- For two of MLS's most trophy-starved franchises, the U.S. Open Cup final represents an opportunity to lift some hardware at last.
Someone has to win. And barring a revolt by the soccer gods, toward the end of Tuesday evening—and it’ll be late in Frisco, Texas—one of American soccer’s two hard-luck clubs finally will hoist a trophy.
For the New England Revolution, it’s been eight or nine years since the most recent title, depending on whether you consider the defunct SuperLiga (a decent idea, poorly executed) a significant honor. What isn’t up for debate is the toll taken by five lost MLS Cup finals, four of which came in overtime or penalty kicks. Those defeats represent a heavy burden on Revolution supporters and are the defining components of the club’s identity.
New England’s opponent in Tuesday’s U.S. Open Cup final, FC Dallas, has waited even longer. Nineteen years have passed since the club won the 1997 edition. That’s the longest extant trophy drought in American pro soccer, and it’s by far the longest in MLS. FCD was beaten by the Revs in the ’07 USOC title game and upset by the Colorado Rapids in the 2010 MLS Cup final. It fell short of last year’s Supporters' Shield on goal differential. There’s been a record-setting trophy haul at the youth level, but the last time Dallas won a major senior title it was called the ‘Burn’ and played at the Cotton Bowl.
Someone has to win Tuesday. For Dallas, claiming the tournament named for late American soccer patriarch and former FCD owner Lamar Hunt would end any question about whether the stewardship of his sons, Clark and Dan Hunt, along with coach Oscar Pareja’s focus on youth and development, can lead to silverware. For New England, it would validate and energize a talented generation of players who haven’t really rebounded from the ’14 MLS Cup final loss to the LA Galaxy. And maybe a title will spark some momentum off the field as well, where the Revs still suffer without a more suitable stadium.
Here’s a quick look at the two finalists and what’s at stake at Toyota Stadium:
Open Cup history: Winner 1997; Runner-up 2005, 2007.
Road to the 2016 final: Oklahoma City Energy 2-2 (6-5 PKs), Colorado Rapids 2-1 (OT), at Houston Dynamo 1-0, at LA Galaxy 2-1 (OT).
Outlook: There have been whispers and even the occasional article about FCD’s pursuit of a 2016 treble. But first thing’s first for a squad whose captain, Matt Hedges, was 7 years old the last time the club celebrated a title. FCD has the best record in MLS, sure, but its Open Cup run has featured several close calls and it saw its 24-game home unbeaten run ended Saturday by Colorado.
Pareja badly wants to win a title and occasionally has held starters out of MLS matches scheduled around Open Cup tilts. Many managers do the opposite. On Saturday in Frisco, leading scorer Michael Barrios, playmaker Mauro Díaz and midfield workhorse Carlos Gruezo started on the Dallas bench. Barrios and Díaz did see second-half action and while other first-teamers went the distance, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they had one eye on Tuesday and that long-awaited trophy. For an organization so devoted to a unique way of doing business—one that’s still trying to carve out its place in a crowded marketplace—the final is a big deal.
In its only game against the Revs this year (May 21), FCD stormed back from a 2-1 first-half deficit to win, 4-2, at Gillette Stadium. Atiba Harris and the since-departed Fabián Castillo scored the tying and go-ahead goals in the second half and Tesho Akindele had the other two.
New England Revolution
Open Cup history: Winner 2007; Runner-up 2001.
Road to the 2016 final: At Carolina Railhawks 1-0 (OT), at New York Cosmos 3-2, Philadelphia Union 1-1 (4-2 PKs), Chicago Fire 3-1.
Outlook: The Revs appear to be finding their form just in time. A miserable summer has faded away and New England will arrive in Frisco on a two-game win streak, which is notable in a frustrating season of ups and downs. And those were playoff teams the Revolution were beating. They got past Colorado, 2-0, on Sept. 3 and then dispatched New York City FC, 3-1, on Saturday. Juan Agudelo hadn’t notched a goal or an assist since May (he missed July and early August with a knee injury), but he scored twice and added a helper across those two wins. Diego Fagundez also broke a scoring slump.
Forward Kei Kamara missed both games (international duty and injury), leaving manager Jay Heaps to ponder altering a winning formula in order to get Kamara on the field.
Although the 2014 MLS Cup final ended in overtime heartbreak for Heaps’s team, don’t discount the experience garnered while playing on the road with a trophy at stake. New England is a heavy underdog. It has very little to lose. The weight of the wait and high expectations will follow FCD onto the field Tuesday, and the hosts will have to manage those emotions. Three years ago, the worst team in MLS, D.C. United, traveled to Utah and shocked powerhouse Real Salt Lake in the Open Cup final. Philadelphia was the host for the ’14 and ’15 finals and lost both. New England doesn’t have to worry about FCD’s 2016 ambitions or its pursuit of multiple trophies. It just has to negotiate 90 (and perhaps 120) minutes of soccer.
The Open Cup: 103 years and counting
This will be the 103rd Open Cup final, but somehow the event still feels like it’s in its adolescence. The U.S. Soccer Federation, which runs the competition as its annual national championship, continues to try to find the right balance between nurturing the Cup’s untapped potential and the financial realities of promoting a weeknight tournament that remains a foreign concept to most American sports fans.
The USOC has come a long way over the past 20 years. Clubs in the original NASL refused to enter, and the Cup was the domain of amateur clubs when MLS and USL/PDL predecessors committed to it in the mid 1990s. Still, it was low priority and low pressure. It took years for everyone to figure out how to get every U.S.-based MLS team involved, and the higher visibility and stakes of the league’s regular season meant managers often had little incentive to field their first 11.
But there’s been evolution. The USSF continues to award the Open Cup winner a deserved berth in the CONCACAF Champions League. Every pro team in the U.S. now enters. The Federation has taken over the administration of the amateur qualifying competitions, while participation from the two high-level amateur/semipro leagues, the PDL and NPSL, has increased (although trying to figure out who qualified and why remains complicated). It's looking at tournament-specific sponsorships and has invested in streaming a significant number of early-round matches. A live draw has replaced the complex and controversial system that awarded home games to the highest bidder, and this season the semifinals were broadcast on national television (ESPN2) for the first time.
Still, there’s plenty more to do. The prize money is insignificant—the winner splits only $250,000—and scheduling remains a nightmare thanks to short seasons in the PDL and NPSL and lack of open weekend dates. Cinderella runs by lower-tier clubs remain too few and far between (15 of the past 16 quarterfinalists have been from MLS). Naming the tournament for Lamar Hunt is a fitting tribute to an American soccer pioneer, but the branding continues to suffer. The Dewar Cup, the retired silver icon inextricably linked to the USOC, has been replaced by a catalogue trophy that’s been seen at hockey arenas, car races, amateur soccer tournaments and even the Green Bay Packers’ museum. Inexplicably, that generic piece of hardware now is the tournament logo as well. It’s not a good look for a meaningful competition.
So the USOC reflects American soccer, which is fitting—it’s come far in the past couple decades, there’s still plenty to complain about and it can be a lot of fun. None of that will matter Tuesday for Dallas and New England, however. Both are desperate for a title, and all will agree that the Open Cup trophy, generic or not, will feel mighty good to lift.