The power of the Cup

Photo: Courtesy of Philadelphia Union

With the Philadelphia Union into their first ever Open Cup final, I’ve been forced to confront a problem that’s bothered me since the team’s inception: I am of two minds on the U.S. Open Cup. 

(I had hoped that two minds would give me the power to see through space and time; rather, I’ve had to settle for being mildly confused about a knockout soccer competition.)

It seems silly to care about a tournament when U.S. Soccer devotes less attention to their most historic competition than a middle school in Texas might give to a preseason football game. The problems are well-documented but worth reiterating. The TV situation is a travesty, with the final trapped on GolTV — the local-access channel of professional soccer. The matches in the lead up to the final are largely at the whim of the host squad, forcing fans to shaky livestreams prone to truly strange production decisions (such as repeated shots of the FC Dallas mascot, “Tex Hooper,” who as far as I can tell has never kicked a soccer ball in anger). And, unable to draw MLS-sized crowds, the matches are often lacking in raucous atmosphere. It can be hard, at times, to see any value in the enterprise.

And yet, despite all the obstacles, there’s still remarkable value to be found in the Cup, and the Union’s run this year is a textbook example.

You take your optimism where you can find it

When thinking about the team, it’s tempting to feel that the Union have tapped into a rich vein of form recently. In fact, when I sat down to write this column I was sure that there was a solid argument that the Union were in their best stretch of the season. But in the last month — six fixtures, including the Crystal Palace friendly — the Union have won just one game in regular time.

The discrepancy between the results and the mood of the fans is a combination of any number of factors. Jim Curtin, having made no glaring mistakes, is still basking in the glow of being Union manager while not named “John Hackworth.” It might be fair to discount the Palace result, especially given that CPFC has made the Union look like they have a model manager. The return of the popular Carlos Valdes generated some good vibes, followed immediately by a victory against Montreal. And at least one of the draws felt like a win, as Brian Brown’s goal snatched a point at a Kansas City fortress that, to the Union, has looked increasingly pregnable.

Despite these positive markers, the team remains on the outside looking in for the playoffs, the fits and starts of summer not enough to overcome the worthless crap-ola of spring. Results in the league are a grind, with a combination of form and talent tending to win out over the long-term. With a disastrous start to the season, even the littlest signs of life feel like success.

But the other big piece for optimism is the Open Cup, where the Union are now set to host the final of the 101st edition of this tournament. Yet the Union’s roll through this tournament has not featured their most attractive soccer. At times, it’s barely been competent. In the first game, it took 89 minutes for the Union to scrounge up an equalizer against their minor-league affiliate, before finally triumphing in extra-time. The follow-up, against New York Cosmos, again went to extra time, requiring a Sebastien Le Toux penalty to win a match that saw five red cards and some generally horrifying soccer on display. A competent 2-0 win over the reeling Revs brought the Union into the Dallas match, where the team conceded a typical late goal in the 89th minute to force extra time.

MLS play is like building a house — a long-term project with many steps, requiring a solid foundation. In the Open Cup, though, where form barely matters, you’ve just gotta build the best shelter for the night before the storms wash you away.

The power of the Cup

We talk a lot about how the Union play — how to get the most out of each position, how to produce attacking soccer, defensive soccer, and above all else effective soccer. The U.S. Open Cup has showcased some of the team’s worst outings in a season where consistent performances have been rare, and moments of inspiration even rarer. But against FC Dallas Zac MacMath provided the inspiration, with two spectacular saves that earned him the happiest sight in soccer — an entire team hugging their goalkeeper, bouncing up and down in delight. If that’s how September 16 ends, with Clint Dempsey walking away sadly, then I won’t remember the frustrating, perplexing moments that got us there. Only the moments of brilliance. 

That’s the power of the Cup.


  1. As far as your view on caring about this tournament- if people go to more open cup games there will be more of a demand for ussoccer to promote it and make it more accessible. And if ussoccer promotes it more and makes it more accessible more people will go to open cup games. So I say fans should take it seriously and go to games and if they talk about it and ask ussoccer for more and better access the teams and fans in America will eventually come around and treat with the respect it deserves

  2. fascinating! seems like a lot of sports teams have that fans vs results disparity. hopefully can get it together!

  3. The final is the most important game in Union team history.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      I agree… especially given the opponent.
      I like the tournament and hope that in the very near future it is seen and promoted on a much bigger scale.

  4. Nova 66-64 says:

    With all the sports channels U.S. soccer should package the U. S. Cup with the USMNT television rights

    Peter perhaps you know my son Roaree also in Sunil’s Econ class

  5. If you are one of the people who doesn’t think The Open Cup should be a big deal for the Union and would rather concentrate on the push for playoffs I want you to think on one thing – DC United.

    Yes the winner gets $250k prize money, but that isn’t even the biggest payoff. The allocation money alone should be a reason to put everything you have into this (given to boost roster for CCL next year). United did a complete roster overhaul with this money. Think about what the U could do!

  6. Alas, the Cup doesn’t have enough power to convince my boss to change the work trip I have for that week.

  7. I f*cking LOVE the US OPEN CUP!

  8. What about that knock-out tournament known as the MLS Playoffs?

  9. Gasoline Fight says:

    I’m just hoping that more than 4,000 people show up, as is usually the case. Tell all your friends and neighbors…..

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