Arguably, the biggest turning point in the history of soccer in the United States is happening at this very moment. MLS is attempting to pull its teams out of the US Open Cup. And how the United States Soccer Federation navigates this battle for control of the game will send shockwaves through the sport which will shape the domestic game for generations.

In a statement released by US Soccer today, the federation said, “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.

MLS US Open Cup: Response from Major League Soccer

Major League Soccer’s response to the statement by US Soccer is as follows:

“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.”

Hopefully, a solution can be reached between MLS and US Soccer for D1 MLS teams to participate in 2024.

The history of MLS and the US Open Cup

Approximately 100 years ago, when soccer was quite popular relative to other non-baseball sports in America, something very similar to this happened. In 1928, the American Soccer League (ASL) forbade its teams from playing in the National Challenge Cup (today known as the Open Cup). A few teams said they were playing anyway. This led to a massive battle between the American Federation, FIFA, and the ASL. In the end, this first great soccer war ended with the ASL collapsing and soccer becoming a backwater sport for decades.

Then the NASL came along. They didn’t play in the Challenge Cup at all from the get-go.

So fast-forwarding to the 1990s, cooler heads seemingly prevailed.

MLS enters the picture

Major League Soccer teams have participated in the U.S. Open Cup since the league’s inception in 1996. This marked the modern “pro era” of the tournament, as from the 1930s through 1995, the only clubs that competed were amateur or semi-pro sides.

MLS teams have also dominated the Open Cup. Just four times since 1996 has a non-MLS club made the final. Only once – the 1999 Rochester Raging Rhinos – has one of these clubs emerged victorious.

While the Open Cup offers a prestigious prize – a place in the Concacaf Champions Cup, MLS teams and executives have often regarded the competition as a nuisance. Gripes about travel, the quality of facilities, and schedule congestion have simmered amongst MLS circles over the years.

But nevertheless, they’ve sucked it up and played in the tournament, as required by US Soccer.

Not anymore. After more thinly veiled criticisms of the tournament this year, MLS now legitimately attempting to skip out on America’s oldest soccer competition entirely.

Well, almost entirely. Rather than compete normally in the tournament, they intend to field division-three MLS NEXT Pro reserve teams in their stead. It should be noted that, to date, no changes have been made to the three Canadian-based MLS teams participating in the Canadian Championship tournament.

This attempt to unilaterally change the fabric of the competition flies in the face of not one, but two US Soccer regulations. And it sets the stage for the latest, and biggest, American SoccerWarz of all.

Friends become enemies…

In the past, the US Soccer and MLS organizations were deeply intertwined. US National Team media rights were sold as a package deal with MLS. MLS’s marketing arm, Soccer United Marketing (SUM), was responsible for selling and managing these rights (as well as those of the U.S. Open Cup).

The competition that features and highlights non-MLS teams was largely an afterthought for SUM. As a result, the Open Cup languished with minimal coverage for many years.

… and partners become competitors

But that changed in 2023, as it was the first year where US Soccer took back control of its own media rights – including its 110-year-old national cup competition.

While it was shown on a patchwork of various streaming platforms and TV networks, the Open Cup received some of the biggest exposure it has ever seen. In part, this was due to MLS’s biggest-ever signing, Lionel Messi, happening to land with a team that already had a spot in the semifinals when he arrived.

The year 2023 also marked a turning point for how MLS presented themselves. A massive, 10-year deal with Apple TV kicked off. It even included a documentary on Messi coming to America. A documentary that conveniently, and entirely, left out his team’s participation in the Open Cup, where they lost in the final to Houston.

Not-coincidentally, the Open Cup is a competition involving MLS teams that Apple TV does not own the rights to. What they do show, however, is the Leagues Cup. This redundant competition in the middle of the season, which doesn’t even make sense in the CONCACAF club setup, must, like Canada, also not exist within the space-time continuum where schedule congestion is an issue.

The USSF is now at odds with MLS and has a massive decision to make on this issue. Do they bend to the will of MLS? Do they search for a compromise? Or do they bring the hammer down on their top domestic league?

The soul of American soccer is on the line

World Cups last a month, but then the stadiums empty, and the minds of the American public largely tune out soccer for another four years. The strength of American soccer does not lie in hosting things like the Copa América, or the Club World Cup. These events are fleeting. Sure they’ll come along, and the country will empty its pockets and make everyone a lot of money. But these glamorous flashes in the pan end. They’ll periodically come back, yes. But not for years, decades maybe.

However, the sport of soccer goes on every day. In every community. On patches of dirt, in parking lots, in gyms, and on fields across the entire USA. Hundreds, if not thousands of clubs that are not among the chosen few that play in MLS all contribute to the sport of soccer in this country.

