Dueling Press Releases Cloud Future of U.S. Open Cup
U.S. Soccer rebuffs MLS plan to have MLS NEXT Pro teams compete in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Also: MLS releases the 2023 schedule, and a Footy Awards update!
A plan to replace MLS teams in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup tournament, a knockout competition run by the U.S. Soccer Federation, has hit a major roadblock as U.S. Soccer is set on vetoing the move.
Major League Soccer has requested to allow MLS Next PRO teams to represent MLS in the 2024 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. After thoughtful consideration, we have informed MLS that the U.S. Soccer staff recommendation, which was adopted by the Pro League Taskforce, is that the request be denied. As we move forward, we will continue our review of the Open Cup to ensure it aligns with the U.S. Soccer strategic pillars. We remain committed to addressing the needs and concerns of all of our members, including MLS, and other stakeholders to enhance and improve the U.S. Open Cup.
How did we get here?
MLS’s Controversial Friday News Dump
In the late afternoon on Friday, December 15, MLS put the future of the U.S. Open Cup in question when the league unilaterally announced it would be withdrawing its first teams from the cup in favor of MLS NEXT Pro squads, the second teams for each MLS franchise.
Major League Soccer announced today that at its recent Board of Governors meeting its clubs voted to have MLS NEXT Pro teams represent the organization in the 2024 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. MLS will coordinate with U.S. Soccer regarding participation in the tournament.
This decision will provide emerging professional players with additional opportunities for meaningful competition. The move also benefits the MLS regular season by reducing schedule congestion, freeing up to six midweek match dates.
The inclusion of MLS NEXT Pro clubs in the Open Cup follows the involvement of dozens of MLS NEXT Pro players in the 2023 tournament, where they were called up to MLS first teams.
The move had been telegraphed for months based on comments by MLS Commissioner Don Garber. In May, at a meeting of the U.S. Soccer Federation Board of Directors, Garber called the tournament "a very poor reflection on what it is that we're trying to do with soccer at the highest level."
MLS criticisms of the Open Cup tournament include low ratings, low production values, low attendance, and concerns about the quality of many venues. Some Philadelphia Union players recently lamented the grueling schedule:
MLS teams play in as many as four competitions each year: the regular season (plus the playoffs), the Leagues Cup, the U.S. Open Cup, and the Concacaf Champions League if a team qualifies for it. This year, the Union have been in all four, with deep runs to the Champions League semifinals and Leagues Cup third-place game.
“We’re the ones that are suffering, and the quality of the league is going to go down,” [Andre] Blake told The Inquirer. “Are you going to allow us to have more depth? Or, if you ask players to play however many games, obviously there’s going to be injuries, and when injuries come, then teams don’t have their best players on the field.”
Blake called the situation “ridiculous, and players have to speak up.” And he isn’t the only Union player who’s speaking.
“Everyone within the teams know something has to be done about that,” veteran center back Jack Elliott said. “I think there will probably be some conversations about it with the amount of games that go on, especially for teams that play in the Champions League as well. It just adds another element of having to travel more, having to play more — and then Leagues Cup, obviously.”
On the other hand, players who are on the first team roster but not frequently in the starting XI typically get more opportunities in the Open Cup.
It’s also an opportunity for supporting starters to shine. Charlotte FC’s Kamil Jóźwiak had two Open Cup goals in three appearances in 2023 - as many as he had in two years of MLS appearances.
Supporters Groups Protest Open Cup Withdraw
Immediately, the decision was widely condemned by supporters groups of MLS clubs. A coalition of St. Louis CITY SC supporters groups released a joint statement calling the move “a step backward for MLS, placing profitability over the sport.”
The Independent Supporters Council, a group “representing dedicated soccer fans across North America,” also released a statement expressing concern about the decision:
The US Open Cup, steeped in over a century of tradition, embodies the true spirit of American soccer, connecting the grassroots to the professional tiers in a unique and historic competition. This tournament is not just a series of matches; it is a symbol of the sport's authenticity and diversity, showcasing talent from all levels of the soccer pyramid.
