the US Open Cup. It’s just not the proper reflection of what soccer in America at the professional level needs to be.”

It’s funny, because up until 2023, MLS was contractually responsible for marketing the US Open Cup. But now that they have no direct ties to it – and now that they have a shiny new Leagues Cup to market and monetize – the man who speaks for MLS owners has no problem taking a potshot like this.

But Garber has always punched down at things he feels are below him. This is the same Garber who took a swipe at Chattanooga FC in November 2015. When asked about the prospect of promotion and relegation in MLS, Garber had to rope in CFC only a few months after hosting nearly 20,000 fans in their league final.

“If you’re investing billions and billions of dollars, which we are now at about $3.5 billion invested [in MLS] in twenty years, to build something in Kansas City and they have a shitty season, to think they might be playing in Chattanooga in a stadium of 4,000 people on a crappy field with no fans, makes no sense.”

But wouldn’t you know it, only a few months ago Major League Soccer welcomed Chattanooga FC into MLS Next Pro. Not because the league value their commitment to soccer in the south. Or because they have a solid academy system that would do well in the MLS ecosystem. It’s because Chattanooga, who can’t join the USL due to the territory rights of Chattanooga Red Wolves, can help MLS beat USL in the lower league soccer wars.

You have to question the leadership and vision of a commissioner who touted Columbus’s greatness as a soccer city on media day ahead of this year’s MLS Cup Final. We’re only a few years removed from him and the other owners supporting Anthony Precourt’s attempt to move the Crew to Austin, and leave Columbus without a professional team.

Finally, it’s ironic looking back at Garber’s induction to the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2018. The commissioner was introduced by members of Lamar Hunt’s family and he spoke highly of the man who’s name is embedded onto the U.S. Open Cup. Around the 39 minute mark of the video below, he said this:

“You know I’ve always believed that you can’t celebrate the present unless we truly understand and we acknowledge our past,” said the MLS commissioner. “And we need to preserve our history, particularly the history of our sport. So that it can inform and it can influence an even greater future for all of us.”

Even if he’s just a mouth piece for the MLS owner, Don Garber has shown himself to be a liar and a bully.

Mr. Garber, you aren’t reading this and I know that. But I know that you live in Montclair, NJ. I know that you were season ticket holder number one for New York Red Bulls II. And I know I won’t see your ass at any USOC game NYRB II plays. So if I ever see anywhere in Essex County — it’s on sight (for legal reasons, it will be verbal).

MLS: Sore losers

MLS entered 2023 voicing concerns about fixture congestion. Too many teams were playing too many games: LAFC played an MLS-record 53 total games across all competitions. The team also lost three separate finals, another record.

But compare the US Open Cup to the Leagues Cup. The Leagues Cup is titled in favor of MLS teams with every game hosted in the United States and by MLS teams. Every MLS club played at least two games, and 19 clubs advanced to the knockout round. In the US Open Cup, every team played one game, and only 11 played three or more games.

If MLS were sincerely worried about overscheduling their teams, they would abandon the Leagues Cup, not the US Open Cup. But that’s not why the league left the tournament. MLS is backing out of the US Open Cup for two reasons: money and control. USSF has struggled to make the prize money worth it for larger teams. The Houston Dynamo FC took home $300,000 for winning the 2023 Open Cup. Meanwhile the entire purse of the 2023 Leagues Cup was $40 million with prize money going to multiple teams.

The other reason is that MLS don’t control the Open Cup, and because they hate losing to lower-division clubs.

They hate that teams like the Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC and Detroit City FC beat MLS sides. Why should they play the games where an embarrassment like that can happen?

In June, MLS Players Association executive director Bob Foose told The Athletic that “the US Open Cup is certainly not something that our players look forward to.” But in my five years covering professional soccer multiple current MLS players have told me they love competing in the Open Cup. Multiple players from the New York Red Bulls said the 2022 away match against Hartford Athletic was their favorite game of the season.

The plans were set long ago

The same Athletic article breaking this news from Friday also had a claim from MLS chief communications officer Dan Courtemanche. He stated that MLS has been in discussions with US Soccer about this potential change “for several months, probably going back to August”.

Here’s the thing, though: That’s a lie. Front office members of MLS teams have known about this since at least the 2023 preseason. I know this because one of them got drunk and spilled the beans at a match against a lower-division opponent. Everything that liquored-up man said has happened.

You don’t have to believe me on that, but I’m sticking by it.

MLS doesn’t care about anything but MLS. They care about making a lot of money from the Leagues Cup without giving any sort of spotlight to the lower divisions. At least not the one they don’t control.

They don’t care that teams like FC Motown or West Chester United SC, which have consistently been some of the best amateur outfits in the Northeast, want to play Major League Soccer teams. They don’t care that multiple players from lower-division teams have joined MLS after doing well in the Open Cup. They’d rather young players only come from within their own academies. And I really don’t think they care that supporters across the country think this is a terrible move.

That is unless it hits them in the wallet.

On Saturday, The St. Louligans, an independent soccer supporters group from Saint Louis, announced they would no longer take part in organized activities for Leagues Cup matches. Whether this is simply silence during the games or a full-blown walk-out remains to be seen.

I won’t accept that this is the end. I still think something can be changed. Maybe not for this year. But if enough people cry out, if the federation stands its ground, maybe the right outcome (yes Corey, the right outcome) can happen.

Until then, I’m still going to spotlight lower-division soccer on this website and any other website stupid enough to let me talk. Maybe that means expanding my coverage to full blown recaps on the National Amateur Cup, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2024.

CONCACAF Champions Cup on the line

Besides, this might be THE year to make history in the US Open Cup.

Writing in the Atlantic, Jeff Reuter reports that the winner of the Open Cup will receive a spot in the 2025 CONCACAF Champions Cup. He also specified that if an MLS Reserve team won the spot would not transfer up to the first division team.

There is little reason to believe that will be the case going forward after the 2024 tournament. If the US Soccer Federation is going to lie down and let MLS leave the US Open Cup, there is a good chance they’ll buckle and award the CCC spot to the MLS Cup Runner-Up. Maybe that’s in a few years, maybe that’s next year. We don’t know.

For every team except the 25 reserve teams, this is your chance. There cannot be a single thought of “we can try again next year”.

MLS thinks they’re better than you. Grab that Champions Cup berth and stand alongside them. Stare them down. Win or lose, you are equal to them in that moment. You are the same as Lionel Messi.

Chattanooga FC, you can host Club America on your “crappy field” as MLS teams watch from home. FC Motown, you never got the chance to play the New York Red Bulls in the US Open Cup, but you can advance and beat the tar out of the reserve team. And if that game is at MSU Soccer Park, it’ll be at the stadium where you’ve won more titles than NYRB II.

Sacramento Republic, Charleston Battery, Tampa Bay Rowdies, Greenville Triumph, Maryland Bobcats, and so forth – this is your chance. And at the very least you can keep some truly undeserving MLS Next Pro team from being America’s national champion.

In closing: