Dan Dickinson is a Sports Editor at Gothamist covering the New York Red Bulls beat and a contributing writer at EoS.
BY DAN DICKINSON
The second round of the US Open Cup closed Tuesday night, and brought about plenty of excitement and thrills. There was a a little bit of everying; a 7-0 thrashing, some tight 1-0 matches – one match even went to added time. When the dust settled, all the match-ups and hosts were set for the third round.
Or at least, they should’ve been.
On Monday morning, the Portland Timbers made a quiet announcement. As it turned out, their third round match wouldn’t be hosted by the Wilmington Hammerheads; Jeld-Wen would be the new venue. Shortly after the third round ended, the Seattle Sounders – whom based on the draw, would be traveling to Atlanta to face the Silverbacks – said “times & location TBD.” Then Real Salt Lake followed suit.
(Portland’s deal ended up not being necessary, given that Cal FC advanced and they would have hosted anyhow.)
Let’s be honest here. The previous years’ situation – where teams like the Sounders could effectively buy home field advantage for the entire tournament – stunk. And the USSF took steps to address it, using a blind draw for round 1-5 if both teams had sufficient venues. But the Atlanta Silverbacks’ statement on the venue change says it all:
“The decision associated with the venue change wasn’t easy, by any means,” said Silverbacks Chairman Boris Jerkunica. “Seattle Sounders FC presented us with an offer that we simply couldn’t refuse, and in the end, it was a decision that was based on the balance between instant gratification and long-term improvement.”
Part of me can understand why the Silverbacks would feel they couldn’t refuse the offer. Lower level teams in the US soccer pyramid are deeply budget constrained, and dollar signs with lots of zeros behind
them seem far more attractive than the benefits of hosting a game. The team is putting the money back into their product, promising free tickets for fans, an MLS friendly and more player talent as well. Still, I think they missed the benefits of hosting the Sounders, like having an attractive match-up at their home stadium to draw fans, and an actual advantage going into a tough match against an equally tough opponent. (And they wouldn’t have to play on that artificial turf the Pacific Northwest loves so much, either!)
MLS teams paying off lower level teams for hosting rights is, in my eyes, worse than the previous broken bidding process. It’s one thing when the money goes to the USSF, an effectively neutral party in the match, but now we have two teams competing in a national tournament, exchanging money in advance of their game – and the tournament body is allowing it! Imagine if the FA allowed this for the FA Cup – it would ruin the tournament in a heartbeat.
The USSF needs to take a strong stand on this if they want the US Open Cup to continue to be something worth playing for. Hosting rights should not be bought and sold between teams in the lower rounds. It may not be against the rules now, but it should be. We should never have to hear the words “offer we simply couldn’t refuse” when a lower level team talks about an MLS side.
The Timbers, Sounders, and Salt Lake front offices should consider what moves like this say about their organizations. We all love it when our teams are willing to win, no matter the cost – but there are some costs that shouldn’t be paid in the hopes of tournament glory.
You can follow Dan’s work each and every week on Gothamist.