MLS's withdrawal of their first teams from the Cup is not only a disservice to the fans but also to the sport itself. It undermines the inclusive nature of American soccer, where dreams and ambitions are nurtured on the principle of open competition. The decision threatens to erode the very foundations of the sport's heritage and its connection to communities.
We urge MLS to reconsider its position for the sake of the sport's integrity and its fans.
The response was not entirely negative. At a Monday press conference announcing their new head coach Dean Smith, Charlotte FC sporting director Zoran Krneta saw the move as an opportunity to develop talent on MLS NEXT Pro squads, including Charlotte’s Crown Legacy FC.
“We have a very, very talented and ambitious Crown Legacy team,” said Krneta. “So I think it's a great opportunity for our talent to succeed … and present themselves as players to the wider audience. So I think it's a great opportunity for us to field a very talented team and try to go as far as we can.”
Smith, who came to Charlotte from the English Football League and is no stranger to cup competitions, declined to comment on the matter, saying he’d “straight-bat” the question and had no opinion due to his lack of familiarity with the situation.
U.S. Soccer Responds, MLS Counters
After thoughtful consideration, we have informed MLS that the U.S. Soccer staff recommendation, which was adopted by the Pro League Taskforce, is that the request be denied.
U.S. Soccer’s decision makes sense, especially since the winner of the Open Cup represents the federation with a spot in the Concacaf Champions League. Additionally, based on their response it seems as if MLS’s decision was not made in consultation with the federation, which may now explore additional penalties for MLS.
Within an hour of U.S. Soccer’s press release effectively vetoing the MLS NEXT Pro proposal, MLS responded.
U.S. Soccer has subsequently notified MLS that the Federation is not prepared to grant the necessary waiver for MLS NEXT Pro clubs owned by MLS owners to participate in the Open Cup. Independently owned MLS NEXT Pro clubs such as Chattanooga FC and Carolina Core remain eligible for the 2024 Open Cup.
MLS is committed to finding a viable solution for the 2024 tournament and is working to find a pathway that addresses its goals and concerns. Moving forward, MLS will remain focused on increasing opportunities for up-and-coming players, a key component of the League’s player development strategy that ultimately benefits the U.S. national team program.
A key piece of the puzzle is the Leagues Cup, which significantly added to the schedule congestion this year. The Leagues Cup is heavily promoted by Soccer United Marketing (SUM), the for-profit marketing arm of MLS. In comparison to the Open Cup, the Leagues Cup has a much larger prize pool. Since it was perfectly timed to align with the arrival of Lionel Messi to MLS, it also received significantly more viewership and ticket sales.
SUM also recently lost the rights to the Open Cup, which have reverted back to the U.S. Soccer Federation, making the competition less important to MLS’s balance sheet. We’ll continue to watch to see how the conflict is resolved.
MLS Schedule Released
This afternoon, MLS released its 2024 schedule.
Key Dates are below:
Feb. 21: 2024 opener: Miami vs. RSL
Feb. 24: Charlotte FC Home Opener vs. NYCFC
Feb. 24-25: MLS is Back weekend
July 24: MLS All-Star Game
July 3: Charlotte FC vs. Miami in Charlotte
July 26-August 25: Leagues Cup
Oct. 19: Decision Day
Dec. 7: MLS Cup 2024
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Footy Awards Update
After validating emails and removing duplicate votes (thanks for being so enthusiastic about voting), we’re ready to share some of our Footy Awards Results!
In these “fun categories,” it’s clear how much of an impact Messi’s MLS arrival has had on the soccer community everywhere, including in Charlotte. Check out our breakdown below. Note that some voters did not vote in every category.
Favorite Global Footballer of 2023: Lionel Messi
Favorite Thing to Cheer About: Goals
Favorite Thing to Complain About: Messi Mania
2023 Moment of the Year: Charlotte Beats Miami
We’ll be back soon with more information about our Footy Awards event, as well as our winners.