The Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup isn't about two MLS teams grinding their way through another mid-week match in pint-sized venues. It's about small clubs like the Charlotte Eagles and the Western Mass Pioneers getting a chance to slay the dragons from the top professional league in America.
While both the Eagles and Pioneers from the United Soccer League's Second Division held leads against MLS sides before losing in their third-round matchups, the Des Moines Menace somehow snuck through to the Round of 16. It set up a match on Wednesday night that pitted a side like the Kansas City Wizards with two players and two coaches who have been in a World Cup against a group of players who do not even earn a paycheck from playing soccer.
As you can guess, the Wizards triumphed 6-1 in a laugher. But don't feel bad for the young men on the Menace. Many of which grew up with posters of Preki on their walls and have game jerseys bought at Arrowhead Stadium sitting in their closets. Spending their summer break from college by playing in the Professional Developmental League means getting together for quick training sessions between shifts as waiters, lifeguards and summer internships. They do not get paid a cent for their efforts on the field.
|U.S. Open Cup Schedule|
|All quarterfinal matches will be played on August 24.|
L.A. Galaxy at San Jose Earthquakes, Spartan Stadium, San Jose, Calif.
Minnesota Thunder at K.C. Wizards, TBD
Chicago Fire at Rochester Raging Rhinos, Frontier Field, Rochester, N.Y.
FC Dallas at D.C. United, Maryland Soccerplex, Germantown, Md.
Semifinals will be played on September 14.
The final will be played on September 28.
What the Des Moines players, as well as those on other amateur franchises, get is a chance to go after the Open Cup. It's akin to the old Indiana high school basketball tournament, which was played without divisions regardless of whether a school's enrollment was 3,500 or 350. As was seen in Hoosiers, even the minnows get a chance for glory.
That's also the beauty of the U.S. Open Cup.
Someone like Chicago Fire rookie Chris Rolfe knows all about what it's like to be one of those PDL players hoping for a miracle against the big boys in Open Cup play. After helping his side get through to the quarterfinals with a strong performance in a 3-2 overtime victory over the New England Revolution on Wednesday night, the rookie sensation reminisced about his days with the Chicago Fire Reserves.
"Playing in the Open Cup was our most exciting part of the season," said Rolfe, who played for the Reserves for two summers when he was still a student at the University of Dayton. "I remember when we lost to Rochester (Rhinos) thinking that we can play with those guys. And all of us were trying to someday make it to the next level, so that was a big deal for us to be in that game and prove it to ourselves."
Rolfe's side lost 1-0 to the USL First Division powerhouse in the third round of last year's tournament. It was about as far as any PDL or even second division squad from the USL can be expected to go. For those plucky sides, a third-round or fourth-round match means everything. In some cases, it'll represent the highlight of a player's career when he gets to take on an MLS side in a non-friendly with something actually on the line.
That's why it was a little odd for a player like Rolfe to be standing there at the intimate grounds of Lusitano Stadium in Ludlow, Mass., on Wednesday night wondering how much the match meant to his opponent. After playing against a Revolution side that started several second-team players and rested all-stars like Clint Dempsey and Michael Parkhurst, he saw firsthand how there is a club-by-club philosophy as to the level of importance played on the 91-year-old tournament.
"Our team did a good job on the road and this is something we really want to win," he said. "Others, like New England tonight, seem to take it lightly."
Fire head coach Dave Sarachan said much of the same.
"It might be easy for New England to say they didn't have their best group out there," he said. "But that was their decision. We treat this tournament very seriously."
When Revs head coach Steve Nicol got wind of this, he responded by saying: "If we didn't take this game seriously, then why did it take them until extra time to beat us? End of story."
Despite Nicol's stern remark, he did admit that the match didn't come at an opportune time for his side since several of his top players are coming off a busy month with the U.S. national team.
That's the balancing act that is often seen by the MLS teams in the U.S. Open Cup. They want to win, no doubt about it, but they also view it as another match packed into a very long season. Whether they outwardly admit it or not, many clubs hope they can sneak through into the quarterfinals or the semifinals without playing their absolute best XI. And then once a trophy is in sight, they'll unleash the hounds.
For the San Jose Earthquakes, Los Angeles Galaxy, Kansas City Wizards, D.C. United, FC Dallas and Chicago Fire, that'll now be the case. But for the six MLS sides that are already out, including the MetroStars after losing 3-1 to the Rochester Rhinos, it's just another lost opportunity to hoist a Cup.
"There's not many times in our sport when you get a chance to raise a trophy, put a little money in the players' pockets and be in a knockout type of game," said Chicago Fire veteran Jesse Marsch, who has won a total of four U.S. Open Cup titles with both his current club (1998, 2000 and 2003) and as a member of D.C. United (1996). "Once you raise one, you want to raise another one even more. Maybe that's why we take it so seriously here. We always make a commitment to win two Cups at the beginning of the season, not just one."
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for fan interest in the U.S. Open Cup final. When that match occurs on September 28, it'll likely feature two MLS sides playing in front of a scant crowd and not in front of a nationally-televised audience.
It's too bad, especially if the Minnesota Thunder can stay alive by defeating Kansas City in the next round or if the Rochester Rhinos can upset yet another MLS side when they face Chicago later this month.
It might take having the Rhinos win the Cup again as they did in 1999 or another USL First Division side like the Thunder pull off a shocker to force the handful of MLS sides that don't use their top players in such matches to wake up a bit. Doing well in the U.S. Open Cup usually corresponds to how a team does in their quest for an MLS Cup. D.C. United (1996) and Chicago (1998) have each won both Cups in the same year, while the past two U.S. Open Cup champions -- Chicago and Kansas City -- went on to play in the MLS Cup final that same fall.
"In my mind," said Marsch. "Doing well in the Cup doesn't take away from the regular season. It helps. It keeps us competitive and it also helps us get a rhythm going."
Maybe some of the other clubs around MLS should follow suit with their philosophy.
Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.