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MLS withdraws first teams from U.S. Open Cup

MLS withdraws first teams from U.S. Open Cup

  • Kyle Bonagura, ESPN Staff WriterDec 15, 2023, 05:00 PM ET


    • Covers the Pac-12.
    • Joined ESPN in 2014.
    • Attended Washington State University.

Major League Soccer will not send its first teams to the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in 2024, instead opting to enter teams from MLS Next Pro, the league’s 2-year-old development league, to participate in the country’s oldest soccer tournament, the league announced Friday.

The decision comes after MLS commissioner Don Garber criticized the state of the tournament during the open session of the U.S. Soccer Federation board of directors meeting in May, calling it “a very poor reflection on what it is that we’re trying to do with soccer at the highest level.”

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Garber addressed those comments during his state of the league address before MLS Cup last week and expanded on the league’s relationship with the tournament.

“I made those comments because I believe that if we’re going to have our professional teams competing in a tournament that is the oldest tournament of its type anywhere in the country, we all need to embrace it,” Garber said. “From our federation to our respective leagues, and give it the profile and give it the support that it needs.

“If we can’t do that, then we all should be together and decide that there needs to be a new plan.”

U.S. Soccer said it was “currently reviewing” MLS’ decision.

“Major League Soccer notified U.S. Soccer today of their Board of Governors vote regarding the 2024 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup,” USSF said in a statement. “Our staff is currently reviewing.

“U.S. Soccer and our Members remain committed to the success of the historic U.S. Open Cup and look forward to engaging with all our stakeholders on the future of the tournament.”

The decision took into account negative feedback from the club level about fixture congestion, especially after MLS introduced an expanded Leagues Cup competition with Liga MX last year. There has been a growing sentiment around the league that the Open Cup’s prestige has diminished, despite its long history.

“In recent months, the MLS sporting and competition group has been collaborating with U.S. Soccer to shape the future role of MLS teams in the Open Cup,” the league said in a statement. “MLS remains committed to working with the federation to evolve and elevate the Open Cup for everyone involved in the years ahead.”

A determination about the league’s future involvement will be made after the 2024 season, according to an MLS spokesperson.

The single-elimination tournament, which was founded in 1914, provided the only meaningful competition between the country’s first division and the rest of the American soccer ecosystem, which was especially notable given the country’s lack of promotion and relegation.

For the United Soccer League, which fielded 36 professional teams between the USL Championship and USL League 1 in 2023, the Open Cup had served as an opportunity for its teams and players to test themselves against the best in the country.

In 2022, USL Championship team Sacramento Republic reached the Open Cup final, where it lost to MLS’ Orlando City. The last non-MLS team to win the tournament was the Rochester Rhinos in 1999.

“The MLS announcement today about the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup was a surprise to us and contrary to recent public statements,” USL president Paul McDonough said in a statement. “We will speak with U.S. Soccer, and with our owners, before making any further public comment about MLS’s position.”

The winner of the Open Cup has traditionally been awarded a place in the Concacaf Champions League — now known as the Champions Cup — but it is unclear how that might change in the wake of MLS’ decision.

In recent years, some MLS teams had already opted out of fielding their strongest lineups, using the competition to give playing time to lesser-used first-team players, MLS Next Pro players and, in some cases, academy players. The deeper into the tournament teams got, the more likely they were to prioritize the competition.

First-team MLS players will not be allowed to join up with MLS Next Pro teams in the latter stages of next year’s competition, however, an MLS spokesperson told ESPN.

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