It is a battle for the heart of American soccer, as the U.S. Soccer Federation has denied a request from MLS to withdraw the participation of top-level clubs in U.S. Open Cup play and instead have the league represented by MLS NEXT Pro developmental squads.
The U.S. Open Cup dates back to the 1913-1914 season and stands as the country’s oldest soccer competition. It encompasses every level of American soccer, from the professional top-two levels to the third division semipro teams and other amateur squads. It is unique that while MLS teams dominate the action, you will occasionally see an upset of an MLS squad–even one with a roster mostly filled by developmental youngsters–by a Division III team. In 2022, for example, Union Omaha became the first USL League One team to defeat two MLS sides, Chicago Fire and Minnesota United, on their home fields in a single competition.
Last week MLS announced that it would not be sending Division I squads to the competition, saying that it would be represented by Division III squads from MLS NEXT Pro. Not so fast, said USSF officials: no waiver allowing this substitution was granted (though a request was made), and the 2024 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup would run as planned.
In response, MLS issued the following:
Major League Soccer recently proposed to U.S. Soccer a plan for MLS NEXT Pro teams to represent the League in the 2024 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. MLS took that step because it believes that there are several essential goals and concerns that must be addressed in connection with the tournament, including developing young professional players and providing them with greater opportunity to play before fans in meaningful competition in a tournament setting, prioritizing player health and safety, reducing schedule congestion for MLS clubs, and enhanced investment from U.S. Soccer.
United Soccer League, which is a heavy participant in U.S. Open Cup competition, representing 46 of the 99 teams across various divisions in 2024, said in a statement: “We stand with fans across the country who want to see it remain an authentic and inclusive competition.”
On the one hand, it’s easy to see why MLS teams would not want to bother with the competition: the scheduling can be a little disruptive, matches never draw as well as those played in the regular-season schedule, and with the stakes regarded as relatively low, team stars frequently sit them out. It’s a no-win situation;. And it’s easy to see why United Soccer League teams want to see the present format maintained: where else will you see a USL League One team participate against and defeat an MLS team? It’s all gravy.
So, for now, we’ll have a normal 2024 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup competition. Beyond that, everything may be up in the air, as we don’t foresee MLS letting this drop.