The only competition in America where everyone really does have a chance

The US Open Cup is where those clubs can dream. It’s the only place for that because American soccer’s league system doesn’t operate on meritocracy as outlined in FIFA’s statutes.

Some of my greatest memories in the game are the 2016 Fort Lauderdale Strikers “Cupset” wins over D.C. United and Orlando City. We ended up as the last lower-division club standing that year. In that final season of impending doom and missed paychecks, these remarkable moments against first-tier sides were experiences that made it all worthwhile.

I was at the 2022 Final in Orlando where Sacramento and their impressive troop of traveling support from the other side of the continent came just short of winning it all. These moments are special. Lasting memories for clubs and fans who are locked out of America’s top tier.

MLS retreating away, phoning in their participation in the Open Cup (the only non-internal competition they have ever been able to consistently win, by the way) is an insult. Everyone who plays, works, or invests in soccer in this country should be deeply offended by this attempted move. It’s an affront to the history of the game – this is the third-oldest competition of its kind in the world. Lamar Hunt’s, one of MLS’s founding fathers (and saviors), name is on the tournament for crying out loud.

This is our version of the European Super League fiasco. The last shred of fair, open soccer competition in the USA is under attack. The question is, what is going to be done about it?

The ball is in USSF’s court

The US Soccer Federation has the leverage here.

As currently written, the USSF Pro League Standards require all US-based division one (i.e. MLS) teams to participate in “all representative U.S. Soccer and CONCACAF competitions for which they are eligible.” Thus, by not competing in the Open Cup, MLS violates the 2nd requirement listed for division one sanctioning.

Third-division clubs are also required to participate in the US Open Cup, and while reserve teams that are wholly owned by higher-level teams cannot compete, they are allowed if the higher-level team is not in the competition. This is MLS’s loophole. There is precedent – MLS NEXT Pro team St. Louis City SC 2 was allowed in the competition in 2022 because the main St. Louis City team was not playing yet.

Even if USSF wanted to rubber-stamp MLS’s watering-down of the USOC with reserve teams, the issue of the division one sanctioning requirement remains.

Hard decisions must be made

If they go along with it, USSF either has to

1) Amend the division one sanctioning rules, removing the requirement for teams to play in the Open Cup or
2) Grant MLS a waiver for this requirement

If they do either of these, the message is clear – US Soccer does not run the sport in this country. Major League Soccer does. It would mean one of the last dominoes falling on the way to the full “MLB-ization” of soccer. MLS has already latched its tendrils onto the youth game. It’s now in the lower-division professional market, picking off independent clubs and bringing them into the MLS ecosystem. And now this blatant disrespect to the US Open Cup is truly saying the quiet part out loud. Effectively, the rest of the pyramid is being told “If you’re not one of these 30 MLS franchises, if you don’t directly contribute to our bottom line, you are beneath us, you are not worth our time, and you do not matter”. And if the Federation doesn’t move to protect the Open Cup, they’re agreeing with that sentiment.

There’s another wrinkle to the consequences of how the USSF reacts, in addition to the Cup implications themselves. By kowtowing to MLS, the USSF would surely give the NASL (remember them?) additional ammunition in their antitrust lawsuit – which might make it to trial in 2024. This is an all-around mess, but it offers the Federation a chance to finally assert their rightful, independent, governance of the game.

What will the Federation do about it?

Would the USSF consider pulling MLS’s D1 sanction? Take away the league’s dedicated Concacaf Champions Cup spots and move them to the Open Cup? Give them to USL? De-sanction the Leagues Cup? Institute promotion and relegation? There are a myriad of hardline punishments being floated about in the American soccer social media universe. Hardly any, however, are realistic.

We’ll see if the backlash from the American supporter community has the kind of sway that scuttled The Super League in Europe. Maybe resistance from MLS fans can force the league to back down. Maybe, just maybe, the Federation has the stones to stand up for itself and say enough is enough.

For my money, the US Open Cup is the single greatest, most interesting, and most compelling sporting event in the United States. There is nothing else like it. It’s got history, drama, romance, and every so often, some guys sponsored by a liquor store go 1-0 up on a team of major league professionals. It’s crazy, it’s beautiful, and it’s our true connection to the heart of the world’s greatest game. Will the USSF step aside and let MLS tell the world that it doesn’t matter?

The decision is in the hands of US Soccer Federation as it continues its discussions with Major League Soccer. However it turns out will change soccer forever, and probably not just in America. Because every time MLS and the USSF get away with bending the rules, nefarious lightbulbs flicker on in Europe, South America, Asia, and everywhere else. The cogs start turning in the brains that populate the suits in the ornate offices everywhere in the footballing world.

“Maybe we can get away with that, too.”

Fort Lauderdale Strikers Photo: Jon Van Woerden
Orlando City Photo: Imago