The schedule for the 100th edition of the U.S. Open Cup has been set, with MLS teams set to enter the competition in the third round on May 28. And while the playoffs are by no means unreachable for D.C. United, the possibility of reaching them is in enough doubt that it hangs over the season. The precedent is there as well: D.C. United is the only team who as of yet has won the U.S. Open Cup without reaching the MLS Cup playoffs, having done so in 2008.
The argument against calling United's season a success if they miss the playoffs but win the U.S. Open Cup are obvious. In the minds' of soccer fans the world over, the regular season title is the one the crowns the best team of that year. In a growing number of leagues, not to mention in the rest of American professional sports, it is the playoff champion that is considered to be the overall victor of that league in that year, even when it is a team like the Colorado Rapids in 2010. To not even have a chance to compete for the MLS Cup would prove D.C. United to be one of the worst teams in a league where over half of the teams make the playoffs. How could the season possibily be a success given all of that?
Call me a romantic, but there is something to the "magic of the Cup" that the British press tries to stir up around the FA Cup. The U.S. Open Cup is the continuous link to the history of soccer in the United States; for a league that sometimes struggles with its short history compared to the rest of soccer world, they should be leaning on its history rather than ignoring it. Winning the Cup puts your team alongside names like Bethlehem Steel FC and and Fall River Marksmen; I would not be surprised if the soccer gods decided to end the original NASL because of their hubris to not even enter the competition.
But even aside all these romantic notions, there are also some very real and concrete benefits to winning the U.S. Open Cup: allocation money, prize money, and a spot in the Concacaf Champions League. The Seattle Sounders had to overhaul their roster in the offseason, partially because they would no longer be receiving the extra money that they got for winning the Open Cup, and they have joined United at the bottom of the league standings. The CCL is the next step for MLS clubs and the first team to win it will be remembered and celebrated. And don't forget the prize money has been more than doubled to $250,000. And, despite its third tier status, the Open Cup is still a major trophy, even if some MLS coaches don't consider it to be so.
So where does that leave United's season? Should they win the Open Cup despite missing the playoffs, I think I would consider the season bizarre and disappointing, but still some sort of success. But unless the team starts playing better quickly, the season will just be bizarre and disappointing, with no success to be found.
2013 US Open Cup Match Schedule
Play-In Round - Date: May 7 - Number of Games: 2 – Teams: Georgia Revolution (NPSL) at Colorado Rovers (USSSA); FC Hasental (NPSL) at Fresno Fuego Future (US Club Soccer)
First Round - Date: May 14 - Number of Games: 18 – Teams: Play-In Round winners plus USASA, NPSL, PDL entries and 4 USL Pro teams (Dayton Dutch Lions, Pittsburgh Riverhounds, Phoenix FC Wolves and VSI Tampa Bay FC).
Second Round – Date: May 21 - Number of Games: 16 – Teams: First Round winners join remaining 8 USL Pro and 6 NASL teams.
Third Round - Date: May 28 - Number of Games: 16 – Teams: 16 Second Round winners are paired against 16 MLS sides.
Fourth Round – Date: June 12
Quarterfinals – Date: June 26
Semifinals – Date: Aug. 7 or 21
Final – Date: Oct. 1 or 2